“Private Collectors and Art by Women”

Women’s Art Registry of Minnesota

A chronic problem of regional art centers is the lack of a market for local works. For women artists the problem is often compounded by a subtle discrimination which ensures that the token regional artists who do pop up in major national collections and exhibitions are predominantly male. With such difficulties in mind, this nonprofit women’s art collective decided to focus on the exceptions to the rule with an exhibition of work by women culled from the holdings of private collectors in Minnesota.

“Private Collectors and Art by Women” was by far the most ambitious project ever undertaken by this 12-year-old, 37-member collective. The exhibition included 64 works by 48 artists; it ranged in time from 1850 (Sarah Miriam Peale’s Portrait of Floyd Erskine) to 1982 (works by Louisa Chase and Lynda Benglis), and in celebrity from Georgia O’Keeffe and Louise Nevelson to such little-shown Minnesotans of the ’20s and ’30s as Clara Mairs and Wanda Gag. The show was divided into three parts: a historical section stretching from the 19th century up through the Ashcan realism of Isabel Bishop, a contemporary section encompassing the early Modernism of O’Keeffe through to the present, and a Minnesota room populated with paintings by Minnesota artists from the first half of the 20th century. No contemporary Minnesota women were included, as the collective was planning a concurrent exhibition of work by its own members.

The exhibition contained a number of real gems: a searing set of graphic works by Käthe Kollwitz, Gag’s Thomas Hart Benton-esque landscapes, and Elsa Laubach Jemne’s sensitive Portrait of a Red-Haired Girl, 1916, showing a face whose delicate inward gaze matches that in the Holbein portrait illustrated behind her. The unearthing of such buried treasures was a notable accomplishment. However, the show as a whole was marred by a conceptual fuzziness. There seemed to be several implicit exhibitions here: a comprehensive survey of women’s art since 1850, a celebration of newly rediscovered female artists, and a demonstration of the existence of private collectors devoted to women’s art. Because this last was clearly the primary organizing principle, the exhibition was limited to works from private collections, and the other two themes received short shrift.

Furthermore, the focus on private collectors was itself diffused by an overbroad definition of “private collector” (works were borrowed from corporate collections and from individuals, often descendants of the artists, who had come into possession of them happenstance) and by the fact that a number of lenders wouldn’t allow their names to be listed as contributors to the exhibition. Because of this, the sources of the loans weren’t identified on the labels or checklist (although a partial list of lenders was included in the accompanying catalogue). Thus the exhibition provided a graphic illustration of the problem that motivated it, revealing the discomfort many collectors feel in being identified as such—an attitude that remains a major psychological barrier to the development of an active local art market.

Eleanor Heartney