Change Maker: National Association of Women Artists (NAWA)

Cocktail Party at Gail Levin's home

In 2014, NYC’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) celebrated the 3rd anniversary of its redesign and new building. MOMA’s crown jewel, its permanent collection of modern art from 1879 to 1969, took center stage. But noticeably absent from this collection were women artists (400 works in total, 14 by women). New York Magazine noticed it. (Art writer, Jerry Saltz, penned an article, “Where Are All The Women?”) So did the National Association of Women Artists (NAWA). But for them, this wasn’t news.

NAWA has been existence for 127 years, since 1889, working to end discrimination against women artists by empowering and promoting them. NAWA’s gallery on West 39th Street is a place where member artists can exhibit their work. Well-known female artists, like Mary Cassatt, have been among their members. But NAWA is open to all female artists aged 18 and above, from the professional class to the student.

NAWA’s primary mission is to make sure women are not shut out of the art world. While women have historically been acknowledged as artists in the craft/hobby space, NAWA seeks to demonstrate women’s mastery of the fine arts; painting, sculpture, encaustic photography, print-making, video art, installations and mixed media.

The Equality Indicators got a chance to speak with NAWA’s Executive Director, Susan Hammond, about how women artists have historically coped with being the second class citizens of the art world and about the state of the art world today.

What have been some of the unconventional ways female artists made sure their work was seen? Did they ever masquerade as men?

I’m sure some women artists have masqueraded as men, and many don’t sign their full names on their artwork – they use initials such as: msmith (rather than Mary Smith).  They also use pseudonyms. This way curators and art patrons are not aware of the artists’ gender.  It will be wonderful if art work is accepted because of the art and not the gender of the artist.

What is the main roadblock to having more female artists shown in venues like MOMA? Is it a matter of museum profit or something else?

For some reason women are still considered crafters and hobbyists, rather than professional fine artists.  Many women artists are not taken seriously, as the public still feels that women wear too many hats (wife, mother, housewife, nurse, hobbyist etc.) and that they don’t devote all of their time and efforts to art.  There are numerous exhibitions of all women artists, but only about 5% – 7% of the art on display in U.S. museums consist of works by women.  Unfortunately, it is recognized that the top ten most valuable living artists are all men.  Yes, it is about money and prestige.

How effective have groups like the Guerrilla Girls been in helping further the credibility of female artists?

The Guerilla Girls have been very effective in promoting statistical information to the public about women artists.  Over the years they have validated the work of women artists and brought attention to the struggle women artists still face in exhibiting their artwork. We need more promoters of women artists.

In the business world, where women are also under-represented, there is the phenomena of “pulling up the ladder” where women who make it to senior roles don’t help the ones stuck at the bottom. Does that happen in the art world too or do you find high-profile female artists willing to help those who are struggling?

Unfortunately, the National Association of Women Artists, Inc. has experienced the same phenomena.  Many prominent artists who once were members and/or supporters of the organization have gone up the ladder and no longer belong and/or support the organization.  In fact, each year NAWA honors two or three prominent artists, curators or patrons of the arts, and in turn we hope they promote our organization and remain loyal to our mission.  However, many do not.

What female artist has done the most to advance women in the arts?

NAWA has wonderful Honorary Vice Presidents who have promoted and advanced women in the arts. NAWA is thankful for their loyalty and dedication to the mission of empowering, supporting, promoting and encouraging all women artists.  They are: Pat Adams, Judith Brodsky, Audrey Flack, Gail Levin, Judy Pfaff, Faith Ringgold, Dorothea Rockburne, Rhoda Sherbell, Linda Stein and Kay WalkingStick.

Do you find male artists supportive of female only exhibitions? What role should men play in advancing female artists? How can they help?

I have been involved with NAWA since 2003 when I became a member.  In the beginning (2003 -2006) only a few men attended NAWA’s exhibitions, events and receptions.  In recent years the numbers have doubled and even tripled for NAWA’s major exhibitions.  Yes, the male attendance has improved tremendously.  Plus, many men have purchased art at our various exhibitions and events, and that is a good sign, they are investing in art created by women.  Are male artists supportive of female only exhibitions?  Male artists that are secure and confident in their role as artists might be supportive, however, competition is still a major component.  I still feel that most men think whatever they do is better than what a women could or would do – whatever the field of expertise.

What do you say to the women just starting their careers as artists?

Keep doing art – no matter what.  Creativity is a great healer, comforter and a means of support. Don’t get discouraged if people don’t take you seriously, do what you love to do.  Everyone should have a passion for something.  There is no retirement age for creativity, so enjoy the process.  It is a wonderful social activity as well.  Jump in and learn as much as you can.  Study the masters and find a connection to your inner creativity and release your talent.  There is so much to learn and always remember there is strength in numbers – so join groups and organizations, network, use social media and continue to work on your art.

Do you think female artists will be able to achieve parity with male artists within this century?

Once there is parity with male and female artists, the National Association of Women Artists will close its doors.  Until that time we will remain in business. However, anything is possible.  We have seen so many changes during the last 25 years, so let’s be optimistic and look forward to this possible change.

Photo Credit: NAWA Spring Champagne Reception, 2016.