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Avant-Garde Femmes

Posted on February 28, 2013 · in Art & Social Change > Art That Counts

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When I opened my copy of The Baltimore Sun last week and saw the front-page headline “Walters Art Museum names new director,” I may have been the only subscriber to skip inside her home and announce a new wave of grrrl power.

The Walters, you see, has selected Julia Marciari-Alexander to replace Gary Vikan as its new executive director. When she starts on April 1st, she will be joining Charm City’s art sisterhood of Doreen Bolger (who has been the Baltimore Museum of Art’s director since 1998) and Rebecca A. Hoffberger (founder and director of the city’s American Visionary Art Museum). Which is to say, Baltimore’s three major art museums will be run by women, which I found to be rather remarkable. As in so many other fields and leadership roles, it’s not always been so.

It’s not even been two decades since art critic Christopher Knight wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “The glass in the glass ceiling for women in the museum profession remains stubbornly thick.”

Knight was writing in response to the news that Seattle Art Museum had named a female director, Mary Gardner Neill, and noted that she was “one of just three women currently holding the job of director in a major art museum in the United States” in 1994. (The other two were the sorely missed Anne d’Harnoncourt at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the outstanding Kathy Halbreich at Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center; d’Harnoncourt died in 2008 and Halbreich is now an associate director at the Museum of Modern Art. Neill married into the Gates family and resigned from her position at SAM in 2009.)

In 2006, the outlook was significantly more positive and Tyler Green wrote in the same paper,

Although women rarely ascend to the top of corporate America—just 1.9% of Fortune 1000 companies have female chief executives, according to Fortune magazine—female art museum directors have become commonplace.

That’s twelve years to go from a mere three directors at major art institutions to being “commonplace.”

And just earlier this year, the Association of Art Museum Directors announced that 43% of its member directors are now women. (It’s worth noting, however, that AAMD is a membership organization and therefore not representative of all art museums nationwide; it also has a strong women’s group which may inspire women directors, in particular, to seek membership.)

It is, still, however, relatively rare for women to be so strongly represented in a city’s major arts organizations. Seattle and Minneapolis remain avant-garde; in the former, the Seattle Art Museum, Frye Art Museum and Henry Art Gallery are now all run by women and, in the latter, the same is true at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis Institute of Arts and University of Minnesota’s Weisman Art Museum. Santa Fe’s art and cultural institutions are also strong in this light (New Mexico Museum of Art, Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, Museum of International Folk Art and Palace of the Governors are all run by women, but the city’s museum honoring the work and legacy of Georgia O’Keeffe is not).

I can’t say yet what the addition of Marciari-Alexander to the city’s art scene will mean (although John Lewis has some interesting thoughts on why she is a brave pick for the Walters), but I am inspired given the huge changes Vikan made at the Walters and the impact of Hoffberger (as the founder of AVAM) and Bolger (I can’t be the only one who misses her art blog!). I’m proud to see Baltimore join the ranks of Minneapolis and Seattle; I see the former as particularly inspirational given its innovative and wacky arts scene.

On a final note, I had to cut my grrl power parade short—and not just because the neighbors complained. In Green’s 2006 LAT piece, he also wrote:

That said, not one of the three flagship art museums in the United States—the Met, America’s greatest encyclopedic museum; the National Gallery of Art, the national art museum; or MoMA, the world’s greatest museum of 20th century art—has ever had a woman at the helm.

He wrote those words seven years ago, and they’re still true today.

IMAGE CREDIT. CC photo via Flickr.


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