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    • On the Basis of Art: 150 years of women at Yale Gallery

    • Interior of the Yale Art Gallery

150 Years of Women at Yale: An Interview With the Curator

Amalia Tuchmann '23 Assistant Arts Editor
Arts recently had the opportunity to interview Lisa Hodermarsky, the Sutphin Family Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Yale University Art Gallery, about her work as the organizer of the recent exhibition, On the Basis of Art: 150 Years of Women at Yale. The exhibition ran from September 10, 2021 to January 9, 2022 and showcased work by Yale-trained women artists.
The exhibit contains work from that entire 150-year stretch, as the Yale School of Art was the first professional program to co-educate per the indenture of its patrons when it opened in 1869. Both the exhibition and accompanying catalogue feature work which span the media of painting, sculpture, installation, pastel, watercolor, drawing, print, photography, and textile, created by more than 75 artists and covering a wide range of styles. Below are excerpts from our interviews.

Can you walk us through the process of putting the exhibit together? From idea to completion, how did it come about?
Approximately four years ago, when Yale knew that the two anniversaries of 150 years of women admittance to the graduate and professional schools, and 50 years of women being admitted at the undergraduate level were approaching, they reached out to every constituency, every college, every professional program within the university to do something to celebrate these two anniversaries. I was charged with the exhibition, and when I took it on I told my director that I would take it on, but only if I was able to tap curatorial talent, as well as fellows and graduate and undergraduate students to help with this because it was a big challenge, frankly, to really tell the story of the visual arts at Yale for the first time from the female perspective. So what we did was we scanned the roster of all the BFA, MFA, and BA art school graduates and we compared them to our holdings at the gallery. That alone was a lot of work, but it was really encouraging because the collection really did reflect the entire history. From there, we began to cull down the exhibition, in order to distill works that were of superior quality, and then the exhibition sort of rose from there. What we really learned was that, yes, we had an impressive collection of work by women who have studied at Yale, but there were also so many artists that we really wish we had works by that we don’t have. Looking forward, we feel that it is an important charge to really fill those gaps.

Among the pieces in the exhibition, do you find connections that you would attribute to the gender of the artists?
I think one of the things that almost everyone comments on when they come into the exhibition is that even though this is an enormous exhibition devoted to women artists, you really don’t even think of gender. This is just really, really phenomenal work and it defies gender. The connection is in the way we’ve installed the exhibition, so that it would be both cross-generational and cross-media. In any gallery that you enter, you see connections across decades of artist work and also across all of the media that I laid out. We like to think of it as a really dynamic dialogue across media and time.

In the section of the gallery titled “Carving a Presence”, which showcased portraits, do you think that the artists use portraiture to reclaim the perception of their bodies, a space so often corrupted by men?
That’s a really interesting question. A lot of the early women artist-graduates embraced careers as portrait artists. And I think that’s for two reasons, one of which is that the Yale Art School curriculum was very much based in the European Beaux-Arts tradition, which was very much a human-form-based curriculum. The second reason, and I think the most important reason, that a lot of the earlier women artist-graduates embraced portraiture, is because if, as a woman in the late 19th century and early 20th century, you wanted to make a career as an artist, portraiture was one of your only options. There weren’t a lot of opportunities; you could not be hired on faculty at universities or high schools. And as a woman in the late 19th and early 20th century, there were no opportunities for gallery representation. So even if you were a really accomplished artist, it was extremely hard to survive. One of the reasons why I think many of the earlier women included here embraced portraiture was because they could get commissions. Portraiture was one way in which they could earn money and embrace a career as an artist.

When putting the exhibit together, did you work directly with any of the living artists? Did any of them visit the exhibition? If so, what was their reaction?
We actually worked with many. In the exhibition, there are a few early artists, but the majority of the art is by women who are still alive. One of the things that we took really seriously was to draw out their stories and to make this a project, both in the catalogue and the exhibition, one that would really tell the story from these women’s perspectives and bring them to the forefront. Once we had whittled down whose work would be in the exhibition, we reached out to every single one of the living artists to conduct oral histories. Most of them complied, and it was just the most rich and wonderful experience. We learned so much, and we have so much more to learn, I should say, but just from this core of women, we were able
to learn their stories, which informed the catalog essays, audio guide, the wall labels, and just the exhibition as a whole. And to answer the second part of your question: so many of the artists have come through the exhibition. Many of them have reached out to me and I’ve been able to tour through with them, and that alone has been a huge learning curve for me, because with every interaction, I’ve learned so much more; it’s the kind of show that everyone who comes to see it brings something new and revelatory, so I guess I see it as a history ongoing.

Do you think that being a woman has affected your curatorial philosophy? And if so, how?
Absolutely. I mean, I’ve always had an eye to try to collect and exhibit more works by women. The vast majority of museums worldwide, and certainly in this country, are filled with work by white male artists. It has always been in the forefront of my curatorial practice to try to change that up. The fact that there are so many phenomenal works in this exhibition once again goes to show that there are so many phenomenal women artists whose work we should be displaying.
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