This is the final episode in a three part series about the National Museum for Women in the Arts (NMWA), an institution that has done so much in its brief 30 years to advocate for equity in the arts and beyond.
United States


00:00:03we are it's hard to believe what this are 20 episode we put an end to our very first season of The Gallery cap we created 20 episodes featuring nearly as many interviews with members of the community we're grateful each and every day for this opportunity to talk about issues The Good the Bad the Ugly artists during the month of March has grown calories is the highest necessity of parody
00:01:07Church of the final chapter of the season 3 episodes focusing on the national museum of women in the Arts can listen to episode 18 and 19 first program to its present moment this moment of Jubilation that has been three decades in the making and programmed and it rap 2017 with an exhibition unlike any that have come before it's and Melissa Messina and was originally organized for the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City
00:02:07Missouri magnetic fields is on view in Washington DC until January 21st 2018 Melissa did a phenomenal job I was lucky enough to hear the remarks that evening but they've also done a great job of capturing the essence here quote as the first Museum exhibition of its kind or more Broad and inclusive presentations of American abstraction women artists from 1891 to 1981 many percentage in conversation with one another for the first time the Expedition places these unique visual vocabulary in context with one another and within the larger history of abstraction and
00:03:07and that perspective but all are connected by reached out to co curator Melissa Messina via Skype and ask her to share her thoughts on the installation and life
00:03:28so how did you and the Expedition code curator Aaron says it's begin the project that has become the exhibition magnetic fields 20 years in the making I met Mildred Thompson in 1997 she was a professor of mine when I was studying stems from my time with her and so in 2013 I applied and received a Warhol art writers branch which allowed me to begin to do more in-depth research on her life she had passed away in 2003 and so the Mildred Thompson Legacy project really came about from that Grant simultaneously Aaron and I were both working at the scad Museum of Art I was the chief curator there and we found that we have very similar territorial sensibilities and interest
00:04:28the time we also had the opportunity to work with the Walter o Evans collection it's one of the finest collections of African American art in the world and went to museum open Gifted 60 + pieces and so because the Museum's focus with contemporary we were able to really kind of play with those historic pieces and put them in conversation with contemporary artists around themes to the intergenerational conversation the looking at African American art history historically and seeing its influence on Contemporary Art today looking at Women's art also helped I worked on the inauguration team Elizabeth Center for this combination of Interest than an experience is really brought about a conversation when she was beginning to Kemper Museum we began to ask ourselves
00:05:27sedition around extraction by black women and we thought for sure it had and probably a number of times over and in our research we determine the number of exceptional exhibitions around black attraction toward the male voice and really was an exploratory question and when we found out that there were all of these amazing women how were the artists involved in this process of creating exit
00:06:13yeah that's a really good question and one that we get asked a lot it was
00:06:20you know any curator will tell you you have to do the best you can with the parameters that you have right so you know whether it be time or what type of cheese does could we prevent and really respect the artists and their Works within 5000 square feet of space so we started with a handful of artist that we felt we had a more intimate knowledge of or that and some of the other artists in the show on the Thomas for example was an obvious choice Mildred Thompson of course was an obvious choice because of someone like Shanice mask who I had to write an essay solo exhibition for a few years ago
00:07:20you know let us on the road to the 21 artist that ultimately were in the show but the advisory committee of really esteemed women in the field to also guided us so it's a particular challenge when you're working on an exhibition of artist who are lesser-known so we we I think in all of our research and Studio visits and recommendations from other and you know people in Hartsfield another artist at one point we had probably about 40 artists on our list just we didn't we didn't want to do anything to narrow it too soon and then I think it was when we we sort of settled on our are seeing which I'm sure will we'll talk about a little bit more but there was a moment where we saw that Abigail devil was born in 1980
00:08:20we realize that Alma Thomas was born in 1891 and something just clicked we're going to go that's it that's an amazing kind of it's always on a challenge to select work for any exhibition but particularly when the artist are lesser-known and when there's a lot of work to do around kind of reclamation and recognition and the pressure was certainly on but I also feel like it's sort of allude to the fact that it's 21 plus you know there are other artists 2 to be uncovered discovered read rediscovered what-have-you we never intended to show to be comprehensive and anyway certainly not One S edition can write all you know historical
00:09:20emissions so I find it a little bit more but I actually kind of love this question and thought about it and and realize that the easiest and the hardest part was actually the same thing and I hope I can articulate in the clearest possible way but Aaron and I realized from a very very early on in the process when you're dealing with work that is not as highly recognized as if we were meeting these women
00:10:19hours sometimes days really
00:10:26deserved our respect so the easiest part was to listen you know they want their stories to be heard and if we can create a platform for them to be hurting for network but it's also the hardest part because there's a certain level of pressure on you to really give to work the respect that it's do you have to make incredibly careful decisions and ask a lot of questions and listen to the artist so you going into an artist studio who's been plugging away with very very little to their home it's a big responsibility
00:11:25emotionally connected to + SO2 to make the show the best that it could be in order to honor them and to show them in the best light to show them in a way where they could perhaps you just listened and we let them guide do so many Studio
00:12:11yeah they all surprised me because the lives of these women and what brought them to abstraction is so rich and complex reverential enen listen to their stories and looked and did not come with with too many presumptions we wanted the artist to Really Leave the conversation but there were many hours in Betty's Layton home and her Studio up in the Bronx and it's a home that was about to be torn down and making me not exist I haven't been back up there in a while but they were tearing it down in order to make apartments and they were going to allow her to live in one of the apartments and we're in the studio looking again it at any credible amount of work she's pulling out of drawers
00:13:11she said it never left the Indian tradition of course we're thinking oh my gosh this morning to spend her birthday with us and several months later she will and you know she called Erin from hospice to make sure that the loan forms had gone through and that her work would be included in the Expedition so you know if we realize the hold a conversation so to get some first person quotes from her that we inserted
00:14:11wanted to spend her birthday with us then and was so concerned literally on her deathbed that everything was set for the show just made up understand the gravity of the importance of the show at the camper or five of the artist came to the opening each one before the show and every one of them cried and of course then I started crying Lillian Burwell turns 90 at the opening at the camper next to me at dinner and thank me for the show and I
00:15:11you know so there were there were moments like that where I could tell from their response the days. We have done a good job with the show strong reaction to it we've done our job Lillian was at the opening for the national museum for women in the Arts how did she enjoy it and that's how is the opening line from your perspective in general
00:15:52it was really incredible and and Lillian came up to me as his mother Lily and emotional moment and said I can't believe you and I thought oh God what is a lemon and I thought oh god what have we done and she said you put my work in the same room right next to Alma Thomas
00:16:15don't do that I don't deserve to be in the same room with Alma Thomas and I looked at her and I said you absolutely do very long overdue that you are and show again just incredibly dramatic moments where you know a contractual connections and M thought they played so beautifully in the space in DC and they have even right next to each other and for her to be so moved to cry instead of the curator you really work for an end you realize the artist
00:17:15most emotionally charged Expedition traded along very carefully we asked a lot of questions and interesting one of our advisors is Valerie to sell all of her brilliant brilliant cheerleader and I heard her speak once and and she described her territorial process as one of exploration and I think too many curators come to their projects with too many preconceived notions or the thesis kind of already developed the artist sending it to an idea that they already in mind and I felt like that's not how I moved through the world I always want the artist to leave the conversation and
00:18:15and I realized again very early on this is not my experience I have certainly felt it through my clothes relationship and friendship with Mildred Thompson and knowing all of the trials and tribulations that she went through in her life and that she died with her work not being as recognized certainly as it should be a nasty thought it should be experienced we we were steps through this process with the approach that that stayed in my mind from Valerie's kind of conversation of explored us questions don't don't come to it with with answers and I think that in my mind led to the success of the show whatever that means but to me it means that the artist
00:19:15you know that they feel like we've done their work a serviced and as a curator that's really all we can do is create a platform Allen's under which to look at the work of framework around worth the work needs to speak for itself and the artist are the one that's the ones that are making the history you know we were thinking about how how the exhibition is organized and and how it how it evolved from your territorial perspective but also bringing in The Advisory Board in the artist came to respond and that way we realized again it's in some ways it comes down to parameters what what can you say in 5000 square feet and what
00:20:19list of artists and it was 40-something artists and we're looking we really had to make some very difficult decisions and we had to realize the contributions of African American women who are not incredible body works better non-representational but we felt like we wanted to really
00:20:52make sure the artist in the show work were comfortable being in the show identified as artists that they felt like their language really developed around expansion of abstract expressionism
00:21:18non objective language of abstraction was at the Crux of their of their practice and that it was a sustained practice perhaps like samella Lewis you would have been an elder in the show that we had considered we can certainly she influenced many artists in the exhibition curator and are the ministrator as we were looking at her work we looked at early examples of abstraction and they were incredible and sophisticated it was a very small part of what she did overall in her in her artistic packed us there or other artist who we felt like we're perhaps maybe
00:22:06looking at the landscape that they were extracting a landscape that they were abstracting the cure for whom the language of non-representational not at the core of the images of their work I guess is maybe the best way I can say that so that was sort of step one and secondly the second part of the question I suppose this is why non-representational instruction and we really felt like to make non-representational extraction from the 60s it's certainly a little more open in the last generation or so but from the 60s 70s 80s 90s so much of what was preference in in sales in scholarship in exhibitions where were were
00:23:06narrative aspect of there were there were representation and certainly all history. We Begin wondering you know what what does it mean to sustain a practice within abstraction that is non-representational that has a very eurocentric male history and continue in that vein
00:23:35for decades without with very little recognition and in sometimes and I can speak for Mildred particularly in and other artists mention Nest why are you making this work you know it's not it's not relevant it's not black enough it's to rooted in in a white you know history and so the complications around what would drain a black woman to to non-representational abstraction and in such a sustained against sort of the odds you will was really special to us you know and was something we wanted to think about as as a political act right and your peers in some case and going against what the the larger perspective of our history should be doing
00:24:35and that was so interesting and intriguing and of course I understood it as much as I can through your my relationship with no brought them to this practice for all of these women the answer was very different the impetus to make this work was very very different cheese that out seems like an important conversation to have in one that hadn't been had it is a complex conversation practice with the same history with the same background from each artist where their work was coming from and honor that rather than try to
00:25:35certainly that is the case but not all so it was intended to really create a conversation around layered complex
00:25:55backgrounds free for each artist and so that was also important to us to not not to again kind of assumed anyone understand that they were all doing it you know it could have been an issue if I'm if I'm a boy or I could have been in this show the dealer told me he would come to the opening is not intended to be a comprehensive correction that there will be other curators who will want to take pieces of this and he's it out
00:26:55even further you know I would love to see someone do a show about some just one completely artwork that really epitomizes what the exhibition schools are to you by Mildred Thompson certainly it's the namesake for the show and when Aaron and I had heart many running list of potential titles for the Expedition we just kept coming back to an inspiration for the show story
00:27:53really does seem to
00:27:56captured this idea of bringing all of these
00:28:01artist together bringing all of this work together and see colorful celebratory piece it's so strong and so Dynamic we really thought that was a great kind of focal point and then when you look at the energy around the piece that it's it's you know kind of all of this marks that are kind of drawing you in and creating this incredible atmosphere it really did feel like the perfect metaphor for for the exhibition that there are formulas connections there are stylistic and material connections there are conceptual connections but every work is so unique and every artist voice is so unique as was Mildred's I don't think there's anything in the show. You question who's whose work it was right there so many distinct voices and yes they sort of come together in this magnetic way throughout the exhibition
00:29:01the energy around that really does expands the conversation closest to you when you enter the space but it is the piece that really thank you
00:29:28we are so grateful to Melissa Messina for making the time to speak with us during this episode again in early 2018 with more exploration conversation and all the rest in the meantime you can subscribe to this podcast on Apple podcast or Google Play you can listen to episodes website there's an email on the website in case you'd like to contact us and also don't forget that we include additional information and materials on her Facebook page that relate to the episodes so if you're interested in as always thank you for the August
00:30:28Museum in wvik for your continued support of this project remember that this project only exist because of listener support be sure to go to wvik. Org and click the button behind the scenes and if it wasn't for the generous sponsorship of Patterson paints design thank you so much for last but not least thank you to you all of our listeners until next year next year

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