Where have all the women gone?

As seamless as the final execution of an exhibition may appear to the public, there is always a backstory lurking in the curator’s vault of experiences. After almost 30 years of organizing exhibitions, the combination of research, the works of art themselves, the responsibility of representing an artist properly and the ability to create a new experience in the gallery is what continues to captivate my interest in the ever-evolving field of curation.

Working on the Looking Back exhibition offered me an exciting opportunity to sift through the McIntosh Gallery’s permanent collection of more than 4,000 works of art. Although the organizing committee of the 50th anniversary event had already established the infrastructure for the overall project, much of the curatorial manoeuvering still needed to take place.

At the point when I joined the team, the curatorial concept had also been delivered. The premise for the show was to organize an overview of works that represented past faculty from the Department of Visual Arts. Pieces from faculty or adjunct faculty collected by the McIntosh, but still part of Visual Arts, were not included in the exhibition. Instead, this was an opportunity for collected past faculty works to be curated together for the first time.

As a feminist, whose curatorial teeth were cut on historical texts such as Linda Nochlin’s Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?, I left my first curatorial meeting awe-stricken by what appeared to be a huge hole in the permanent collection.

Where were all the women?

Why had so few women from this time period been collected?

I turned to long-time friend and colleague, feminist, art historian, professor emerita and former Visual Arts Chair Madeline Lennon to provide some perspective on these questions.

It soon became apparent women had not been hired as full-time faculty at Western during this time. What had initially appeared to be missing was not really omitted but, instead, simply did not exist.

While researching the collection, I was also able to openly discuss the conundrum surrounding the exhibition with McIntosh Gallery Director/Chief Curator James Patten, who assured me collecting practices at McIntosh had shifted considerably over the years to include more women. However, it was Patten’s genuine concern to maintain proper collecting practices that led to the gallery’s most recent acquisition by well-known artist Sheila Butler.

Butler is one of the earlier female studio faculty full-time hires who worked in Visual Arts from 1989-2004. With this new acquisition in place, Visual Arts professor Tricia Johnson and I were able to include this important work by Butler in the Looking Back exhibit.

Not only are there more women in the McIntosh collection, but we also have an equal ratio of female to male full-time faculty in Visual Arts. As the role of curating continues to shift, the conversation of what should be collected continues to evolve.

Western instructor Susan Edelstein is the Director of the Artlab Gallery.