We were happy to participate in the Nasty Women New Haven exhibition last month at the Institute Library. As this initiative supports women’s rights, it intersects with our goal of racial justice.
It also encouraged us to consider how systemic gender bias has affected our collecting practices. When we reviewed our holdings, we found that most of the works were by male artists and depicted male subjects. This inequity especially troubled us because we oppose the widespread custom in the art markets as well as scholarly and museum spheres of preferential treatment for male artists.
Multiple factors contributed to our collusion in the disparity. As many of the objects in our collection relate to the 1960s, the tendencies of history colored our collecting practices. Scholarly accounts and documentary photography of the movement frequently spotlight men. Many of the signature photographs of the 1960s feature male leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Huey Newton, and Stokely Carmichael/Kwame Ture. Even today when artists appropriate those images and mix them with the new content they often re-inscribe gender imbalances in representation.
When we responded to the Nasty Women New Haven exhibition’s call for participation, we began tearing our way out of this web by purposefully acquiring more works by women artists and representations of women. This clarified vision now shapes our ongoing activities. Now that we’ve heightened our awareness of this habit of inequity, we’ve joined the growing trend to center the organizing and achievement of women leaders.