by Tobin Levy
Photographs by Robert Gomez
In 1978, A determined young woman could be seen riding around Austin on a bicycle, her bookish glasses secured by the oncoming wind, fiery red mane flowing, and an occasional file folder containing the beginnings of an alternative arts organization flying out of her basket. The organization, Women & Their Work (W&TW), turns 40 this year. Rita Starpattern, the feminist activist on the bicycle, co-founded the visual and performing art organization, along with Deanna Stevenson, a singer and poet, and Carol Taylor, a video artist, dedicated to female artists. Its mission: to show quality contemporary work that, until then, hadn’t been seen because the artists were women and women weren’t being allotted space on gallery walls.
“I think the fundamental orientation was that if the rules don’t allow us in the game, then we’ll create our own,” says Chris Cowden, who, since 1986, has been the gallery’s Executive Director. “We focus on women, but it’s always been with open arms as opposed to a defiant fist. It’s been much more about inclusion, about including men in a vision in which women are creating work.”
It was an abstract concept for H.W. Janson, author of the reigning art history book “History of Art.” Until 1986, if you studied art, that’s what you read and there was not a single woman in it. “He wrote about artists from the cave dwellers on! That’s a lot of territory — throughout all time, throughout all nations, and not a single woman!” says Cowden. When Janson died and his son was charged with creating a new edition, he added all of eight female artists. (The most recent edition features a whopping 27.)
Women & Their Work supports artists in all media, presenting visual art exhibitions, music, dance and theater events, literary readings, film festivals, and educational workshops. In the early years, when W&TW didn’t have a permanent exhibition space, it created temporary ones throughout the city. When W&TW eventually secured a space, it was dubbed Two Rooms and a Hall, for self-evident reasons. “Even though it was so small, we had hundreds of applications because there was just so little opportunity,” says Cowden. The space, which was downtown next to the Children’s Museum, was eventually acquired by its neighbor and turned into a closet. After a couple more addresses, W&TW landed at its current location on Lavaca Street in 1995.
Back then, W&TW operated on a shoestring budget, yet it still managed to garner attention on a national level. It was the first organization in Texas to receive a grant in visual art from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Linda Shearer, who was on the NEA panel that reviewed the applications, still remembers the submission. “It stood out and [has] stayed with me, even after 40 years,” she says. “There was this great sense of discovery.” While alternative spaces were bourgeoning across the country, quality was often sacrificed for cause. “Women & Their Work’s mission was so clear and relevant, but first and foremost it was about the art, about showing really interesting work. It’s held to its mission, which is even more poignant today given the spotlight on gender inequality,” says Shearer, the former Executive Director of Houston’s Project Row Houses. “They are leaders in staying true to what it means to be valued as a woman and as a woman artist.”
The current social and political climate spurred a closer look at the state of gender gaps in the art world. On a national level, in the 1990s and early 2000s there was a lull in advocacy for women in all areas of the arts. Xandra Eden, the Executive Director and Chief Curator at DiverseWorks in Houston, worked at W&TW in the mid ’90s and remembers the hopefulness she felt. “It wasn’t just that there were women artists being represented, but that they were women of color or women from diverse backgrounds,” says Eden. The alternative movement of the ’70s and ’80s imbued a sense of progress. “It took a while for a lot of us to realize things hadn’t changed as much as we thought that they had. It’s why we need organizations like Women & Their Work.”
Statistics tell the tale. Work by female artists makes up only 3 to 5 percent of major permanent collections in the U.S. Of 590 major exhibitions by nearly 70 institutions in the U.S. from 2007 to 2013, only 27 percent were devoted to female artists. Though women earn half of the MFAs granted in the U.S., only 30 percent of artists represented by commercial galleries are women. Women lag behind men in directorships held at museums with budgets over $15 million, holding 30 percent of art museum director positions.
While statistics are certainly a motivating factor, they do not define W&TW’s exhibitions or environment. “It’s not like there’s some feminist juggernaut that’s just driving everything,” says artist Connie Arismendi, who’s wonderfully spirited and candid and served on the W&TW board for nine years. “These artists are unique, they have incredible talent and multiple points of view, and that’s what fascinates me and keeps me going back. Is there gender inequality? Yes. Is the work always about gender inequality? No.”
The prevailing sense and sensibility at W&TW is that female artists are invaluable because art is invaluable. Cowden is as passionate about current and past exhibitions as she is about helping people experience the joy of looking at art. “One of the things I’ve always tried to do is give art the credibility they give things like football, because no one is born knowing things about football,” she says. It’s an unexpected parallel and, once she expounds a bit, a salient point. There are a lot of people who go to UT football games who don’t know a thing about the sport but nonetheless have fun tailgating or wearing burnt orange in a sea of excitable fans wearing foam fingers. Children’s educational programming at the gallery encourages kids to have fun and call out the things they love and don’t love about a piece of work. Casual viewers are offered exhibition catalogs if they want context and reminded that esoteric doesn’t have to mean inaccessible. Cowden is a paradigm of optimism and enthusiasm, with the wide grin of someone who loves her life’s work.
W&TW is responsible for enhancing art collections across the city. “The biggest source of my collection is Red Dot,” says Katelena Cowles, an artist and former W&TW board member. Red Dot Art Spree is the annual fall fundraiser where more than 150 original works by an array of artists are available for $750 or less. “I feel like I’m catching young up-and-coming artists at this amazing place, so I’m investing in that way but I’m also investing in my own community. There’s nothing that supports the arts community as a whole as much as buying art.”
In conversation, Cowles, one of many devotees, jumps back and forth between her art collection and other facets of W&TW that keep her going back. She points to the submission process and exhibition parameters. The submission process is an open one, and panels comprised of artists and people working in the art industry select the artists. Each exhibition is a solo show featuring new work created specifically for the event but not necessarily in the same medium as the work submitted for review. The artists are compensated for their participation, and the work is for sale while the show is up. “No one else selects an artist on the strength of their current work then supplements new work in any media. The artists can attempt something they’ve never done before, and most of the bigger institutions can’t do that. You might make a new set of paintings if you’re a painter, but they’re not going to fund your film.”
To date, Women & Their Work has actively developed the careers of more than 1,900 female artists in 311 visual art exhibitions; 154 dance, theater, and music performances; 16 film festivals; 28 literary performances; 115 publications; and 620 educational workshops. Each year, through educational programming, W&TW reaches more than 650 underserved kids in the Austin area. Remarkably, it has done this with an average of three full-time staff members. Cowden has been the constant variable. She’s responsible for securing grants from the Andy Warhol Foundation, The Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, and, most recently, the Ford Foundation.
Keeping a small nonprofit alive for 40 years is no small feat. Despite her accomplishments, Cowden deflects and defers credit. She is an unassuming force whose attributes mirror those of her predecessor. “Rita [Starpattern] was soft-spoken, but also the kind of person who got the ball rolling,” remembers Kay Turner, one of Starpattern’s close friends, and an adjunct professor at New York University. “She could capture the imagination of people and make things happen.” (Starpattern passed away in 1996.)
Though Starpattern’s Austin was different — 600,000 people different — than the Austin of today, W&TW has maintained some of that celebrated ethos. “There’s an informality and approachability that I think is a really strong part of [W&TW’s] identity. It’s an openness with a whole lot of savviness,” says Judith Sims, who worked with W&TW in its nascent years. Sims, newly retired, was the longtime director of education at the Art School at Laguna Gloria. “It’s woven itself into the fabric of the arts community, and I can’t imagine the arts community without it.”
Women & Their Work is not going anywhere anytime soon, though it is facing the same challenges that most small arts spaces in the city do. The Lavaca Street building where it’s been since 1995 has been sold, so it’ll be moving to a yet to be determined space in 2020. Though the space will be different, the mission is a permanent one.
Women & Their Work’s Spring Fundraiser and 40th Birthday Celebration, themed I AM ART, will take place Saturday, April 14. For more information or to buy tickets, visit womenandtheirwork.org.
Read more from the Community Issue | February 2018