Women & Their Work Continues to Impact Austin Arts 44 Years After Its Founding
Executive Director Chris Cowden on the nonprofit organization’s growth and the ever-evolving local arts scene
By Avery Tanner
Photos by Alexandra Vanderhider
Women & Their Work has brought female Texas artists to the national arts scene for more than 40 years — and shows no signs of slowing down.
Founded by three artists in 1978, the nonprofit was part of a movement throughout the country comprised of those who didn’t feel like they were included in any form of art or the art industry, especially women.
The artists decided to hold a statewide event featuring theater, dance, music and poetry. Thousands of people attended this festival, giving the founders the confidence to start Women & Their Work.
Executive Director Chris Cowden has been with the collective, which is dedicated to emphasizing the value of art by women, through several decades and multiple locations.
The organization purchased their own building for the first time in 2020, after being given time to vacate their former rented Lavaca Street location. The new east location was a diamond in the rough, found after years of searching.
“In 2018 and 2019, we looked for two solid years and saw 32 buildings all over town. They were all horrible, horrible, horrible,” says Cowden. “And then this place popped up on the market in February 2020. It was so much more than we thought we could afford, but we thought, ‘Okay, we’re going to try for it.’”
What her team didn’t know was that the world would soon shut down due to the pandemic. They held two large fundraising events to aid in the purchase of the building in February 2020, but after everything came to a halt, they pivoted.
“The shut-down itself was devastating and then we realized, ‘Wait, this thing is selling in July. We have to get to it,’” recalls Cowden. She and the Women & Their Work team conducted ‘Zooms upon Zooms upon Zooms,’ until they raised the necessary funds and bought the property in July of 2020.
“We’re still playing catchup because everybody’s still emerging from COVID, but it’s wonderful to just have some stability,” says Cowden.
Women & Their Work has a unique process of working with artists to give them a national spotlight. While museums typically showcase work that’s already been completed, Women & Their Work commissions new work from creators. To select these talented artists, the organization conducts a call for entries and accepts proposals.
“We really take a risk by saying, ‘We see what you’ve done in the past, and we really admire it, but we want you to do something new,’” explains Cowden.
The competitive process results in approximately seven artists being chosen to show their work at the organization’s building in a year. Many local artists apply multiple times for a chance at the opportunity. On top of shining a light on these creators, Cowden says one of their goals is to make Texas a viable place for them to make a living.
“Texas is the third largest state behind New York and California in the number of artists, but we have not had the right infrastructure because we are not LA and we are not New York,” says Cowden. “We are trying to build or contribute to an ecosystem so artists can stay in Texas and have a career. We want artists to further their career, however they define that.”
In addition to their work with artists, Women & Their Work brings art to local students. They started their educational programs by taking performances into schools. These performances included female spoken word artists from Atlanta, playwrights from Los Angeles and more. Eventually, they began holding programs in their own space.
In 2013, Women & Their Work established their partnership with Austin ISD on the GO Project, in which 18 to 22-year-old high school graduates with special needs transition into adult life. Women & Their Work hosts these students at their building while offering them programs created particularly for them.
“We invite them in and they make art. It’s really to encourage young people to form their own opinions, because there’s not one right answer,” says Cowden.
The Smithsonian recently acquired the organization’s archives, marking another exciting development for Women & Their Work. Along with approximately 138 of their publications that will be in the Smithsonian Libraries, the nonprofit’s website will also be archived.
Nearly 45 years after being founded, Women & Their Work is still doing vital work to promote female artists who are consistently underrepresented in this industry. Cowden says there has been progress, but there is still more work to be done, referencing an artnet news article that states that only “11% of all acquisitions and 14% of exhibitions at 26 prominent American museums over the past decade were of work by female artists.”
“There has been a change and a step forward, but there’s still a lot of need so we really encourage people to come see this art,” emphasizes Cowden. “Women are making these things in modern life. The whole eco is moving, but there’s still such a need.”
For more information on Women & Their Work, visit their website. Alexandra Robinson’s Delimitations, or words to live by exhibit is on display through June 2.