Women & Public Art

It is just within the last half century or so that women have begun to participate fully in the realm of public art. Barred from the official institutions that support the production of ambitious, costly, large-scale works of art, talented women in the West traditionally worked in more modest genres deemed socially appropriate for them—china decoration, portraiture and flower painting, or handicrafts such as needlework and weaving. Public art, in contrast, is monumental and requires the kind of professional training and access to systems of patronage and skilled technical assistance that have only recently opened up to women.

Anne Whitney's Roma, a bronze sculpture of a woman
Anne Whitney's Roma

In the nineteenth century, women sought formal art education in all-female academies or private ateliers, eventually gaining admission through ardent activism to government art schools and the prizes and prestige they offered. Even then, however, women artists faced resistance in the competitive world of public commissions, impeded by constructions of femininity that severely circumscribed their ability to function on a par with their male counterparts. Boston sculptor Anne Whitney's case is instructive: encouraged by her friendships with women's rights advocates, Whitney forged a career in art, achieving acclaim for the carved marbles she created in Rome (left). Although she won a commission for a statue of statesman Samuel Adams for the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., she was famously disqualified in 1875 from a competition for a Boston monument to Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner—because the jurors believed it unseemly for a woman to sculpt a man's legs. Twenty-seven years later she completed her sculpture of Sumner which was placed in Harvard Square.

Women artists' progress in the twentieth century was gradual and hard won. The U.S. National Sculpture Society, for instance, admitted female members but facilitated lucrative public commissions for male sculptors only; female sculptors were encouraged with exhibitions of statuettes and garden ornaments, objects associated with the upper-class home. Not until the feminist art movement of the 1970s did women make significant inroads in the public arena. Among the movement's historic accomplishments, in addition to expanding opportunities for women artists to exhibit and market their work, was the overturning of aesthetic hierarchies that gendered—and devalued—decorative genres as feminine. Thus Joyce Kozloff, a founding member of the Pattern and Decoration movement, has drawn on non-Western decorative traditions to create gorgeous ceramic-tile murals in airports and train stations (right) around the world, exalting visual pleasure on an environmental scale.

Other muralists claimed public space for social protest or for asserting ethnic identity and pride—notably, Las Mujeres Muralistas in San Francisco, Judith Baca in Los Angeles (above), and Charlotte Lewis and Adriene Cruz in Portland. Lewis partnered with community members to paint neighborhood murals (right) celebrating African-American achievement; Cruz creates colorful abstract schemes informed by African design elements. Cruz's commissions for a county building and a regional public-transit system (right) remind us how governmental bodies and percent-for-art programs now routinely embrace women as public artists, able to compete for site-specific projects that demand not just aesthetic vision but technical know-how and collaborative management skills. Such mastery is also necessary when an artist who typically works independently installs sculpture in the public realm, as in the case of Deborah Butterfield's cast-bronze grazing-mare sculptures (below) at Portland International Airport, for example, or Lillian Pitt's Native-American-inspired ceramics and bronzes placed in civic centers and colleges throughout Oregon and her sculpture at the entrance of PSU’s Native American Student and Community Center (below, right).

Enabling public art of all stripes are teams of expert administrators sensitive to community needs, government protocols, budgetary restrictions, architectural and engineering requirements, and other logistical parameters as well as artists' singular creative goals. Public art is always a collaborative matter, and dominating the field of facilitators negotiating the myriad social networks underpinning every example of public art today are women—dedicated visionaries working behind the scenes for the benefit of artists and audiences alike.  Theirs is a form of service that typically goes unacknowledged, but any consideration of women and public art must take account of their efforts as a sine qua non of this invaluable, if still sometimes contested, form of cultural expression and social good.

Author: Sue Taylor, Professor of Art History, Portland State University