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2020 Conference—Chicago

As an affiliated society of the College Art Association (CAA), the Association of Historians of American Art sponsors a one-and-a-half-hour session at the CAA annual conference.

Scholarly Session: "Votes for Women: American Women Artists and Strategies for Inclusion"

College Art Association Annual Conference in Chicago, IL, February 12—15, 2020

Chair: Annelise K. Madsen, Art Institute of Chicago
Discussant: Anna O. Marley, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
Date and Time: Thursday, February 13, 2020, 10:30 AM – 12:00 PM
Location: Hilton Chicago, PDR 2

On the one-hundredth anniversary of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, this session examines the place of women artists in inclusive histories of American art. It aims to reevaluate the various strategies that we as scholars, academics, and curators have employed to expand the canon, alter existing narratives, and conceive new structures for understanding who matters and why in the field. The separatist approach—telling women’s histories—has long fomented debate over whether such work is essential or essentializing. Moreover, separatist and recuperative discourses have often served to further marginalize women artists of color. As a corrective, recent scholarly studies on an underrepresented “sisterhood” of artists have modeled inclusive visions of historical American art, giving due consideration to individuals, communities, and the various contexts—political, racial, economic, and cultural—that shaped female artists’ practices and the reception of their works. Other projects have shifted or disrupted accepted narratives so that women artists regain their integral roles. This session seeks papers that examine the defining contributions of women artists in inclusive histories of American art. Papers that address the relationship between historical and ongoing mechanisms of exclusion, and that consider practical questions—such as how we write scholarship, frame exhibitions, make museum acquisitions, and teach courses—through the lens of a particular artist or case study are encouraged. AHAA seeks to include diverse perspectives and voices and we invite paper topics that explore underrepresented artists.

"'The Statue Case': The Typical Women (1889–91) of the Ladies' Art Association, Female Monuments, and the Right to Privacy"
Nicole J. Williams, Washington University in St. Louis

     This paper examines plans by the Ladies’ Art Association to erect two monuments to American women at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. In 1891, the association formed a fund to solicit contributions from women across the nation towards the completion of a bust honoring Susan B. Anthony, titled The Typical Reformer, and a pendant statue of deceased philanthropist Mary M. Hamilton, titled The Typical Philanthropist. However, the scheme was squashed when Hamilton’s family sued to prevent the erection of the sculptures, claiming they violated her posthumous right to privacy. The paper tracks how the so-called “statue case” unfolded in a New York courtroom, and exploded into the court of public opinion, as a battle over social norms and political power in relation to the lives of women. The sensational trial pitted a traditional notion of female privacy, which was antithetical to the public nature of honorific sculpture, against emerging reformist ideals that emphasized women’s civic participation. Although the pair, called The Typical Women, never became a concrete reality, and consequently has been forgotten by art historians, few artworks of the era galvanized more bristling controversy. Mining the “statue case” revises accounts of the Beaux-Arts statuary craze as an exclusively male phenomenon and enriches debates about how public statues perpetuate social hierarchies based on gender and race, when today women still represent less than 8% of public statues in America. The “statue case” also mounts a methodological argument for why scholars should attend to examples of historic failure.

The Making of a Modern Museum: The Hewitt Sisters and Design Education
Laura Fravel, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

     Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, was the first American museum founded by women. In 1897, sisters Sarah and Eleanor Hewitt established the Cooper Union Museum for the Arts of Decoration to inspire good design in American industry. The sisters were from an enterprising family. Their grandfather, Peter Cooper, had founded the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in 1859, a free school in New York City that included a Women’s Art School. Sarah and Eleanor’s mother, Amelia Hewitt, had been a devoted volunteer at the Cooper Union Women’s Art School and Candace Wheeler’s Society of Decorative Art. The sisters followed in her footsteps, championing education and employment opportunities for women. They methodically studied European decorative arts with the goal of opening a teaching museum and reference library with encyclopedic collections for the study of design. In addition, they were instrumental in creating America’s first museum shop, providing a venue for the sale and marketing of decorative goods designed by students at the Cooper Union Women’s Art School. This paper seeks to shed light on the community of women artists and designers who supported and were supported by the Cooper Union Museum in the early decades of the 20th century. In addition, this paper will examine the museum’s early collecting strategies and will consider how presenting commercial and decorative art—including illustration, textile design, and stained-glass design—alongside painting and sculpture could model a more inclusive vision of historical American art.

Anna Russell Jones and Archives of African American Art and Life
Huewayne Watson, Arizona State University

     Anna Russell Jones, who was born in Jersey City, New Jersey in 1902 and died in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1995, worked extensively within the practices of visual art and design. Yet she remains a relatively obscure artist despite producing more than seventeen linear feet of archived material, housed at the African American Museum in Philadelphia. As the first African American woman to receive a four-year scholarship from the Philadelphia Board of Education and first African American graduate of the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (PSDW), now Moore College of Art & Design, Jones’s educational development and achievements in art marked the beginning of a life that not only challenged but also moved beyond the delimiting ideological and corporeal definitions of “black” and “women artists” that pervaded early and mid-20th century America. Her art, work, and life experiences are useful for thinking about the political dangers and economic barriers that black women artists contested, especially throughout the decades surrounding her most compelling acts of creation. This paper builds on my efforts to curate the first solo exhibition of her work at the African American Museum, planned for 2020. In it, I construct a conceptual framework that helps us to make sense of Jones’s works of art, modes of being, and cultural practices. Specifically, I examine the emancipatory politics of visual literacy and educational attainment undergirded by creativity and self-directed labor that defined her work and her activism.

Missing from the Archive
Christina M. Weyl, The Cooper Union

     Nearly one hundred women artists were members of Atelier 17, the avant-garde printmaking studio located in New York City between 1940 and 1955. Except for two towering figures—Louise Nevelson and Louise Bourgeois—and a handful of others, the balance are largely unknowns within studies of postwar modernism. In conjunction with the publication of my book about the women of Atelier 17 (Yale University Press, 2019), I endeavored to write short biographies for all ninety-seven artists (available online, Given the postwar resurgence of conservative gender norms, I expected to find many women artists who were only briefly active and left the art world because of lack of resources, family responsibilities, critical indifference, or other challenges. Instead, I encountered scores who persisted in their artistic activities or channeled their creative energy into related fields like teaching, museum work, or design. My paper demonstrates that the accessibility and availability of women artists’ artwork and archives represents one of the largest impediments to writing inclusive histories. Artists and their families often privately hold rich resources and, faced with institutional apathy and low commercial demand, struggle with what to do with their artistic legacy. In the absence of the singular monographic archive, non-traditional resources like genealogical databases, public records, newspaper databases, and school archives hold valuable keys. It is my hope that my online biographical project plants seeds for future research on these artists and models the type of archival research needed to study diverse networks of artists and diversify American art history.


AHAA Business Meeting

College Art Association Annual Conference in Chicago, February 12–15, 2020.

Date and Time: Thursday, February 13, 2020, 12:30 – 1:30 PM
Location: Hilton Chicago, PDR 2

Please join us for AHAA's Annual Business Meeting, your opportunity to hear about AHAA's initiatives and the new benefits the Board has been working on for our members. The Board also wants to hear from you about how AHAA can best support its scholarly community. We look forward to seeing you there!