Women Take the Floor at the MFA
“The latest exhibition at the MFA is revolutionary because of what it lacks: men.”
This declaration begins the virtual tour for Women Take the Floor, an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts showcasing the underrepresented works of female artists. It pushes back against the dominance of white men in the art world and includes work by both well-known women and those who have historically been under-recognized. The exhibition features over 200 different pieces—largely from the MFA’s collection—across Level 3 of the Art of the Americas Wing, with different works displayed on rotation throughout the exhibition’s September 13, 2019 – November 28, 2021 run.
This reinstallation comprises seven galleries organized by theme. The main gallery, titled “Women Depicting Women: Her Vision, Her Voice,” includes pieces such as Frida Kahlo’s Dos Mujeres and Loïs Mailou Jones’ Ubi Girl from Tai Region. Nonie Gadsden, senior curator of American decorative arts and sculpture at the MFA, explained over email, “[W]e wanted to deal directly with the lack of inclusion in the women’s suffrage movement. And also to champion the values of modern day feminism by creating a space for multiple points of view to be voiced and heard. We strove to equate art and suffrage and show how both can be powerful tools for expressing one’s voice in the community.”
The creation and opening of Women Take the Floor aligned with the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment’s ratification. However, Gadsden said, “[C]ommemorating the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage comes with its own concerns, as the campaign for suffrage, as well as other feminist movements of the past century, consciously excluded women of color.” A video of poet Porsha Olayiwola is featured prominently in the exhibition, as she recites her poem written in response to it, called “what is the suffrage movement to a blk womyn?: an anthem.” Olayiwola’s voice is heard on repeat in the gallery, her words disrupting the dominant narrative of women’s suffrage.
Gadsden also commented on the variety of reactions to exhibitions like “Women Take the Floor.” She said, “Some artists and scholars argue that gender-based shows encourage tokenism and relegate women artists to the sidelines, suggesting that they can’t compete or hold their own with equivalent work by male artists. Others argue that specialized attention to women artists is long overdue and a necessary corrective to the centuries of systemic gender discrimination embedded in museums, galleries, the academy and the marketplace.” Art museums have a long history of gender and racial inequality, with women—especially BIPOC women—being severely undervalued. A 2019 survey of US art museum collections found that the artists included were 87 percent male and 85 percent white.
Junior Aonkon Dey noted that the exhibition provides a perspective often lacking in the art world. “I think just getting the chance to realize what art [without] a Eurocentric male gaze looks like as a part of an entire gallery was very refreshing because we’re not talking about one or two paintings that [are] just situated between say, hundreds of other white male artists,” they said. “We’re talking about an entire gallery.”
One piece of artwork that stood out to Dey was Wendy Red Star’s Apsáalooke Feminist #1. The photograph is a self portrait of Red Star and her daughter, dressed in the traditional elk-tooth dress of the Apsáalooke (Crow) nation and staring directly into the camera. Dey commented on the power that comes with female artists being able to depict themselves. Wendy Red Star’s art is a form of personal self-expression, existing beyond the normalized Eurocentric male gaze.
The realities of exclusion in the art world cause Women Take the Floor to inspire mixed feelings. According to SMFA Dean Nancy Bauer, it was moving to see such a large amount of work by women. At the same time, she said, “I had this sort of tinge of sadness that it was a big, big deal that there was this comprehensive show of women’s art … It underscored the extent to which women are still marginalized in the art world.”
There are many barriers that any female artist—and even more so BIPOC women—must endure. Bauer said, “I just was weighed down by the thought of how hard it was for most of these women to actually find a space in the art world and thinking about how many women never found that space.” The lack of space afforded to female and BIPOC artists comes from the power held by white and male artists, critics, and scholars. Senior Annette Key, an art history major, explained, “There’s just this long history of white men appreciating other white men and not really giving women or people of color … any recognition for their achievements or for any boundaries pushed.”
The exhibition does not erase the MFA’s own exclusion of female artists, but rather is part of the institution’s ongoing reckoning with its contributions to inequality. Even curating these galleries was a challenge. According to the exhibition’s virtual tour, less than 10 percent of the MFA’s acquisitions from the last 10 years were created by female artists. “The MFA has had an inconsistent history with supporting women artists, which we acknowledge in this exhibition and vow to change,” said Gadsen. “By highlighting our own shortcomings, we as a staff and community can work together to make sustainable changes.” At the same time, she recognized that change cannot come overnight; true inclusion is a long-term commitment.
“I think we have to reach a stage where having a gallery like this, or having these artworks be a centerpiece, is not an extra event, but something that’s just very normalized,” said Dey.
Key expressed concern over the unequal power dynamics and gatekeeping that occurs in the art world. She said, “One of my biggest problems with the art world is how art is often gate-kept and weaponized as intellectual superiority, and how a lot of scholars, mainly white men, utilize their knowledge of good art and knowing a lot about art, as a way to define what is good and to define aesthetics.” Key continued, “I think that art is … meant to be for the masses. If you look at a painting, and you like it, and you find it aesthetically pleasing [or] you find something beautiful within it or scary or intriguing, that should be good enough for good art.”
A meaningful shift in the art world cannot come solely from representation in a few museum exhibitions. Change comes from the very power structures that allow exclusion and inequality to thrive. According to Key, inclusion of women in the mainstream must, in part, come from major museums. She said she hopes that “[major museums will] not tokenize female artists and tokenize women of color in their exhibits, but rather just show their art … There are thousands of incredible artists who are women [and] who are people of color that are just ignored, and their art can and should be appreciated.”