Collections Care During Closure

Head of Conservation Lilli Steele shares the how the collection has been cared for while the museum has been closed.

While the doors have been shut to The Phillips Collections due to covid-19, the Phillips staff has still been busy caring for the permanent collection and the artworks in the special exhibitions. Every day since mid-March, our security staff has conducted daily checks throughout the entire museum and our building engineers have closely monitored the climate control system. Once a week, someone from our conservation department has walked through the galleries to inspect all of the works of art on view to check for any changes in condition, with particular attention to the loans included in Riffs and Relations: African American Artists and the European Modernist Tradition and Moira Dryer: Back in Business. Since both exhibitions closed so soon after they opened in February, the generous lenders have agreed to extend the exhibitions until January 2021 and December 2020, respectively. In order to prevent over exposure of light to works that are vulnerable to fading—such as drawings, watercolors, prints, and photographs, which are generally only placed on view for three months a year—the galleries were kept dim as much as possible. In addition, preparation staff carefully covered light sensitive works of art under dark fabrics to ensure that they received no additional exposure during the extended exhibition period.

Conservator Lilli Steele examines Alma Thomas, Watusi (Hard Edge), 1963, Acrylic on canvas, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, Gift of Vincent Melzac, 1976. Adjacent to the painting, several prints have been covered with a dark cloth to eliminate additional light exposure.

The museum’s outdoor sculptures have also been carefully tended to during the shut down, After the long rainy spring, the sculptures were due to be washed to remove pollen, bird droppings, and other dirt residues that had accumulated over the winter. Periodic cleaning of Angela Bulloch’s Heavy Metal Stack, Fat Cyan Three (located at the corner of 21st and Q), Seymour Lipton’s Ancestor (located in front of the Phillips House), and Barbara Hepworth’s Dual Form and Ellsworth Kelly’s Untitled (EK927) (in the Hunter Courtyard) has continued during the summer and into the fall to ensure their preservation.

Wearing masks and socially distanced on a warm September afternoon, conservators Lilli Steele and Patti Favero and preparator Laylaa Randera wash Ellsworth Kelly’s Untitled (EK927).

While it was strange to be in the museum for many months with virtually no colleagues present and certainly no visitors, I felt comforted to be able to enjoy old friends from the permanent collection and be reminded of the Phillips’s exceptional exhibitions. We are so excited to finally carefully remove the coverings over the artworks and welcome visitors back into our galleries and also to enjoy our newly cleaned sculptures.

Some Great (Women) Artists

Head of PK12 Initiatives Erica Harper explores works by Barbara Hepworth, Regina Pilawuk Wilson, and Angela Bulloch.

The lede for Jackson Pollock’s 1949 LIFE magazine article reads: “Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?” Pollock is photographed in (an admittedly bad-ass) paint spattered leather jacket and jeans combo, his clothing a canvas against another canvas of his own. His stance is cool and casual, leaned back with his arms folded across his chest. His face is stoic, punctuated by the cigarette dangling from his mouth. The message seems clear—abstract expressionism is tough, complicated, and undeniably masculine.

(Left) Jackson Pollock in LIFE magazine; (Right) Helen Frankenthaler in LIFE magazine

By the time Helen Frankenthaler is photographed by Gordon Parks for her own spread in LIFE in 1956, her influence on the art form is undeniable. Parks photographed her barefoot, wearing a knee-length skirt and button-down shirt tied into a side knot, surrounded by her works. She sits, quite literally, as a stark contrast to Pollock (photographed by Martha Holmes). But Frankenthaler, much like many artists at the time who happened to be women, balked at the categorization of “woman artist.” She once said in the New York Times, “There are three subjects I don’t like discussing: my former marriage, women artists, and what I think of my contemporaries.”

So what, right? Perhaps Pollock was truly the greatest living painter in the United States in 1949, but who was even included in that conversation? What then of all the aspiring artists who didn’t fit the mold? I’d like to turn your attention to some great works in our collection which all happen to be outdoors, and all happen to be by women. I started to wonder if those women, like Frankenthaler, felt dismissive of the label or if perhaps “woman artist” meant something different?

Barbara Hepworth (born 1903, Yorkshire, England) was 46 years old when Pollock graced LIFE magazine. Her sculptures can be interpreted as being about relationships: between forms, between humans and landscapes, color and texture, and especially between people as both individuals and a part of society. Hepworth was truly a force in her time, a major international figure, showing her work in exhibitions all over the world. She took an active role in the way her work was presented and was particular about its documentation. That she was a woman in a largely male-dominated world did little to stop her.

Barbara Hepworth, Dual Form, 1965/cast 1966, Bronze height: 72 in., The Phillips Collection, Acquired with the Dreier Fund for Acquisitions and additional funds from Natalie R. Abrams, Alan and Irene Wurtzel, and a bequest from Nathan and Jeanette Miller, 2006

Master weaver Regina Pilawuk Wilson (born 1948, Northern Territory of Australia) was one-year old at the time of Pollock’s cover. Her subject matter is based around weaving fiber art using techniques she learned from her grandmother who taught her where, when, and how to collect the right grasses, vines, and sources of natural color like flowers, berries, and roots. She perfected them over the decades and became an authority figure for her sense of familial and cultural identity. Most known for her paintings, printmaking and woven fiber-artworks, she paints syaws (fish nets), warrgarri (dilly bag), and yerrdagarri (message sticks). Her work has been shown in many Australian and international museums, collections, and galleries. Wilson’s work is markedly ancestral and matrilineal in origin, and divorcing it from “woman” feels almost sacrilege from my vantage.

Regina Pilawuk Wilson painting Yerrdagarri in the Hunter Courtyard, 2018. Photo: Rhiannon Newman

Finally, there’s Angela Bulloch (born 1966, Ontario, Canada). She wasn’t even alive when Pollock appeared on the cover of LIFE. The world had changed so rapidly, and in so many ways that it’s no surprise that Bulloch’s work incorporates video, sound, light, installation, sculpture, and painting. In fact, her work that sits outside the museum was partly created with the use of a computer program. She is also part of the Young British Artists, a loose group of visual artists who first began to exhibit together in London in 1988. And, despite the cultural advances of the time, female artists were still a distinct minority among the male dominated environment of the Young British Artists.

Angela Bulloch with her sculpture. Heavy Metal Stack: Fat Cyan Three, 2018, Powder coated steel, Made possible with support from Susan and Dixon Butler, Nancy and Charles Clarvit, John and Gina Despres, A. Fenner Milton, Eric Richter, Harvey M. Ross, George Vradenburg and The Vradenburg Foundation

Angela Bulloch with her sculpture. Heavy Metal Stack: Fat Cyan Three, 2018, Powder coated steel, Made possible with support from Susan and Dixon Butler, Nancy and Charles Clarvit, John and Gina Despres, A. Fenner Milton, Eric Richter, Harvey M. Ross, George Vradenburg and The Vradenburg Foundation. Photo: Rhiannon Newman

I lament that I don’t actually know how these women would feel about being called a “woman artist.” I can imply but that feels wholly irresponsible and arrogant to do. But then I came across a quote from Hepworth that addressed this very subject. She gave birth to triplets in 1934, and, atypically, found a way to both take care of her children and continue producing her art. And though she likely wouldn’t want to speak for women as a whole, I’ll leave you with her words to consider:

“A woman artist is not deprived by cooking and having children, nor by nursing children with measles (even in triplicate)—one is in fact nourished by this rich life, provided one always does some work each day; even a single half hour, so that the images grow in one’s mind.”

 

References:
Frankenthaler: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/10/08/how-new-yorks-postwar-female-painters-battled-for-recognition
Hepworth: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/dame-barbara-hepworth-1274/who-is-barbara-hepworth
Pollock: https://www.life.com/people/jackson-pollock-early-photos-of-the-action-painter-at-work/
Bulloch: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angela_Bulloch
Wilson: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Regina_Pilawuk_Wilson

Susan Unterberg’s Activist Philanthropy

The Phillips Collection is commemorating the 100th anniversary of Women’s Suffrage by presenting an exhibition (Celebrating Women Artists in The Phillips Collection, installed in the Phillips House galleries and presented online as the museum remains closed due to covid-19) and a virtual panel discussion (Artists of Conscience: Women, Race, Representation on September 24), both of which will feature artists who have received the Anonymous Was a Woman (AWAW) Award founded by Susan Unterberg. An artist and philanthropist based in New York, Unterberg is the recipient of the 2020 Visionary Woman Award from the Moore College of Art & Design in Philadelphia; our presentation coincides with her exhibition there.

Here are excerpts from Unterberg’s text Activist Philanthropy.” Join us on September 24 to hear more from Unterberg and about AWAW.

Susan Unterberg’s exhibition at the Moore College of Art & Design (Photo: Joe Hu) and the Visionary Woman Award

In 1996, in reaction to the NEA cuts, I quietly started Anonymous Was A Woman, an organization that awards no-strings-attached grants of $25,000 each year to 10 women artists over the age of 40. I had recently inherited a foundation and, as a working artist in the middle of my own career, I was intimately familiar with the challenges that women artists face.

The mid-career period can be a desert for women artists: they are no longer hot, young commodities fresh for discovery, nor are they sufficiently old to be “rediscovered.” Women over 40 must also often balance the demands of family life—childcare, parental care, and, in some cases, single motherhood. Plus, studies have revealed that women are underpaid relative to men both in the art world and in other professions, which is notable since many women artists must hold multiple jobs to make ends meet.

Susan Unterberg. Photo: Alain Simic

To date, we have awarded over $6 million to 240 artists. The impact has been significant, with artists who received the award going on to exhibit at major museums and biennales, pursue ambitious new projects, or simply take a well-deserved break. But a recent data study released by Artnet News and In Other Words sharply challenged the illusion of progress for women in the arts: between 2008 and 2018, only 11 percent of art acquired by the country’s top museums for their permanent collections was by women; only 14 percent of museum exhibitions featured women artists; and the sale of women’s artwork in the global auction market comprised only 2 percent of the total market share. Needless to say, we have a long way to go.

In 2018, I made the choice to reveal my identity as the founder and sole patron of Anonymous Was A Woman. In a political climate where women were coming out to tell their stories in greater numbers than ever before, I felt that it was important to join the conversation as a vocal supporter of women artists, to proudly express my solidarity, and to draw attention to the ongoing need for support of this demographic. Anonymous no longer, I also hoped to use my platform to expand the reach of our grant and to offer a model to other philanthropists.

Anonymous Was A Woman’s mission as feminist philanthropy that begins from a place of advocacy and activism. This type of philanthropy—directed to a very specific need; awarded with no strings attached; and immune to the bureaucracy and entrenched structures of already-powerful institutions—ensures that funds have the maximum possible impact. Funds are awarded irrespective of some of the factors that impact decision-making within an institution (including placating donors, considering revenue or attendance implications, or prioritizing projects that may bring with them the support of well-resourced galleries). Most importantly, it allows for complete freedom to how the funds are used. This type of advocacy is crucial at a moment when there is a total vacuum of government support for the arts. While I am uncomfortable with the label of “philanthropist,” the truth is that it is what I am. And so I urge other philanthropists to take seriously the crisis of the current moment and consider activist philanthropy in arts and culture by directly funding the work of artists and creators.