April 11, 2022

Top Photo: In the National Building Museum; Left Photo: With Jordan Schnitzer; Middle Photo: The room at Night; Right Photo: (l to r) With Susan Fisher Sterling, director of NMWA, Maria Grazia Chiuri, and Mellody Hobson; Photos © Donald Woodman/ARS, NY.

On Friday night, April 8th, I – along with Maria Grazia Chiuri, the first female Creative Director of Dior, and businesswoman Mellody Hobson – were given Lifetime Achievement Awards – by the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. with whom I have had a long relationship. The event, which was held at the National Building Museum, was sponsored by Dior who did the decor, which included the English banners I created for Maria Grazia’s 2020 Spring-Summer haute couture show, which were acquired by the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation. Below are my remarks from that night.

“I was born in 1939, at the beginning of World War II, a dark time in recent history, a time that Virginia Woolf described as ‘patriarchy gone mad’. Tragically, we find ourselves in a comparable period and somehow, it has made me think about my father, who died when I was thirteen. Throughout my formative years, he played games with me, games of his devising, intended to teach me that the world could be transformed into a place where ‘softness would come to a world that is harsh and unkind. Where the greed of some would give way to the needs of many. Where all would cherish life’s creatures and where all would live in harmony with each other and the Earth’, as I expressed in a poem I wrote in 1979, a time when change and hope were in the air. He also made me believe that life was about making a contribution to this transformation, a mandate that has shaped my life and work.

I began to wonder how my father was able to offer me such a hopeful vision and why he had chosen to do that, despite the state of the world. I will never know the answer but I am deeply grateful to him because without hope, we are lost. When I was pondering my remarks today, I decided that I too would try to offer something positive; the belief that because human beings created this world, human beings also have the potential to change it. And change it we must or we will perish.

So what does this have to do with the honor I am receiving today? When I was a young artist, it was completely acceptable to say that there had been never any great women artists; moreover, that it was impossible to be a woman and an artist too, ideas that have been completely refuted by the existence of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, an institution that I and my husband, photographer Donald Woodman, have supported from the start, even while numerous women artists were attacking Billie Holladay for creating a ‘ghetto’ for women. My response was: I supposed they preferred the ghetto of MoMA or the Museum of Men’s Art.

At this moment, I am going to veer away from this honor to discuss the fact that most men cannot imagine what it is like to grow up with a complete absence of a history – no work in museums by women artists, no monuments to women in our parks and very few women represented in Congress. In a college classroom in the late 1950s, my widely respected history professor stated with authority that women had never made any contributions to Western history, something that my research for The Dinner Party disproved. Many viewers have claimed that my piece changed their lives and now, I know why. The first time I saw the history of women’s art displayed at NMWA, I burst into tears because PRESENCE had replaced ABSENCE. And that PRESENCE told me that my goal of making a contribution to history was possible and that there had been women artists before me who had achieved that. Yes, we need more institutions devoted to women’s cultural production. But NMWA is an important start.

I said that I would talk about hope. I am heartened by the fact that one woman – Billie Holladay (with the support of her husband Wally) – took on all the mistaken beliefs about women’s art, which attests to the fact that one individual can MAKE A DIFFERENCE, a fact that we need to remember, especially now.”

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