Women in the arts


Women power Baltimore’s arts community. No offense intended to the numerous men in local arts, but if you take a look around to see the people leading the museums and galleries in
Baltimore, there’s a number of women at the helm.

Baltimore isn’t unusual in this regard—the major art museums in Seattle and Minneapolis are also run by women—but such extensive female leadership still isn’t the norm. In 1994, Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight noted that only three women occupied the director’s seat at major American museums. When Washington, D.C.-based art critic Tyler Green revisited the subject for the newspaper in 2006, he observed that “female art museum directors have become commonplace.” And earlier this year the Association of Art Museum Directors tweeted that 43 percent of its members are women.

Of course, leadership is only part of the equal-representation battle. The ongoing American discussion of gender inequality may currently involve “Leaning In” and trying to have it all and fourth-wave feminism and more. But what’s so important about women having leadership roles in the arts is that museums are where we go to remember and rediscover who we are—and what we are capable of imagining and creating as human beings. And, for far too long. that story was overwhelmingly male.

When the Guerrilla Girls began exposing the art world’s sexism and racism in 1985, their creative, insurgent products came armed with statistics that were hard to stomach. One showed a dollar bill—pointing out that women in America earned only two-thirds of what men earned, while women artists earned a mere third of what their male counterparts earned. Worse, at the time, less than 3 percent of the artists in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s modern art collection were women but 83 percent of the nudes were female.

The situation hasn’t changed all that much since then. “Women in leadership positions are critical to help redress gender imbalance in the exhibition of art by women on museum walls,” says Susan Fisher Sterling, director of the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. “When you look at any museum in any city, you’ll find at least 75 percent, and perhaps almost 90 percent, of the art on the walls is by men—even when it comes to contemporary art. We need to imbue these organizations with a sense that women’s creative contributions are vital to communities. I believe that women leaders will help to make this possible.”

For this feature, Style talked to 10 Baltimore women working in such a capacity. They aren’t the only women doing so, but rather part of an increasingly collaborative network that supports the city’s still-developing arts community.

They’re also part of an under-celebrated legacy. When Anne d’Harnoncourt was named the director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1982 she was called the first woman to head a “major” museum, which the New York Times defined as one with an annual budget of more than $25 million. But way back in 1942, curator and art historian Adelyn Breeskin was named director of the Baltimore Museum of Art. Breeskin was born in Baltimore in 1896 and,in 1914 her father, Dr. Alfred Dohme, donated William Sergeant Kendall’s “Mischief” to the museum. She became the BMA’s curator of prints in 1930, during which time she researched and wrote a catalog raisonné of a little-known woman artist by the name of Mary Cassatt.

In an oral history conducted in June 1974 by Paul Cummings of the Archives of American Art, Breeskin said of her appointment: “But don’t forget, I wouldn’t have been made
director then, as a woman, if the men hadn’t been gone during the war.”

Breeskin served as director until 1962—and, under her leadership, the BMA created a works-on-paper collection and negotiated the acquisition of the internationally renowned Cone Collection from sisters Claribel and Etta Cone of Bolton Hill.

In 1960, Breeskin was the commissioner for the American entry at the 30th Venice Biennale. In 1976, she received the Katherine Caffey Award for Distinguished Accomplishment in the Museum Profession. And in 1985, she was awarded a Gold Medal for Exceptional Service from the Smithsonian Institution.

Not bad for somebody promoted merely because there were no men around. —Bret McCabe

Rebecca Hoffberger American Visionary
Art Museum

Rebecca Hoffberger, the founding director of the American Visionary Art Museum, has a way of looking at the world that wonders beyond the here and now. When law enforcement searched for suspects of the Boston Marathon bombing, she thought about what their investigative tools could have done in different hands.

“When they were using infrared sensors when looking for the suspect, my first thought was, ‘If that had been everyday police technology in World War II, Anne Frank would have never wrote her diary,’” she says. That promise and peril of technology’s impact on human life guided Hoffberger while curating AVAM’s new show, “Human Souls and Machines: The Coming Singularity” just as her openness to bringing a wide swath of human creativity into AVAM’s orbit has guided the museum since its 1995 inception.

This perspective goes beyond gender.

“I would never do an all-women visionary artist show. Even though I’m very proud and like being a woman, I always want it to be about the big human subjects that we’ve all [experienced],” says Hoffberger, who believes the best museums give people a wider understanding of what’s valuable in life. It’s work she sees Baltimore’s women arts leaders doing every day—opening up the doors to their institutions; finding ways to serve substantial human needs while staying true to their founding missions.

“Creative acts of social justice are the highest performance art and I think we’re really lucky with the crew that’s here in Baltimore,” she says. “If they were all to sprout penises tomorrow, they would be just as wonderful.” —B.M.

Doreen Bolger Baltimore Museum of Art

Most directors of major museums are too busy for the little people. It’s not a character flaw, just simple mathematics. After a full schedule of institutional responsibilities, there’s just no time left. This is why Doreen Bolger, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art since 1998, has earned a reputation hovering somewhere around patron saint.

Bolger is a ubiquitous figure at local art openings and events. No matter what day of the week or time of night, if you attend an art show in Baltimore, chances are good Bolger will be there.

“I am very excited about Baltimore’s artistic community and delighted to be engaged with artists of all disciplines,” says Bolger. “I try to attend arts events and openings all over the city—at colleague arts institutions and organizations like the Creative Alliance, MAP and School 33, but also at less well-known venues in Station North or the Bromo Seltzer Tower Arts & Entertainment District. The artists, curators and gallerists who run these DIY spaces are my art heroes!”

Bolger’s stamina has endeared her to the Baltimore arts community, especially young locals who are stunned to have such an important figure engaging with their work. No surprise, it was also Bolger’s support for the homegrown arts community that influenced the BMA’s decision to make museum admission free all the time—providing greater accessibility for Baltimore’s creative class.

Although she has a number of male and female professional mentors, Bolger cites her maternal grandmother, Emma, as her earliest artistic influence. “She raised two children alone during the Depression working as an AT&T night operator and was an amazing seamstress,” Bolger remembers. “Her apartment was filled with bolts of fabric, rolls of ribbons, and glass jars of beads and buttons. It was she who taught me how to sew, which is the closest I have ever gotten to being artistic myself.” —C.O.

Amy Eva Raehse Goya Contemporary Gallery

“Being unusually small as a child, I was taught not to let other people’s perceptions of what I could or could not do dictate my actions, but rather, let my actions force their response,” says Amy Eva Raehse, who insisted on playing the tuba in elementary school after her music teacher suggested the flute. The 5-foot-tall (in heels) executive director and curator of Goya Contemporary Gallery has continued to defy expectations, transforming a local print atelier into an internationally respected commercial gallery in just over a decade.

Goya’s success comes from an ambitious business and curatorial agenda, as well as a compassionate and ethical business model, which influences all of Raehse’s decisions.
“I’ve had people say they were ‘terrified’ of me until they met me in person and engaged with my softer side,” admits Raehse, who has become a sounding board for artists and arts professionals, especially women. “I think people associate assertive decision-making with being hard-line, when in fact it is just situationally appropriate. There are fewer role models and mentors for women leaders, which is why I always try to help the more emerging versions of myself. Women are under too much scrutiny, and there is little room for error. If I may pass along any advice to another woman, I will.”

Outside the gallery, Raehse’s hobbies defy expectations as well. “When I travel, I always partake in the local cuisine, and try something I deem new or daring that is specific to place, like jumping off a mountainside, night swimming in the ocean or kissing a frog,” she says with a smile. “Yup, I’ve done that!” —C.O.

Deana Haggag The Contemporary

Deana Haggag laughs that it was an “adorably threatening” email that got her noticed by the Contemporary’s Board of Directors, the same board that abruptly closed the museum in spring 2012. That fall Haggag was a second-year graduate student in MICA’s inaugural class of the Curatorial Practice MFA program, created by Contemporary’s founder George Ciscle. And the email—sent to Karen Stults, Contemporary board member and MICA’s community engagement director—went something like this: Dude, what’s going on at the Contemporary? I’m going to be graduating soon and you need to open so you can hire me.

It took Stults a few months to write back, but when she did, she asked Haggag to conduct a semester-long independent study of every Baltimore arts organization—from their missions to operating budgets—and cross-check it against other nomadic organizations around the globe. This detailed rethink of how a building-less, collection-less, project-based museum could function led to Haggag being named the director in June, with an official re-opening slated for 2014 and a lecture series to launch this fall.

“It’s no secret it’s weird that they hired a 26-year-old to run the Contemporary,” says Haggag. But the pressure doesn’t seem to trouble her much, as she feels she has an impressive cadre of mentors in her corner.

“It’s really scary coming up as a woman when you’re in the company of people like Doreen [Bolger] and the Amys [Cavanaugh Royce and Raehse]. But they’ve been great from the get-go. I’m grateful to be able to call on these other women who have a great handle on what they’re doing—and have been doing it incredibly well in a city that doesn’t allow them very many resources to get the job done.” —B.M.

Julia Marciari-Alexander Walters Art Museum

Julia Marciari-Alexander knew the Walters Art Museum was a special place, but she discovered just how special during her hiring process earlier this year. As the mother of
9-year-old twins, she said, ideally, if she were to be offered the position, she would like to start after the school year ended. But the Walters did her one better—asking how she would feel about starting on April 1 and commuting until July, when she could comfortably move her family from San Diego to Baltimore. “For me, that signaled this was an institution that really thought about making the workplace amenable to people with families and [outside] lives they valued,” says Marciari-Alexander.

Since taking over, Marciari-Alexander has started looking at how the Walters can continue its history of presenting its vast collection from so many different periods and a variety of cultures. “The Walters was a leader in environmental museum display in the early 2000s when it reopened Centre Street,” she says. “Ten years on, I think we have a responsibility to reinvigorate and re-engage people with objects they think they know. The worst thing possible would be for someone to say, ‘Oh, the Walters—I went a couple of years ago.’” Like, what could have changed?

Marciari-Alexander believes it’s the museum’s duty to be part of the contemporary art discussion—and re-examining the perm- anent collection is integral to that effort. “When you open your iPhone, it’s all pictures,” she says. “The Walters can use our collections as a foundation for a really interesting conversation about the role of visual arts throughout history. So is the
museum irrelevant? No way. It’s more relevant now than maybe it ever was.” —B.M.

Myrtis Bedolla Galerie Myrtis

“I believe that women are born leaders. And depending on our calling in life, it is expressed in different ways,” says Myrtis Bedolla, founding director of Galerie Myrtis, housed in an elegant Charles Village brownstone since 2006. In addition to representing an impressive roster of artists of national and international acclaim, the eponymously named gallery is the only one in Baltimore to specialize in the work of contemporary African-American artists, including several local artists.

“I have taken a very unorthodox approach to this business, so if there were any obstacles before me, I unknowingly stepped right over them,” says the University of Maryland business administration graduate who has studied art in Niger, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. “I was raised by a father and grandfather who were entrepreneurs, so business ownership is in my blood. They both instilled in me courage and self-confidence from an early age.”

Bedolla sees similar qualities in her contemporaries at other museums and galleries in town—and feels inspired by their desire to serve as role models for the next generation of women leaders in the arts. “Mentors have played a critical role in my growth and development both personally and professionally,” says Bedolla, who cites Washington, D.C.’s Alvah Beander, one of the top appraisers of African and African-American art in the country, and Dr. Leslie King-Hammond, graduate dean emeritus and founding director of the Center for Race and Culture at MICA, as two of her most influential mentors.

The significant role women have played in Bedolla’s career has also become an interesting topic to examine artistically. The gallery’s recent exhibit, “Woman as Color, Light, and Form,” invited 14 artists to challenge the idea of the feminine archetype and explore “the essence of a woman, figuratively, conceptually, and metaphorically.” —C.O.

Laura Amussen Goucher College

Laura Amussen was never meant be a curator, or even an artist. “I was engaged when I was a junior in high school and married in August,” she confides. “Within a few months of my senior year, I dropped out, took my GED and started taking classes at Salt Lake Community College.” Amussen studied nursing and occupational therapy, but after her little brother was killed in a car accident in 1994, she found working with injured patients too difficult. A year later, she moved to Baltimore and began studying art at Towson University.

“I had never been to a museum or gallery and for the most part had no experience making art other than craft projects I made in church,” Amussen acknowledges. “My first few semesters at Towson were difficult. I was 26 years old, sitting next to students who were able to draw and paint effortlessly,” she says. But she kept at it—graduating with several awards under her belt and winning the highly competitive Javits and Jack Kent Cooke scholarships to attend MICA’s Rhinehart School of Sculpture on a full scholarship for her MFA degree. After teaching and exhibiting for several years, she landed the role as director of exhibitions and art collection coordinator at Goucher College.

“I was hesitant, having no experience with curating or running a gallery whatsoever,” she admits. “Fortunately [I had] loads of hands-on experience with installation and working with space, as well as fostering relationships with a variety of artists and gallerists,” says Amussen, whose knack for pairing unusual, compelling and often controversial works has made the
Silber and Rosenberg galleries among the most sought-after exhibition spaces in Baltimore. “[Seven years ago] Allyn Massey, then the chair of the Art and Art History departments, saw my potential and took a chance on me. Now I’m pretty much a one-woman show.” —C.O.

Alex Ebstein Nudashank Gallery

New York was dragging Alex Ebstein down. When the artist, curator and co-founding director of Nudashank Gallery graduated from Goucher College in 2007 she moved to Brooklyn, using her photography portfolio to land a job first at TV Guide and then at Lucky magazine—hopeful that having a job would enable her to rent a studio and work on her own art.
“But I couldn’t afford a studio. I could barely afford my Williamsburg apartment.” she says. “And I wasn’t comfortable feeling out what was going on [in the arts community] at the time. I think everyone was vying for the same opportunities and there wasn’t as much of a DIY scene. People were still feeding into a booming [art] market.”

Ebstein moved back to Baltimore that December, got an artist’s assistant job, and began realizing that while Baltimore had gallery opportunities for artists 30 and over, it had very few options for young artists at the time. “It felt really unacceptable to me that it was hard to be taken seriously outside of school,” she says.

In 2008, she met painter Seth Adelsberger, soon her boyfriend and gallery partner, and after a visit to Art Basel in Miami later that year, they returned inspired and invigorated to open a gallery for their underrepresented contemporaries.

“We wanted Baltimore to be an art scene that’s seen by other artists—that takes work from here and brings it outside, and brings work from outside here,” she says. “And we wanted to take young artists seriously so they would start to see themselves and their work seriously.” —B.M.

Jordan Faye Block Jordan Faye Contemporary

“The word ‘tenacity’ first came to describe me when Baltimore City Paper gave me an award for Best Tenacity in 2007,” says Jordan Faye Block, founder and director of Jordan Faye Contemporary. “Through the years I’ve used this word to remind [myself] how much perseverance you need in the art world, in both running a gallery and in being an artist. You always have to be working and thinking and planning your next move to succeed. You also have to have thick skin. Tenacity means bouncing back from whatever the world throws at you.”

Although she is an artist herself, Block showed an early interest in running art galleries, establishing the PIP Gallery while enrolled as a college student at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire and co-founding Gallery Imperato during grad school at MICA. In 2006, Block launched a new art space called Jordan Faye Contemporary, now located in a Mount Vernon brownstone on Park Avenue.

“I consider myself a curator first and a business person second. I am always curating shows to strengthen the work and working to grow the careers of the artists I represent,” explains Block, who says she’s not surprised so many local arts institutions are run by women.

“My mother gave my sister and I boys’ names, Jordan and Dustin, because she wanted us to have every advantage,” says Block. “But I really don’t see being a woman as a disadvantage in this business, because women naturally see connections and are good communicators.” —C.O.

Amy Cavanaugh Royce Maryland Art Place

‘Maryland Art Place executive director Amy Cavanaugh Royce never suspected she’d end up in arts administration. She grew up surrounded by the arts—her mom is a sculptor and a jeweler, her uncle is a painter, her brother is an illustrator, everyone plays an instrument—and she earned a degree in cello performance. Then in 2003 she joined an organization that wanted to use arts and culture to revitalize the Anacostia corridor in Washington, D.C. Very quickly she began writing grants, overseeing projects and co-founded and ran the Honfleur Gallery for the ARCH Development Corp.

“I consider ARCH my education,” Royce says. “Any success I had I feel I completely earned because I really put in [the] labor and had egg on my face a couple of times.

I learned a lot from the people and community we served—and I learned a lot about economic development and contemporary art.”

She calls it ideal training for her role at MAP, where she wants to help the nonprofit gallery and artists’ resource expand its reach.

“Last year when we had our fall benefit we did a [statewide] invitation. That was my first baby step to try to reach the broader artist population. I would like MAP to be identified as a hub here in Baltimore but also as an organization for the state.”

And she’d really like to help Maryland artists establish and maintain international dialogues. “My goal is to get artists to be exhibited in Europe and seen outside of the U.S.,” she says. “Those are often career-altering moments for artists if you can make it happen.” —C.O.

Photographed in the Contemporary Wing of the Baltimore Museum of Art

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