Touchstones Rochdale is about to open a new exhibition of work by female artists collected by the Italian art patron Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo. Featuring works by artists such as Nan Goldin, Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman and Gillian Wearing, Herstory: Women Artists from the Collection of Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo marks the latest chapter in the gallery's tradition of supporting radical feminist artists.
Museums Journal spoke to the exhibition's curator Mark Doyle, the art gallery curator and collections manager at Rochdale Arts and Heritage Service, about the show and how other museums and galleries can face up to gender imbalance in their collections.
Detail from An Ouled Nail Woman after Maynard Owen Williams, Paulina Olowska, 2016. Courtesy Collezione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo
How did the idea for the exhibition come about?
I started working at Touchstones Rochdale in January 2016. When I joined, work was already underway on an exhibition drawn from the permanent collection designed to illustrate the gallery’s proud legacy of supporting women artists throughout its history, in particular during the 1980s and early 1990s. In just over a decade, and under the stewardship and influence of writers, curators and artists like Jill Morgan and Sarah Edge, the gallery became nationally recognised as a centre for radical feminist and issue-based practice by marginalised artists.
This period inspired me to make “women artists” one of the key strands in our exhibitions and acquisitions strategy. Since then we’ve embarked on a programme of exhibitions showcasing a new generation of female artistic talent, with the support of funders such as Arts Council England, and Herstory is an integral part of this ongoing programme.
I first met Patrizia in 2015. Having amassed nearly 1,500 artworks by many of the major names in international contemporary art, supporting women artists remains one her overriding concerns. When I started putting the programme together for Touchstones it made complete sense to approach Patrizia about the possibility of curating a show drawn from her collection and focusing on women artists, some of whom were part of the programme in Rochdale in the 1980s.
What impact do you hope it will have on visitors?
We believe the show will have a deep impact on all our visitors, but our big hope is that it proves an inspiration to local women. With the support of Art Fund we’ve already engaged with a number of local groups of women and young people to generate creative responses to some of the issues raised by works in the exhibition. For example, members of the LGBTQ+ society at Rochdale Sixth Form College worked with the artist Bryan Beresford to produce a “zine” in response to the confessional films by American artist Sadie Benning about the difficulty of growing up as a lesbian in 1980s America.
The exhibition sets out to explore themes such as gender inequality, objectification, challenges to patriarchal norms and radical feminism. How does it achieve this?
It’s there in the works – from Barbara Kruger’s bold challenge to the sexist way in which women have been portrayed through the mass media and popular culture, to Rosemarie Trockel’s elevation of the status of art practices such as knitting that have traditionally been judged of secondary importance and relegated to the “female realm”.
We are showing more than 30 works from Patrizia’s collection by some of the leading women artists of the last 40 years, artists who have radically altered the face of contemporary art both formally and conceptually. The works are loosely arranged into some of the central themes – for example, sexual identity, the female body and gender stereotyping – but they are all multi-faceted and could have been positioned in any number of configurations as they can be read in lots of different ways.
What artefacts have you chosen from the gallery’s social history collection and how do they interact with the artworks on display?
We’ve selected a range of artworks, objects and archival photographs from across our rich art, museum and local history collections. The show opens with an essay held in our museum collection written in 1920 by a Rochdale schoolgirl called Lillian Coupe. A story of hope, ambition and ultimately unfulfilled potential, it represents a powerful touchstone for the rest of the exhibition.
In most instances, works from our own collections have been displayed close to those in Patrizia’s collection with which they have greatest resonance. For example, we’ve placed a late Victorian obstetrician’s couch directly beneath a large painting by Margherita Manzelli, Le possibilità sono infinite (1996), in which a skeletal woman lies on a surface resembling a morgue or examination table. Together they speak powerfully about the anxieties, vulnerabilities and tragedies that have impinged on women’s lives throughout history.
The painting Switcher (2013) by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye hangs alongside a photograph from our collection, Clio (1989), by Maud Sulter, both of which challenge the white male domination of the tradition of portraiture in European art.
Did the wider context of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements inform the exhibition in any way?
No, not directly. The conversations with Patrizia and planning for the show started before both movements gathered momentum. However, they and other such calls for action around the world certainly add contemporary relevance to issues raised by the artists in Herstory.
For example, it’s interesting to observe that a number of the pithy slogans used by Barbara Kruger in her work have subsequently been co-opted in many of the recent protests for gender equality. While women now enjoy greater opportunity and parity than they did at the start of the Feminist movement in the 1960s, sadly there is still a long way to go.
Female artists continue to be sorely underrepresented in the UK’s museums and galleries. What do you think needs to be done to remedy this?
It’s shameful that this should continue to be the case, and Touchstones isn’t exempt. Despite our history of championing women artists, we estimate that only 7% of the works in our fine art collection are by women. This simply can’t be a reflection of the number of practicing female artists.
However, we’re determined to make a change – as I mentioned earlier, it’s now formally part of our exhibitions and acquisitions strategy. In recognition of this, we were awarded a New Collecting Award from the Art Fund in 2017 to help build on our collection of work by female artists.
We’re not unique, there are other museums and galleries who are now facing up to the gender imbalance that exists in their collections. There’s no easy answer to centuries of prejudice and it’s not going to change overnight, but acknowledgement is half the battle and you have to start somewhere. As a strong, visionary woman in an art world dominated by men, Patrizia is still a rarity, but I don’t see why others in the public sector can’t follow her lead.
Herstory: Women Artists from the Collection of Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo is at Touchstones Rochdale from 28 July to 29 September