Plains Art Museum is home to 4,200 artworks in its permanent collection. Of the pieces where the artist is known, 370 are by women — or less than 10 percent of the total.
Gender inequity in art collections isn’t unique to the museum at 704 First Ave. N. in downtown Fargo. As in other systemic institutions, underrepresentation of women and other minorities in museum collections is a deep-rooted issue all over the globe despite years of activism and multiple waves of feminist art movements.
“Nationwide in major art museums, only 13% of collections are works by women,” says Netha Cloeter, director of education and social engagement at Plains Art Museum. “The biggest (demographic represented) by a landslide is white men.”
To celebrate women artists while raising awareness of gender disparities in its collection, Plains Art Museum recently opened “Generation,” an exhibit featuring artwork by women the museum has acquired since it opened as the Red River Art Center in 1965. The museum is deliberately calling attention to the issue “to be transparent and self-reflective so we can be more intentional in the future about what we acquire,” Cloeter says.
Cloeter and her colleague Tasha Kubesh, associate curator of collections and exhibitions, curated “Generation” chronologically from the north door of the first-floor gallery. The exhibit features nearly 50 pieces that weave sociopolitical movements and regional trends throughout the museum’s collecting history.
A sculpture by Fargo artist Catherine Mulligan called “Generation” inspired the title of the overall exhibition, but Cloeter says the title also encapsulates themes of creation, rebirth, growth and expansion.
“Diversity of media was important to us,” she says. “We chose to start with 1965, as that was the dawn of the feminist art movement in second-wave feminism. We have some works earlier than that, but we are a mostly contemporary collection.”
With 4,200 pieces in its permanent collection, Plains Art Museum is always thinking up new ways to share the works with the public.
The idea for “Generation” arose organically through internal conversations about gender equity, but came to fruition with assistance from Minnesota State University Moorhead art history professor Anna Arnar and her students. Arnar approached the Plains with an idea to bring in one of her curatorial project seminars to work on the collection and focus on works by women, Cloeter says.
“They did an extensive deep dive into works by women in our collection and put together a catalog called ‘Out of Storage,’” she says. “But they were also looking at larger themes, like how many women are in the collection, when the acquisitions were coming in and why certain works by women were acquired.”
Through their research, Arnar and her students found that many works by women in the collection were acquired through Hannaher’s Print Studio, which was added to the top floor of the museum in 1999. Although an equal number of men and women use the space, this explains why so many prints are in the exhibition, Kubesh says.
“We have seen an increase of works by women in our collection since the turn of the century,” she says. “You will see those results here.”
Other works were collected through donations and gifts from businesses.
“One of our big goals was (showcasing) work from our collection that hadn’t been displayed in a while,” she says. “Some artists that were on view recently are not in this exhibition, but it’s not because they aren’t part of this narrative.”
Although less than 10 percent of the Plains collection is by women, Cloeter and Kubesh acknowledged the number is likely off because roughly 800 pieces in the collection are “artist unknown.” Many of those pieces are of Native American or African descent, Cloeter says.
“(Marking pieces as ‘unknown’) had to do with colonialism; it had to do with bias when museums were getting built and what work deserved authorship and what was just ‘cultural object,’” she adds. “That’s a whole separate conversation.”
Even of the works that are known, a small number in the collection are by people of color, and some may have genders listed that are different than how artists actually identified.
But in recent years, Plains Art Museum pledged to encourage and accelerate intersectionality in its exhibitions and programming, Cloeter says. “Generation” is only one example of action, but there is more to come.
“We don’t have as many works by women artists as men, and that means something,” she says. “Our critical self-reflection is a model for us to think about this in other arenas. Where is there a gender imbalance on a local or national level? What can we do to move forward?”
Kubesh agrees. “It’s been an empowering exhibit to work on,” Kubesh says. “I hope that’s what it does for our community.”
What: Curator’s talk for “Generation”
When: 6-7 p.m. Thursday, June 13; exhibit runs through March 2020
Where: Plains Art Museum, 704 First Ave. N., Fargo
Cost: Free and open to the public
This article is part of a content partnership with the Fargo Forum and originally appeared in print on Monday, June 10, 2019.