A focus on the accomplishes of women in the arts with historian and curator, Avis Berman
THE NEW HALL COLLEGE FOR WOMEN STUDENTS AT CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY WAS FOUNDED IN 1954 BY ROSEMARY MURRAY, EDUCATOR, PIONEERING CHEMIST AND FIRST PRESIDENT OF THE COLLEGE. IN 2004, SHORTLY AFTER HER DEATH, NEW HALL WAS RENAMED MURRAY EDWARDS COLLEGE IN HER HONOR AND HOUSES THE LARGE COLLECTION OF CONTEMPORARY ART BY WOMEN ARTISTS IN EUROPE.
THE LRFA BLOG IS DELIGHTED TO WELCOME AVIS BERMAN TODAY TO SHARE IN HER DISCOVERY OF THIS COLLECTION AND TO LEARN ABOUT ANOTHER OF HER CONTRIBUTIONS ON OUTSTANDING WOMEN IN THE ARTS, HER STUDY OF JULIANA FORCE, GERTRUDE VANDERBILT WHITNEY AND THE FORMATION OF THE WHITNEY MUSEUM.
AVIS, THANK YOU FOR OUR CONTINUED CONVERSATION.
DO YOU PROPOSE THE SUBJECTS YOU WISH TO WRITE ABOUT TO PUBLICATIONS THAT YOU FEEL ARE APPROPRIATE? I KNOW THERE ARE LITERARY AGENTS FOR BOOKS BUT ARE THERE REPRESENTATIVES FOR SHORTER CONTRIBUTIONS SUCH AS ARTICLES?
As a rule, there are no agents for articles about art and art history – there’s not enough money involved for the labor to be worth their while. I have often proposed subjects to magazines and just as frequently an editor has come to me with an idea.
I ASSUME WITH YOUR PROFESSIONAL HISTORY AS AN ART HISTORIAN, CRITIC AND WRITER, YOU RECEIVE MANY REQUESTS TO WRITE ON A SPECIFIC TOPIC? WHAT WERE SOME OF THE MOST GRATIFYING SUBJECTS, AND WHY?
The most gratifying subjects are either those that bring someone or something valuable to light that has been forgotten or overlooked or those for which I find that I have a genuinely new idea about. The latter being the most elusive not merely to possess, but to articulate in a sustained manner beyond the original aha! perception. The initial concept that seems so brilliant in your head is always subject to banal execution on the page.
One was “Through the Eyes of Women,” an article that ran last fall in Antiques Magazine about a large collection of contemporary women’s art at Murray Edwards College at Cambridge University; In discovering the existence of the art collection in Cambridge, I had the delight of exposing my own provincialism – here was a whole slew of artists of whom I knew little, and writing the article helped me conduct my education about them in public.
FROM AVIS BERMAN’S ARTICLE IN ANTIQUES ON AN ECLECTIC INTERNATIONAL COLLECTION OF ART BY WOMEN. NEW TO ME!
Art pilgrims intent on making Cambridge, England, their destination should extend their journey beyond the university’s majestic Fitzwilliam Museum and its old masters and Kettle’s Yard, the fey modernist cenacle of British art between the wars, to include the New Hall Art Collection at Murray Edwards College, one of three exclusively women’s colleges at the University of Cambridge. Unknown to many Cambridge students and faculty, and a substantial number of British art historians and critics, the college has collected and exhibits more than four hundred works of art by women. It is the most significant collection of its kind in Europe, and the second largest public collection of women’s art in existence, surpassed only by the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., which houses some forty-five hundred objects.
One of the most laudable aspects of this unsung treasure is the message its installation sends: art is for everyone. Paintings, sculptures, drawings, and prints are not sequestered in gallery spaces. Instead, they are installed everywhere within the college, from the dining room to the corridors and the lecture halls. Their presence underscores the notion of intellectual freedom in a community of women living and working together, one in which individual expression is an everyday occurrence that permeates their lives.
Thus the collection is not so much a hidden gem as a multiplicity of riches hiding in plain sight.
In 1990, YOU AUTHORED AN OUTSTANDING BOOK ENTITLED “REBELS ON EIGHTH STREET: JULIANA FORCE AND THE WHITNEY MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART”. THIS WAS THE FIRST AND ONLY BOOK ON THE HISTORY OF THE WHITNEY MUSEUM. HOW DID YOU ACCCOUNT FOR THAT AND WHAT PROMPTED THE PUBLICATION AT THE TIME THAT YOU WROTE IT?
I wrote a brief and early article on Juliana Force in the mid-1970s for the AAM journal Museum News, and thought no more about it. Then a couple of years later, one of her nephews, whom I had not known about, saw the article and got in touch with me. He liked what I had written and persuaded me that there was a book about his aunt if I cared to tackle it. He couldn’t help me financially, but he would turn over the family papers and introduce me to people he knew, and I in my innocence said yes. And then my real life began.
That there had not been a book before was the ultimate challenge – at the time, if something in 20th-century American, particularly in American modernism, hadn’t been done by the Museum of Modern Art or by Stieglitz, it didn’t exist. I wanted to change that perception.
WHAT IS THE RESEARCH PROCESS THAT WAS NECESSARY TO WRITE A BOOK ON A SUBJECT OF SUCH SIGNIFICANCE THAT HAD BEEN PREVIOUSLY IGNORED?
I spent 10-12 years on that book, because I had to cover so much. Not just Juliana Force, the first director of the Whitney Museum, but Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, the woman who hired her and made her possible. And then I had to judge the quality of their achievement, so I had to steep myself in all the artists and exhibitions of the Whitney-Force enterprises between 1908 and 1948. So it was a tremendous educational grounding in the art and culture of the New York art world between the wars. I had to read the books, the articles, the memoirs, the exhibition checklists, not to mention the 120 people I interviewed.
I also made a vow not to write around anything. If I didn’t know something, I didn’t skip it. I made myself sit there, figure it out, and cast it into prose.
THE NEW WHITNEY MUSEUM, DESIGNED BY ARCHITECT RENZO PIANO, SITUATED BETWEEN THE HIGH LINE AND THE HUDSON RIVER, IS A DAZZLING BUILDING. IT INCORPORATES 13,000 SQUARE FEET OF OUTDOOR EXHIBITION SPACE AND TERRACES, ALLOWS THE MUSEUM TO EXHIBIT A GREAT DEAL MORE OF ITS OUTSTANDING PERMANENT COLLECTION AND PROVIDES CURATORIAL FREEDOM TO PRESENT A MUCH BROADER RANGE OF EXHIBITIONS, PERFORMANCES AND THEATER. MOST OF ALL, FROM MY PERSPECTIVE, THE EXTRAORDINARY ARCHITECTURAL DESIGN RESPONDS EXQUISITELY TO THE CHARACTER OF THE NEIGHBORHOOD AND THE MULTI-DIRECTIONAL VIEWS OF THE GREAT CITY OF NEW YORK.
THE NEXT LRFA BLOG WITH AVIS BERMAN WILL FOCUS ON THE WHITNEY, ITS FORMATION AND UNIQUE HISTORY. THE LRFA BLOG WELCOMES ALL COMMENTS AND QUESTIONS AND URGES YOU TO TAKE ADVANTAGE OF AVIS’ PRESENCE AND DEPTH OF KNOWLEDGE.
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