At the emergence of colleges devoted to the study of art, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts distinguished itself in many ways. Perhaps one of the most influential in the history of art institutions, PAFA was the first to admit women students before both American and European institutions, revolutionizing the art world forever. Today, over two hundred years later, many noteworthy artists proudly call PAFA their alma mater, and many of which are women.
Like PAFA, Linda Lee Alter understands the importance of women in the art world. Beginning in the 1980s, Linda built a collection of art by not only women in general, but women of many different races, including African American, Asian American, Mexican American, Native American, Indian American, Pakistani American, Canadian and European. Her goal, she has said, “was to create a significant collection of art by women with a distinct character and a diversity museums would want.” With their history of praising women artists, PAFA is the ideal museum for collection.
In 2010, Linda generously donated her collection of nearly five hundred pieces of art to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Currently on display is The Female Gaze, which features over two hundred works of art, including: ceramics, needlepoint, quilting, photographs, paintings, sculptures, drawings and printmaking. The artists that comprise the collection are some of the most talented female artists of the past few decades.
Spread across two floors, The Female Gaze covers several themes: selfhood, community, self-portraiture, politics, nature, and ecology. Heike Rass, Vice President of Marketing and Communications at PAFA, feels that the exhibition has inspired more forward-thinking, in not only the art world, but in how women view themselves and how they are viewed by society. “There has to be a moment where [gender] will not be driving the piece, and where [gender] will not be a way to identify somebody,” Heike says.
Upon my visit to the exhibition, Heike suggested questions for me to keep in mind while perusing the rooms of art. “Do you feel that there… are many different entry points to whatever it is that makes you female? How do we define ourselves now? Is it our job? Is it celebrities? What do we think success is about, as a human being, as a person in society?” While examining the myriad pieces, I found myself wondering about the inspiration behind each piece. Asking myself Heike’s questions, many of the pieces seemed so real and relatable. This is not to say, however, that men cannot enjoy the exhibition. “We have some male faculty members who say, ‘wow I wish I could be female so I could be in there,’” Heike laughs as she tells me.
“The Female Gaze” is on display until April 7th, when it will then go on tour throughout the United States. The collection’s home will remain at PAFA, as many of the pieces have now been integrated into the galleries at the museum. With this integration, Linda Lee Alter’s vision is honored; women are undoubtedly finding their respected place among the world’s most talented male artists.
Alyssa Shaw is a first year English Major at Drexel University.
Images courtesy of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts
Untitled portrait by Joan Brown
We Came to America by Faith Ringgold