My piece on diffusion in the feminist art movement will be out soon in the special issue I edited “Beyond NY/LA” for Frontiers,  but prompted by recent correspondence from the awesome Ariel Dougherty

I was reminded of this “outake” that didn’t quite fit in the article.  Kara Kelley Hallmark wrote a wonderful dissertation on WSW and Kathleen Walkup curated an amazing exhibit of work produced there. (video link).

In 1974, Barbara Leoff Burge, Ann Kalmbach, Tatana Kellner and Anita Wetzel opened the Women’s Studio Workshop in upstate New York.  It began, as so many groups did, with women artists who held meeting. Barbara Burge was out of school and married to an art professor, but continuing to work as an artist.  Two of the founders of WSW, Kalmbach and Wetzel

 “ran a grass roots coffee house where students and radicals came to drink coffee and wine and discuss things like politics, philosophy, literature, and art.(81)” 

Kalmach met Kellner in graduate school.  Wetzel, who “was aware of what was going on [in the women’s movement’ and even “attended a few meetings” (82) recalled discrimination in art school “I felt like we weren’t taken seriously. It was a battle the whole time” (82-83) She also recalled a talented woman art professor who was going to be fired (83-84). Still, Wetzel felt that she “did not really fit in” (82). Similarly, Kellner, who also recollected discrimination as a female art student, believed “artists might be used for the agenda of the movement but that’s it. I just felt like I didn’t fit in feminism. We weren’t the main part of the movement.” (159-160). Only Bruge described herself as a feminist (92).  As Kara Kelley Hallmark explains

“Although all four of the founding artists of the WSW said that they were not active participants in the larger women’s movement, they all experienced challenges as women art students and then as women artists and educators. Their combined experiences with discrimination motivated their efforts that led to the establishment of the WSW.” (80)

Unlike the cooperative galleries that spread through the women’s movement, WSW was not directly modeled on any existing program. Wetzel recalled that she learned about grants and

“ wanted to do something for Barbara my mentor and for Ann my dear buddy … we had been drawing and making art together and going to arts activities together, so there was that kernel of a thought.” (84) 

She proposed “to create a communal living situation … self contained where stuff was made by hand with a craft quality and an aesthetic quality.” 84-85.  She received a call from the funding agency that they wanted to send reviewers up to speak to her.

they told us that we had to come up with something that was more concrete. So after the men left, we got together and talked about what we were going to do. Fortunately, Ann and Tana were getting concrete learning in printmaking and we made a statement about how it’s difficult for women artists to find space and money to make art and they gave us the money. 85

Situated in a similar position to women who were already participants in the feminist art movement, the founders of the WSW ended up with a similar analysis of the problem of discrimination, but opted for a different solution. Rather than picketing, demonstrating or protesting sexism in the art world, they offered skills to women artists, “access to materials, space, and opportunities to learn.”(94) The  WSW quickly became known to the larger movement of feminist artists. For example, they are included, in the New Women’s Survival Sourcebook, a sort of national yellow pages for the women’s movement, as well as many guides to women in the arts. While the WSW provides training in a variety of mediums, they are best know for the printing arts. Acoording to their current website explains,

“ today WSW is the largest publisher of hand printed artists’ books in the country.”

 In addition to training, the WSW provided residential fellowships for women artists in the United States and has served as a central site for printing arts. Looking at the list of recipients is like reading a rooster of luminaries in the feminist art world. Almost two hundred artists have worked there. Susan E King, who has been called “mother of artists books,” (art and issues) recalls that Sue Maberry at the Woman’s Building told her she had to make contact with WSW and she traveled there in 1983 as their first grant funded out of state artist (King video interview). Subsequently, the work of WSW appeared at the Woman’s Building.

Hallmark describes the WSW as a site of “quiet feminism” and notes that all four founders “agreed that indeed the WSW is an agent for social change and that in contemporary terms they are feminists.” 107 A current WSW staff member noted that “anytime that you do something that is based on your gender, in and of itself is political. We are providing something to help balance the opportunity for women. It is what it is, even if you don’t picket or lobby” (177). She points, for example, to the window shades at the WSW that are screened with statistics about “women and society” (111).