Smithsonian acquires archive of Women & Their Work

Material documenting more than 40 years of the Austin arts organization will join the Archives of American Art


In 1985, Women & Their Work, then a nascent arts organization in a much smaller Austin, presented a performance called “Tasting the Blaze.”

Staged at the long-gone Austin Opera House, it was a collaboration of now-foundational post-modern women artists —  choreographer Deborah Hay, composer Pauline Oliveros and visual artist Tina Girouard. “Tasting the Blaze” was a monumental three-hour show consisting of 12 dances choreographed by Hay performed to a score by Oliveros, and with sets, costumes and environmental effects, including a grand asymmetric, free-form pavilion designed by Girouard. A total of 60 dancers and musicians performed.

Women and Their Work Tasting the Blaze
A performance still of “Tasting the Blaze,” a 1985 performance by Deborah Hay, Pauline Oliveros and Tina Giroud. Image courtesy Women & Their Work.

Before the premiere on April 29, 1985, posters went up around Austin advertising the show with a phone number to call for tickets.

“Unfortunately the phone number was misprinted and the unsuspecting person who answered her phone was absolutely deluged with calls,” says Chris Cowden, the current executive director of Women & Their Work. “She threatened to sue for harassment. It was a mess all around.”

Now that poster along with more than 80 boxes of material representing more than 40 years of Women & Their Work’s organizational operations have been acquired by the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art.

“Women & Their Work has fostered feminist art and art by women from across the nation since the 1970s, and the archives is thrilled to be the home of these records documenting its foundational decades,” said Josh T. Franco of the Archives of American Art.

“The Women & Their Work records join those of many of their notable peers, institutions generated by dedicated grass-roots arts communities whose decades of work resulted in significant national impact. These include the records of Art in General, the Woman’s Building, Gallista Gallery, Modern Multiples, Artists Talk On Art, Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, Washington Project for the Arts, and many more.”

Correspondence with artists, slides and work samples, press clippings, exhibition brochures and videos of performances are among the materials that will now reside in the archives, the world’s largest repository of primary source material on the history of the visual arts in the United States.

With a history that dates to 1978, Women & Their Work played host to now widely-recognized artists, performers, poets, and scholars among them Coco Fusco, Bettye Saar, Howardena Pindell, Lucy Lippard, Marcia Tucker, Liz Lerman, the Guerrilla Girls, Urban Bush Women, Maxine Kumin, Muriel Rukeyser and Bebe Miller.

There’s an early 1980s letter to Georgia O’Keeffe inviting her to give a talk. (She declined). And there’s the letter from 1981 acknowledging that Women & Their Work is the first in Texas to receive a visual arts grant from the National Endowment of the Arts. Records pertaining to scores of regionally recognized artists are also in the archive.

Marcia Tucker
In 1979 Marcia Tucker, founding director of the New Museum, curated “Women in Sight: New Art in Texas,”  the first statewide juried exhibition of women artists ever held in Texas. Photo courtesy Women & Their Work

Recently Women & Their Work moved into a new, permanent home on East Cesar Chavez Street. And while that meant moving all the organization’s records, it also gave staff the chance to pour through four decades of history.

Related: “Women & Their Work Buys a Building of its Own”

Gallery director Rachel Stuckey said that she enjoyed seeing the transition from analog correspondence to email unfold.

“It’s particularly endearing seeing printed out Yahoo emails with handwritten or typewritten replies that were then taken back to the computer to be typed in,” Stuckey said. “Email subject lines tended to be funny, exuberant, or emotional in ways that might seem gauche by today’s standards, but give a wonderful impression of the highs and lows of being an artist reckoning with online space and new ways of communicating.”

On the organization’s website, Stuckey has helped flesh out entries dating back to 1977, the earliest days of Women & Their Work, when it was a one-room office above the Revco drugstore on Guadalupe Street across the street from the University of Texas.

Stuckey said: “When time machines are invented, I’ll be traveling back in Women & Their Work history to see “Radiation Risk Reception Area” (1982), “Intimate Lives: Work by Ten Contemporary Latina Artists” (1993), Anitra Blayton’s “Journal” (1995), the Tré Arenz retrospective “One of Us” (2004), catch Ellen Fullman’s concerts on the “Long Stringed Instrument”(1986), and any of Heloise Gold’s incredible looking performances, but especially “In Mary’s House” (1985) and “Further Adventures in the Palace: An Operetta” (1987).”

The Smithsonian has only acquired materials dated prior to Women & Their Work’s recent move to its new building. Transfer of newer archives is currently underway.

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
An award-winning arts journalist, Jeanne Claire van Ryzin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Sightlines.

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