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Marking Time

Catalogue essay for Thrive

On a Wednesday morning during the summer of 2007, as DiverseWorks was preparing to kick-off the organization’s 25th anniversary season, I got a call from artist Toby Topek that profoundly influenced my thinking about the nature of the business I’m in. Our conversation centered on opportunities ― or more accurately ― lack of opportunities for artists later in their careers in terms of exhibitions, professional development, or sustained engagement with the creative community outside the studio. As we talked, Toby told me stories about DiverseWorks’s early years and how involved she was during those days but confessed that as she grew older she increasingly felt distanced from the organization that had once been such a large part of her creative life. The art world, she reminded me, was predisposed to rush established artists (particularly women artists) off the stage replacing them with younger, fresher, emerging new personalities and never looking back.

As curator for an organization that has been around for two-and-a-half decades, I can attest to the value of watching the evolution of an artist’s work over time. In fact, DiverseWorks has developed programs like DiverseDialogues with this specific goal in mind. DiverseDialogues creates a mechanism in which artists engage with Houston audiences repeatedly over multiple years and through consecutive artist-initiated projects, thus allowing artist and audience to get to know one another as the creative process unfolds. Knowing what I know about the richness of that type of interaction, an exhibition like Thrive—characterized by curator MaryRoss Taylor as “both a celebration and multi-faceted investigation of time”—seemed to be a natural fit for DiverseWorks. Not only would the show provide us and our audiences with a chance to engage in a dialogue with artists about the nature of time and how it relates to the creative process, but it would also assemble a cross-generational line-up of high-caliber artists, many of whom have shown at DiverseWorks in the past, for an exhibition that marked a significant milestone for women in Houston and beyond: the thirtieth anniversary of the National Women’s Conference.

Early ideas for the exhibition developed out of conversations with artist Lynn Randolph, author and scholar Elizabeth Gregory, curator MaryRoss Taylor, and former Co-Director of DiverseWorks Caroline Huber, all of whom had first-hand knowledge of the significance of the National Women’s Conference and the societal shift sparked by feminist artists working in the decade prior to the conference. In an article published in Newsweek in 2007, journalist Anna Quindlen characterized the gathering as “the human equivalent of a four-day fireworks display.” IN fact, the impact of the 1977 event and the creative and cultural forces it unleashed became the basis for a slew of exhibitions, articles, symposia, and panel discussions that popped up around the country in 2007. It seemed only fitting that Houston, ground zero for this historic moment, would mark it as well.

The resulting exhibition at DiverseWorks and the accompanying symposium organized by the Women’s Studies Program at the University of Houston were both notable for the dialogue they engendered. Discussions during studio visits with the artists in the months leading up to the show reinforced the fact that assumptions about the impact of societal baggage as it relates the female self-image, motivations, challenges, and life trajectory simply don’t apply in the studio. Not surprisingly too, the younger generation of women artists often eschews any association with the ideas and themes that formed the basis for early feminist work. I recall a conversation with MaryRoss in the gallery during the installation of the show in which we debated the mere mention of the word “feminist” in the exhibition gallery guide. It’s a strange paradox. The feminist movement in many ways laid the groundwork for the defiant rejection of a one-size-fits-all notion of female experience but in doing so invited women to reject it as well.

Clearly, much has changed for women since 1977. We are living longer, balancing career and family in greater numbers (or rejecting one or the other outright with no apologies) and reshaping tired social constructs and political and professional power structures. And regardless of whether today’s emerging generation of artists fully embraces the ideology ascribed to the feminist artists and activist of decades past, the mark left by feminist revolutionaries on our current cultural framework endures. Because of them, subsequent generations are free to move in other directions, tackling different issues and setting new priorities. The artists in Thrive, many of whom had a hand in shaping this new paradigm, emphatically illustrate this point with the work that they do. These artists aren’t exiting the stage anytime soon and the world to well to sit up and take notice.

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