Art patrons James and Martha Sweeny can’t correct all the gender inequality in the art world, but locally they’ve found a way to pack a historic punch.
A new exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, “Marks Made: Prints by American Women Artists from the 1960s to the Present,” features more than 90 works, the majority of them purchased by the couple for the museum or with money the couple gave to the museum to acquire them.
“Five or six of the prints have been in our house,” said James Sweeny, 71, of St. Petersburg.
The exhibit opened last week and runs through Jan 24. The artists represented include Elaine de Kooning, whose work is on view at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.; Lee Krasner, who has received a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York; Louise Bourgeois, Louisa Chase, Ellen Gallagher, Deborah Kass, Sherrie Levine, Julie Mehretu, Joan Mitchell, Howardena Pindell, Kara Walker and Guerrilla Girls, feminist activists who in the 1980s protested the treatment of women by the established art world. They’re known for wearing gorilla masks in their public appearances and adopting the pseudonyms of late influential female artists to maintain anonymity. (One of their founders, who goes by Käthe Kollwitz, named after the German Expressionist artist, spoke at the museum on Oct. 18.)
Although female nudes and figures are popular artistic subjects, women artists on the whole have not received wide recognition, said James Sweeny, whose wife is an amateur artist. He said that one college textbook of the 1970s and 1980s listed more than 2,000 male artists by name but no women, not even those as well-known as Georgia O’Keefe and Mary Cassatt.
The couple have collected prints for about 30 years and in 2002 returned to St. Petersburg, where James Sweeny grew up. They have a good relationship with the Museum of Fine Arts, where they donated their collection of folk art in 2007. When they broached the idea of helping the museum acquire more works by women, Katherine Pill, the museum’s assistant curator of art after 1950, was glad to collaborate.
“I strongly felt that we couldn’t present a women-only exhibition without giving context to gender inequality within the art historical canon and, to an extent, the art world at large,” Pill said.
Learn more about the exhibit, and how women have been at the forefront of the modern print movement, in my Tampa Tribune story here.