21c is a rarity. It is North America’s only public multi-venue museum that’s open 24/7, free of charge. Some may know it as a museum (holding over 3,000 works in its private collection), while others may know it as a hotel. Founded in 2006 by Steve Wilson and Laura Lee Brown, the museum-meets-hotel is dedicated to collecting and exhibiting 21st century art, with its commitment to accessibility extending far beyond its open doors. They’re showing what’s new and what’s next—and there is no demarcation between art and hospitality. Breaking the traditional museum model, 21c shares new ideas and adds something special to them.
21c has seven (soon to be eight with Kansas City) locations in Bentonville, Arkansas; Cincinnati, Ohio; Durham, North Carolina; Lexington, Kentucky; Louisville, Kentucky; Nashville, Tennessee; and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Whitewall spoke with chief curator and museum director Alice Gray Stites about creating untraditional programming, and the recent exhibition “The Future is Female” in Cincinnati.
WHITEWALL: At 21c Cincinnati, you curated “The Future is Female,” which is open through September 2018. It appeared last year in a smaller format at 21c Louisville. What did you want this exhibition to say?
ALICE GRAY STITES: Investigating identity, consumer culture, ecology, history, mythology, and power, the intent of “The Future is Female” is to illuminate the legacy of feminist art of the 1970s, the persistence of the struggle for equality, and the potential for more intersectional definitions of gender and race in a more inclusive future.
Artists like Judy Chicago, Mira Schor, Martha Rosler, Adrian Piper, Howardena Pindell, Faith Wilding and others merged art and activism, elevating everyday materials, methods, and experiences to challenge cultural and social norms. Their influence has profoundly shaped subsequent generations of artists whose works address identity politics. The artwork included in “The Future is Female” reflects this legacy in materials and subject matter, and introduces new challenges to the representation of gender roles, and to the complex, seminal intersections between the personal and the political.
WW: There are 60 works by 43 artists. When selecting the art, where did you start?
AGS: Selecting the works was inspiring and empowering! As for many of the exhibitions at 21c, creating the checklist for “The Future is Female” began with the 21c collection. The diversity of the collection, and its emphasis on identity, politics, and the environment allowed for a wide range of choices for exploring the topic. 21c co-founders Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson have been collecting art that reflects the diversity of the human experience for two decades; feminist art is plentiful in the 21c collection.
In the intervening year before opening at 21c Cincinnati, we were able to acquire more feminist art that expanded upon the exhibition’s themes. Important new works by Valérie Belin, Zoë Buckman, Frances Goodman, Zanele Muholi, Vee Spears, and Saya Woolfalk will be on view for the first time here. Are more artists making feminist art because of the current socio-political climate? Undoubtedly so, though feminist artists have long lent a powerful voice to the cause for not only gender equality, but equity in many forms.
WW: How does the show subvert, challenge, or reshape what it means to be a female in today’s society?
AGS: After initially focusing on key works—Monica Cook’s Phosphene, Alison Saar’s Hades D.W.P., Frances Goodman’s Medusa, Zoë Buckman’s Champ, Viba Galhotra’s Manthan, others were selected that relate to, reflect, and extend the range of media and subject matter, revealing multi-layered connections between the artworks.
Buckman’s Champ is a direct response to the recent political attacks on Planned Parenthood and attempts to curtail women’s reproductive rights. Embellished with materials from bridal gowns and veils, Buckman’s sculptures challenge the treatment of women and the representation of the feminine as a series of binary paradoxes. [Her] combination of traditionally feminine materials with boxing gloves is both an assertion of feminist power and an invitation to join the fight.
Employing meticulous practices that simultaneously interrogate obsession and honor labor, Frances Goodman exposes the intersection of gender politics and consumer culture under late-capitalist, patriarchal conditions.
Carrie Mae Weems, Jenny Holzer, Lalla Essaydi, and Michele Pred use language to interrogate power through self-expression, creating new narratives for cultural and political resistance. Holzer’s poems about her fears as a parent become the collective concern of all who “fear those in power,” while Essaydi’s women sit in a room where every surface—walls, floor, clothing, and bodies—are covered with Islamic script, emphasizing their traditionally “decorative role” and subverting the silence of confinement. Pred’s hot pink hand mirrors combine the symbol for the female gender with captions that render the viewer “Feminist,” “Equal,” or “Powerful,” offering a passive yet potent transformation of the audience-subject’s self-image. Weems’s inclusion of her own image in her meditation on the parallels between Native and African American history renders her “sorrow song” both personal and universal.
Self-portraiture allows Zanele Muholi to explore multiple elements of her personality as a black, lesbian woman, while undoing the psychological damage of growing up in a society that devalued her appearance and identity.
WW: As a woman, and one in the art world, what is one thing that individuals can do to be more inclusive, understanding, and open—regardless of gender?
AGS: Be curious! That is a mantra at 21c, and actually a serious one. Being curious about art that challenges our understanding, that is created or presented in unexpected spaces by artists known and unknown, broadens and deepens our connections to ideas, to imagination, and most importantly, to each other. At 21c, we believe that visionary artists create change, but that change will come about largely through embracing and practicing empathy, which begins with curiosity. After artist Mark Tribe recently visited 21c Cincinnati for a public discussion with artist and author Sharon Louden, he observed that we were practicing “inclusive curating”—collecting and exhibiting artworks that are diverse in media and origin, as well as in how well known the artists are. We will continue to strive to present engaging, articulate, relevant exhibitions and programming that rise to this standard of inclusive curating as means of contributing to the growth of a global culture of inclusion. And we will keep sharing the visions and voices of those who now need to be seen and heard to shape a progressive future.