Reflecting on women in the visual arts in 1972 vs. today

Posted by: Annette Polan

I stumbled into the Corcoran Conference on Women and the Visual Arts in 1972 totally by chance. As a young graduate student in fine arts with an undergraduate degree in art history, I had very little real world experience. I knew no one and was unaware of what was going on in the art world or how it affected me.

The Corcoran auditorium was standing room only – full of women artists and art professionals from around the country. Fed up with the status quo of the male-dominated art world, a small group of women from Washington organized the conference not just as a protest aimed at the Corcoran Biannual which included no women; but also as an opportunity to draw women together to exchange ideas. This forum was a democratic gathering of young, old, well-known and emerging – women who were able to reach out to each other and collaborate to bring about imperative sociological changes. It was a time of great ferment after a long history of isolation. I remember the conference as a time of new friendships and bonding.

The conference lasted a short time but it permanently harnessed the anger and resolve that drew us together. I remember a rush afterwards to form the Washington Women’s Printmaker’s Group, the DC Registry of Women’s Slides (this later became the Women’s Center), and the Washington Women’s Art Professionals as ways to continue the energy generated by the conference. We started Consciousness Raising Groups. Mary Beth Edelson offered a Smithsonian course on Women and the Arts. Charlotte Robinson organized a quilt project that connected women artists and craftswomen from around the country. There were other collaborative art projects and performances. And in 1980, the Women’s Caucus of College Art Association, another outgrowth, got the President Jimmy Carter to recognize five significant women artists in the Oval Office.

Several of us organized the first juried exhibition of women artists with work by artists from Washington, Baltimore and Richmond. New York artists visited Washington studios and selected women to show at A.I.R. and other cooperative galleries in NYC. As one of only three women on the faculty, Rosemary Wright opened the door for me to teach at the Corcoran College of Art. The brief encounter with talented, feisty women hungry for change in 1972 had a lasting impact on my life.  The Corcoran Conference was a catalyst for an empowering exchange that helped me find my voice and define my mission as an artist, an educator and a citizen. It helped me build the confidence to develop professional practices that have enabled me to be a self-supporting artist. I have been able to reach out to emerging artists – male and female – and share with them professional wisdom and contacts and knowledge of the wise and talented women who made this possible.

Image: Annette Polan in her Forest Hills studio. Photo by Lee Armfield Cannon.  Courtesy of Forest Hills Connections

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