There are times when when life circles around to offer a deeper connection to something already known. Organizing a Burnaby Art Gallery event for THRIVE Art Studio members felt that way to me.
THRIVE is a Vancouver-based, global female artists collective with 353 global members at the time of this writing. I’ve been a dedicated, delighted member of THRIVE for over two years and this summer I organized a private tour of Burnaby Art Gallery (BAG) for our membership on Wednesday, August 21, 2019.
BAG is located in a heritage home built in 1911 by Mrs. Ceperley known as Fairacres. Many people don’t realize that this home was in her own name legally and built under her direction for $150,000 (or $4M today). The property stretches out over 20 beautiful, hilly acres looking onto Deer Lake.
The home’s history is rich. Following the original Ceperley family residents, the building housed a group of Buddhists and followed by an SFU fraternity for a stint. The estate was purchased by the City of Burnaby in 1966 and assumed gallery management in 1999.
In the 80s, my mother, a knowledgeable, passionate arts-appreciator and supporter, volunteered at the Burnaby Art Gallery for over six years. I remember touring the gallery in my early years. She worked in the office, art rentals and at opening receptions. While my mom could tell you some ghost stories about Fairacres, this writing is about a different type of resurfacing…one of female artists of past and present finally finding their place in the BAG collection of over 5,500 works.
The gallery is the only one of its kind in Canada with a focus on collecting works on paper, a niche driven by an industry gap and their storage limitations. Like a museum, new works are acquired through generous donations and a set budget. BAG’s acquisition budget is $10,000 per year.
For context, 88% of the works collected have been created by white males—yet more than 50% of our population is female. Further, over 60% of Masters in Fine Arts graduates are women yet only 30% of women are shown in galleries. It’s a big gap that’s hard to wrap your head around in today’s time. The situation is even worse for women of color. Enter Ellen van Eijnsbergen, curator and director, BAG, who decided to do something about it.
Along with Jennifer Cane, BAG assistant curator, van Eijnsbergen increased collected works of female artists 3% and as a result showcased this exhibition, Women’s Work: New Acquisitions. The work was collected over three years and took some grit. There was pushback. She received aggressive, threatening emails including one person who said the BAG shouldn’t get involved in “neo-nazi, KKK, wacko feminist politics.” One man in van Eignsbergen’s circle of influence affirmed, “the reason so few female artists are collected is because there aren’t many good ones.” Herein lies a myth that’s easier to believe than to look deeper into complex systemic issues. While complicated, I’ll break this out into two main parts: the creation and collection of the work.
Over the past few hundred years, one reason many women hadn’t been creating much art was because of low self-esteem. Women were told they couldn’t or shouldn’t create. Perhaps they were told that they lacked talent, or if they had talent it was known that it simply wasn’t their place to do so. Art creation was seen as work, and women should only work inside the home. Those females who would have excelled given the encouragement, such as training and opportunities, became apathetic. They were frozen by the huge task of changing societal perceptions, fearful of judgements, exclusion or punishments. A very small number of female artists overcame all this. Yet, even when those in power acknowledged a woman’s talent, few were documented resulting in no role models.
I love art and there are so many amazing male artists. It seems that someone such as myself with a creative education and career, should have a greater awareness of female artists. I am constantly researching to uncover my art sisters of the past, to raise their voices for my own knowledge and to inspire the next generation.
Van Eijnsbergen is doing important work. Without context one might think there isn’t an issue, or that a 3% shift doesn’t seem like much. Yet, it takes more energy to begin change than it does to keep going in the same direction. On the contrary, this marks a beginning of a new trajectory that reflects the courage to disrupt the status quo. It’s worth noting again that these challenges are industry-wide and by no means special to BAG. What is special is that BAG acknowledges their gender gap and is doing something about it.
Women’s Work: New Acquisitions Review
“I encourage people to consider and learn. Ask why that piece of art makes you uncomfortable and listen—your brain will figure it out,” says van Einjnsbergen on viewing art that stirs difficult emotions.
With this exhibition, Van Eijnsbergen hoped to diversify the collection by including more female artists, women of color and untraditional works on paper. Themes include exclusion, domesticity, sexuality, sensuality, competition, victimization, racism, resilience, reflection, performance, judgement and others.
Highlights include Leonor Fini, one of the original surrealists, who’s sensual work, La Jeunne Mémoire, mystifies.
Lyse Lemieux, a contemporary artist who, against the odds carved out a place in fine art in her 60s following a successful career at CBC Radio. Works from her TDL series are featured.
Sylvia Tait who speaks to women as both the consumer and the consumed in her representational line art, Lunch Table, that has the intricacy of lace and the expressiveness of a Pollock.
Diyan Achjadi, an Indonesian immigrant and ECIAD teacher, invites us into a world of imagined characters living among traditional and contemporary patterns and shapes in The Only One Digging to the Other Side
Marianna Schmidt who fled WWII, lived in internment camps and was separated from her family at 20 years old. She ended up in Canada and found work at Vancouver General Hospital. Over 800 of her works remain in Belgium even though many have been gifted to BAG.
Mary Cassatt, perhaps the most popular artist of the collection, is one of the original impressionists, who (along with Berta Morriseau) painted domestic scenes as she was not welcome or encouraged to create in public places among her male contemporaries.
Daphne Odjig, a contemporary Indigenous artist who has developed a very strong voice. Work featured here, Medicine Dream, is an image from book Tales from the Smokehouse.
When van Eijnsbergen was asked which female artist deserved more recognition she named two; Anna Wong and Claire Leighton. Anna Wong is a contemporary artist who was recently featured in a BAG exhibition and Claire Leighton, who is a printmaker of the 19th century and was highlighted in Women’s Work.
Select Exhibition Images
More Information and Upcoming
To learn more about why women have been largely excluded from art history books, museums and gallery collections, read the following article Why are Female Artists Underrepresented?
Women’s Work: New Acquisitions is now closed.
Current and upcoming BAG exhibitions include:
• Italian Masters Saints, Sinners and Souvenirs by guest curator Hilary Letwin, PhD. to November 17, 2019;
• Echos, starting November 29, 2019, which contemplates the physical and embodied ways in which memory reappears and continues to resonate within the individual and across generations, and;
•Genevieve Robertson‘s solo show, starting February 7, 2020, on the environment.