Art is a central part of life for New Yorkers with thousands of creative people showing off their work in the city each and every year. Today, the art world is largely a gender neutral business with opportunities for both male and female creators. Yet, less than a century ago that was not the case. In fact, it used to be very difficult for women artists to find anywhere to showcase their work.
In response to the “closed doors” policy regarding women artists in the early part of the 20th century, a group of women banded together to create an organization dedicated to promoting the work of female artists. Since 1925 the New York Society of Women Artists (NYSWA) has sought to showcase the work of female artists and continues its worthy cause until this day.
Recently, this Examiner had the opportunity to speak with Diana Freedman-Shea, the current President of NYSWA, about the organization and her experiences in it. Now a member of The Prince Street Gallery, Diana exhibited paintings last year to raise funds and consciousness about the elephant crisis for the International Fund for Animal Welfare. Her work can be viewed on the New York Artist Circle Website:
Meagan Meehan (M.M.): How and when was the New York Society of Women Artists started and how did you get involved with the establishment?
Diana Freedman-Shea (D.S.): The New York Society of Women Artists was founded in 1925 and devoted itself to avant-garde women artists, all recognized as professionals. Some of the original members earned Guggenheim Fellowships and Prix de Rome. Six members participated in the federal arts program established during the New Deal. Four of the original artists participated in the Armory Show and others were members of the Whitney Studio club. While today, the organization’s name “The New York Society of Women Artists” may seem a bit stodgy, responses to the group’s exhibitions were overwhelmingly favorable and Art News referred to its members as “a battalion of Amazons.” In 1987 New York’s ACA Gallery commemorated the organization with an exhibition and catalogue and most recently City University had an exhibition of early member Theresa Bernstein. I was asked to become a member by other artists with whom I was a member of a gallery. I was impressed with the high degree of professionalism among the artists as well as their cooperative spirit.
M.M.: What styles art does the New York Society of Women Artists favor?
D.S.: NYSWA does not seem to favor a particular style of work. In the same tradition as the early founders, whose work was akin to the Ashcan school, other forms of figuration or abstraction, our policy of revolving jurying committees insures diversity.
M.M.: Presently, how many members and/or artists are involved with the New York Society of Women Artists?
D.S.: Currently we have 44 active members, 32 two dimensional artists, 11 sculptors and 1 inactive member. We are very pleased to have generated interest among so many younger artists, who keep us fresh and informed about today’s marketing and networking options.
M.M.: How does someone submit work to possibly be featured with the New York Society of Women Artists? Are there any fees involved?
D.S.: Applicants submit work yearly to either a 2d or 3d jurying committee. We are highly selective. There is no fee for submission.
M.M.: Where do you showcase work by those associated with the New York Society of Women Artists?
D.S.: Many of our members have solo exhibitions and participate in other exhibitions throughout the year. We are committed to having at least one NYSWA show annually. Our most recent venues have been The Weill-Cornell Medical Library, Iona College’s Brother Kenneth Chapman Gallery, The Hammond Museum, The Interchurch Center, The Flinn Gallery IN Greenwich Conn, The Broome Street Gallery NYC, The Prince Street Gallery NYC, The Art Students’ League Gallery, The Pfizer Corporation among others.
M.M.: To date, what has been the most rewarding experience involving working with the New York Society of Women Artists?
D.S.: Yearly, we have representatives attend THE AMERICANS FOR THE ARTS EVENT , ARTS ADVOCACY DAY in Washington DC. With delegates from other art groups nationwide, we lobby for the arts, attend meetings on Capitol Hill, and attend the Nancy Hanks Lectures. Most recently, Winton Marsalis, Norman Lear, Kevin Spacey, Daniel Pink and Kerry Washington were the keynote speakers at these lectures. And the year of Obama’s inauguration, John Lewis spoke at a congressional meeting. We wept. I also enjoyed exhibiting work during Women’s History Month at Iona College. We have also had speakers address the group and are planning a visit to the Frida Kahlo Show at the Bronx Botanical Garden. Receptions of course, are festive, but NYSWA members will frequently support other members having solo or group shows elsewhere. During this brief period of my presidency, I have been tickled by the responsiveness and cooperation of members when we needed to get a show ready in a hurry this year ; not “a pill” in the group.
M.M.: Where do you hope the New York Society of Women Artists will be ten years from now?
D.S.: In the next ten years, we would hope to recruit more young members with other gallery affiliations. The business of selling art is changing; the “business” of making art is not. I hope to see people who are not cynical about art-making, but savvy about marketing. I hope to preserve the vision, exploration and sincerity of our founding members. I would hope to find more venues for showing work, and offer support and community to women artists who want to be able to make and exhibits work.
M.M.: What advice would you give to someone who is aspiring to become an artist?
D.S.: For younger artists I would suggest to figure out how to make a living, get the best education you can where your ideas can be developed and challenged, find your tribe of artists, and work, work, work.
* * * * *
To learn more about the New York Society of Women Artists visit its official website and Facebook page.