FARGO — As a professor of art history at Minnesota State University Moorhead, Anna Arnar is used to opening up students’ minds to see the world as it is and how it was. She mostly does this through images, readings and lectures, but sometimes she’ll drop an anecdote to make a point.
“I tell my students this, that my very first art history textbook in the early 1980s didn’t have a single woman artist. Not even Georgia O’Keefe. Not even Frida Kahlo. There were none,” she says. "Students think it's strange that such a textbook existed.”
Yet art historians, art museum employees and artists alike will all tell you that women in the arts have historically been underrepresented.
A show at the Plains Art Museum, “Generation: Women Artists in the Plains Art Museum Collection,” underscores the point. While the show is a stunning and striking display of works acquired since the first inception of the Plains opened in 1965, a statement at the beginning of the show is just as eye-opening. Of the Plains’ 4,200 pieces of art, only 370 are made by women.
“We were doing this to be transparent, to show the limitations of our collection,” says Netha Cloeter, director of education and social engagement at the Plains. “We know we have huge gender gaps to fill.”
Cloeter and Tasha Kubesh, associate curator of collections and exhibitions at the Plains, assembled the show, but took inspiration from one of Arnar’s classes. In 2018, the teacher and her students worked with the museum to create a mock exhibition of women artists’ work from the collection of the Plains.
“When ‘Generation’ came up, we saw all of the objects we picked, but we were like, 'Wow!' when we saw all of these other ones,” Arnar says with a laugh.
While there are no O’Keefes or Kahlos in the Plains’ collection, museum visitors may recognize some works and names. There are two pieces by Rochester, Minn., artist Judy Onofrio, whose colorful and sparkly show, “See Acts of Audacious Daring! The Circus World of Judy Onofrio,” exhibited at the Plains in 2011.
That show was part of a Plains series called "Mother of Invention," which highlighted the works of influential regional female artists. The series was started by former Plains director Colleen Sheehy, who Arnar and Cloeter both credit for boosting the profile of female artists.
Catherine Mulligan, a former North Dakota State University sculpture teacher now living in Boulder, Colo., was to be featured in the "Mothers" series, but the shows ended after Sheehy left the museum in 2015. Still, Mulligan, who also taught at the Creative Arts Center, which has since been absorbed into the Plains’ Center for Creativity, is one of a few artists to have multiple pieces in "Generation" — in fact, one of her sculptures, “Generation,” provided the name for the exhibit. The piece uses eggs, a common theme for Mulligan throughout the years.
“Thistle Down,” from 1975, is another style familiar to Mulligan’s followers. By casting resin into a climbing form, the artist plays with color and light that shines through it.
“She’s an under-recognized artist on a national level who had a huge impact locally,” Cloeter says.
Another artist who makes a big difference close to home is Laura Youngbird, whose diptych, “No Face Boy/No Face Girl,” is part of “Generation. "
Until recently, Youngbird served as the Plains’ Native American arts program director and brought in a number of exhibits by women artists.
“No Face Boy/No Face Girl” explores the history of Indian boarding school trauma in her family history by mixing in photo transfers around a boy and a girl. Other than clothes, there’s no identifying factors for the figures as their faces have been erased, reflecting issues of identity and self-esteem Indian children dealt with as they faced cultural assimilation.
Further down the same wall, another boy and girl stand in standard gender-identifying attire, he in shorts and she in a dress. Actually, the boy stands next to a naked man and the girl next to a naked woman. All four figures stand on pedestals, though the females’ are higher to equal the males’ stature in Judith Shea’s “Adam and Eve in Therapy.”
“It’s about balance more than sexuality,” Cloeter says. “It touches on labor and women’s work in roles.”
The girl carries two bags and the boy playfully has his arms behind his back, mimicking the adult figure, as the woman stands with her arms to her side.
Arnar was scheduled to lead a panel discussion this Thursday, March 19, featuring Youngbird, Maria Cristina Tavera and Gail Kendall, also part of the “Generation” show. Though health concerns have led to the talk being canceled, the exhibit is scheduled to remain up through Monday, March 23.
Arnar says she hopes to record video of the artists discussing their work and their thoughts on gender equality in arts.
She hopes a show like this leads to more discussion about representation in the arts, not just for underserved communities like women and people of color, but also for emerging groups like transgender artists. As a member of the Plains’ acquisitions board, she’d like to see the museum acquire more works by a diversity of artists.
“I want the general public, and my students, to see that a lot has changed since the 1960s and '70s, but it only changes if you’re conscious about it,” Arnar says. “We’re in a new phase. It’s not about finger-pointing or complaining, it’s about normalizing it.”
If you go
When: On display through Monday, March 23
Where: Plains Art Museum, 704 First Ave. N., Fargo