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MFA Celebrates Powerful Women in Art on International Women’s Day

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Editors' Note: The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston is closed due to COVID-19 for the foreseeable future. This article was written before the closure.

Museumgoers were buzzing with excitement on Mar. 8 for the International Women’s Day celebration at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. A variety of activities and spotlight talks were set up throughout the museum’s extensive collection, highlighting their “Women Take the Floor” exhibition as a tribute to influential women in contemporary art. The exhibition features female artists in the Americas at different levels of recognition and fame, with artwork spanning a variety of media, including paint, textiles, and photography. On this day devoted to celebrating women, patrons wandered pensively through the seven thematic galleries, connecting with many of the pieces focused on female empowerment.

“International Women's Day to me is a critical moment for us to, as a community, reflect in the broadest sense on the power of women as makers, as thinkers, as debaters, as disruptors, as community shapers, and I think it's important for us to understand the efficacy of art to do that,” said Dalia H. Linssen, Head of Academic Engagement at the MFA.

Sentiments like Linssen’s were widely shared among the event’s viewers, who reflected on women in the art world. The museum label at the entrance of “Women Take the Floor” explained the necessity for appreciating female artists, prompting viewers to “name five women artists.” This deceptively simple question led many to recognize the underrepresentation of women in the industry and praise the exhibition’s inclusion of lesser-known artists.

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“I honestly struggled and then picked the usuals,” museum patron Ward J. Capec said. “I think it’s good that they’re showing artists I don’t know... We all know ‘the biggies.’ If that was what was here, then it would be kind of a kick in the face to the underrepresented women.”

The MFA also stationed graduate students at specific pieces in the “Women Take the Floor” exhibition and other galleries for spotlight talks throughout the day. These students provided valuable historical context about womanhood during each piece’s time period.

“Women have had a very vibrant and active young life in the arts forever. We just haven’t been written about,” said Lydia D. Harrington, a Ph.D. candidate in the History of Art and Architecture Department at Boston University. “I think it’s really important to show that women have always been making art, especially now to counteract that really popular narrative, as well as showing that there are women in the Middle East who are successful artists, not just in the US.”

Harrington presented Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian’s “Pentagon” in the Arts of Islamic Cultures Gallery. The talk offered insight into the Iranian artist’s inspiration for the geometric, reflective piece, and emphasized Farmanfarmaian’s significance within the abstract art movement.

Phillippa E. L. Pitts, a Horowitz Foundation Fellow for American Art at Boston University, delivered another spotlight talk. Pitts spoke about Maria Montoya Martinez’s “Jar” in the “Women Take the Floor” exhibition, remarking on the Native American potter’s lasting impact.

“When we don’t look at the contributions of women, and we don’t think about methodologies to look at women’s work, we’re actually creating a fundamental flaw in our scholarship altogether,” Pitts said.

The MFA also featured artist Carolyn Muskat’s walkthrough of the “Women Take the Floor” exhibition, a performance by Boston poet laureate Porsha Olayiwola, an interactive artwork titled “Now, Speak!” by Amalia Pica, and a special viewing of original works on paper by women. In addition to these art-focused events, the museum included opportunities for patrons to interact with community organizations. Big Sister Boston had a table in the MFA’s Shapiro Family Courtyard, raising awareness for their organization dedicated to supporting young women.

“We’re all about igniting girls’ passion and empowering them to succeed through mentoring relationships and supporting girls’ healthy development,” said Nicole M. Canning, Manager of Volunteer Engagement. Canning was joined by Kelsey A. Karkos, a Big Sister herself for three years.

The Shapiro Family Courtyard also offered a collage card-making station, where guests of all ages could take a moment to design a card for an important woman in their lives. Parents and children sat around the bounty of craft materials, inspired by the mothers and children that exist in paintings such as Alice Neel’s “Lina Nochlin and Daisy.” Many mother-daughter pairs roamed the exhibition in admiration of such powerful pieces, spreading valuable lessons about female empowerment across generations.

“I’m proud to see these kinds of works represented, but kind of dismayed that they took so long to have something like this,” said Brenda C. McGurk, a patron who came to enjoy the International Women’s Day celebration with her mother. “It's great to have a day, but it needs to expand beyond the day.”

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