Spotlight: “Women Take the Floor”—Exploring an Exhibition with Nonie Gadsden

Museum Council

Nonie Gadsden, Katharine Lane Weems Senior Curator of American Decorative Arts and Sculpture, discusses the new takeover of Level 3 of the Art of the Americas Wing.

How did the concept for “Women Take the Floor” begin, and did it evolve over time as the exhibition took shape?

The original concept for “Women Take the Floor” was to commemorate the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in the US by celebrating women artists. Our colleague Elliot Davis, then chair of the Art of the Americas department, proposed this show before she left the MFA to become the Director of the Norton Museum of Art in Palm Beach, Florida. I took over the exhibition, working with a large team of curators, interpreters, and designers to further develop the theme of exposing past and present gender discrimination in the art world and celebrating pioneering women artists from 1920 to 2020 who pursued artistic careers despite obstacles. Individual galleries focus on strengths of our collection—some of the lesser-known stories about women artists that we can tell well from our own holdings. The central core gallery, “Women Depicting Women,” was further refined by the feedback and input we received at a roundtable discussion of local community members active in feminist and inclusion initiatives. With their encouragement, we focused that gallery on inclusion, diversity, and multiple perspectives to acknowledge that past feminist movements, including the campaign for women’s suffrage, consciously excluded women of color.

With pieces rotating out of the exhibition to make way for new ones, what was the planning process like in the collaborative environment?

There was excitement about the opportunity to highlight underappreciated artists represented in the MFA collection. Simultaneously, we were concerned about not displaying some of our best-known works by male artists. We worked together, finding ways to display or use those works in other areas of the Museum.

Though the artists on view in the exhibition were trailblazers in their own right, how do their legacies translate in our current cultural environment?

Each of the women represented in the exhibition persisted in her artistic career despite the gender discrimination that she faced—whether that discrimination came from her own family, her community, education or training institutions, galleries, museums, or patrons. Their dogged pursuit of art making and expressing their creativity serves as inspiration for all of us to hold on to our dreams. By expanding our view of art history, and bringing in the voices and artwork of more women artists, we show the value and benefit of inclusive conversation and community building.

What has the reception of “Women Take the Floor” been like and how does it compare to the exhibition’s intended message?

The reception has been very positive. Visitors and critics have applauded the MFA’s transparency in acknowledging its inconsistent history in supporting women artists and the bold statement that the exhibition makes by taking over an entire floor of galleries. Many have been surprised by the depth of our collection, and the strength of the artworks that they are seeing for the first time, or seeing in a new light. Many—visitors and staff alike—are surprised by the statistics that we posted on the opening wall. Hopefully we will all use this project as a wake-up call to implement sustained change.