Megan Conway

The MFA’s first podcaster-in-residence highlights women artists

The best way to experience art this March is through your ears: Tamar Avishai, the MFA’s first podcaster-in-residence and host of The Lonely Palette, teamed up with the Museum to present five special episodes about five works of art and the women who created them. The artworks were selected from the current exhibition “Women Take the Floor,” which was conceived to mark the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in the United States in 2020, and is getting renewed attention during Women’s History Month.

The five episodes, released every Sunday in March, focus on artworks by five different artists—in part a nod to the persistent gender-equality prompt, “Can you name five women artists?” A few years ago the challenge went viral when the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC, took #5WomenArtists to social media. In “Women Take the Floor,” the MFA openly recognizes its historical shortcomings regarding female representation in its collections and past exhibitions, and has committed to a corrective “takeover.” At the same time, the MFA appreciates that narrative, radio storytelling—quite distinct from more formal audio guides—has a place in museums. The Lonely Palette is well known in the art-podcast space, and Avishai is a perfect partner for this project. “I know that the Museum is really proud of this exhibition, which is in a lot of ways overdue, so it was a good opportunity to produce these episodes in partnership,” says Avishai.

Avishai, who lived in Somerville before relocating to Cleveland last year, began her relationship with the MFA giving Spotlight Talks in the galleries. She is trained as an art historian but found her calling in radio production and teaching, where she could use wit, playful language, and her own excitement to tell the stories behind artworks, one at a time. “The story is everything,” says Avishai. “If you ask any freshman in an art history class how they remember a specific painting, it’s because they care about the story.”

Tamar Avishai interviews a visitor for her podcast while they stand in front of a Georgia O'Keeffe painting of a deer skull suspended on a branch with a mountain landscape in the distance
Tamar Avishai speaking with a visitor about Georgia O’Keeffe, Deer's Skull with Pedernal, 1936. Oil on canvas. Gift of the William H. Lane Foundation. © 2020 Georgia O'Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

The face-to-face time that Avishai got with visitors during Spotlight Talks informed her interest in “starting with the audience first”—she has always opened each Lonely Palette episode with comments and observations from everyday museumgoers about the artwork in question. “Nobody wants to be questioned in a gallery and feel like they are put on the spot,” she explains. “Once people feel more comfortable, they start to describe what it reminds them of—you get these great associations. It breaks everything wide open. It says to listeners, ‘Okay, this podcast is going to be accessible in a way that I never thought art history could be accessible.’”

“I love Tamar’s approach, which aligns with my personal interests—I want to use art to tell stories,” says Nonie Gadsden, head curator of “Women Take the Floor” and Katharine Lane Weems Senior Curator of American Decorative Arts and Sculpture.

The five artists and artworks selected for the podcast represent diversity in media, time periods, cultures, and life experiences. In order of release date, they are Carmen Herrera’s Blanco y Verde (#1), Louise Bourgeois’s Pillar, Georgia O’Keeffe’s Deer Skull with Pedernal, Patty Chang’s Melons (At a Loss), and Frida Kahlo’s Dos Mujeres (Salvadora y Herminia).

Two visitors listening two video piece, depicting person with dish on top of head
Visitors view Patty Chang, Melons (At a Loss), 1998. Video. The Heritage Fund for a Diverse Collection. Courtesy of the artist.

“I don’t know a better way of getting women out of the cellar and on view,” Avishai says of “Women Take the Floor.” But, she notes, these five episodes focus “not too much on these women as women artists, but as artists within their own contexts.” The more research she does on these disparate artists, she says, “the more I see the things that are really different about them, and at the same time, they all have quite a bit in common that just seem to be what women artists have to deal with.” She chose the artworks for both personal affinity and for professional challenges: to learn more about artists she didn’t know well and, as for the episodes on the better-known artists—such as Frida Kahlo and Georgia O’Keeffe, who “are two in the list of five women artists, 100% of the time,” Avishai says—she hopes to “bring them down from their mythical statuses and get underneath what makes them tick and what makes them interesting, making listeners realize these were also just women, just artists, just human beings.”

The first episode, on Blanco y Verde (#1) (1962) by Carmen Herrera, airs today, March 1. Hear it now to learn how this amazing 104-year-old, Cuban American artist is still creating—but “don’t refer to her as a woman artist or a Latin American artist or a really, really old artist. She’s more than the reductive sum of those parts,” says Avishai.

Next Sunday, March 8, is International Women’s Day. Honor it by learning about how Louise Bourgeois’s Pillar is much more than meets the eye. And tune in for all the episodes during Women’s History Month, schedule below, which you can access at The Lonely Palette or your favorite podcast app.

March 1: Carmen Herrera, Blanco y Verde (#1)
March 8: Louise Bourgeois, Pillar
March 15: Georgia O’Keeffe, Deer’s Skull with Pedernal
March 22: Patty Chang, Melons (At a Loss)
March 29: Frida Kahlo, Dos Mujeres (Salvadora y Herminia)

Author

Megan Conway is an associate editor at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.