Anniversaries and art go well together. This season marks the Museum of Fine Arts’ 150th anniversary, as well as the centennial of the 19th amendment, finally granting suffrage to women.
As a way of remembering both, the MFA’s expansive new exhibition, “Women Take the Floor,” collects the works of more than 100 artists.
Separated into seven different themes—like No Man’s Land (landscapes), Women of Action, Art and Design, Women Publish Women—the exhibition occupies the third floor of the American wing until next May.
Here’s hoping the impact last much longer. “Women Take the Floor” is everything that the MFA is not: aggressively inclusive, deliberately bringing a change to the predominantly male orientation of the collections (almost all of these works are taken from the MFA hoard).
Curator Nonie Gadsden introduced the exhibition by referring to the MFA’s “inconsistency of supporting women.” She also referenced the “lack of inclusion of people of color in the suffragist movement.” Fortunately, the artists of “Women Take the Floor” spoke for themselves, no matter what context they find themselves in.
Highlights are many. Sheila Hicks’ fabric sculpture, “Bamian,” dominates a gallery themed “Beyond the Loom”—contemporary fabric arts sculptures. Two Polly Thayer paintings—a self-portrait from 1927, and a still life—and two by Alice Neel, are among the many fine works scattered through the Women of Action and Women Depicting Women galleries.
A charged geometric abstract by Carmen Herrera, “Blanco y Verde,” sets the tone in the Women and Abstraction section. Several works by Georgia O’Keeffe, and others by Frida Kahlo and Joan Mitchell, highlight more recognized artists.
Prints—a dozen or so glorious prints—focused on the work from Tatyana Grosman’s ULAE studio, show an example of many printmaking collectives that revitalized the genre during the midcentury. This multigenerational collection sheds light a this vigorous trend in printmaking art.
But the sweeping range of artwork gets poorly displayed. The exhibition design sadly lacks purpose, and challenges visitors. One jarring color—call it Target red—dominates wall and floor accents. The huge outside window gets wrapped in red too, making it seem like the exhibition is still a work-in-progress.
It’s dormitory design—use what you can find. A mobile from Alexander Calder was mistakenly left hanging above the unwelcoming entryway (the label for it was gently hidden, so perhaps nobody else will notice).
But the exhibition itself proves rewarding, as rewarding as any exhibition including 100 artists, all with a lifetime of substantial creations, could possibly be. The MFA has taken its share of lumps since the spring, after a group of Dorchester seventh graders—all students of color—were reportedly subject to racial harassment by museum staff and guests.
The incidents galvanized the MFA to respond to the utter lack of impact the museum has had in non-white communities. MFA director Matthew Teitelbaum addressed the press before the exhibition opened, and referred to the museum’s recent bad public relations. “This was a promise we made a few months ago,” he said about the MFA’s response, “to put words into action.” “Women Take the Floor,” against multiple misdirections and handicaps, begins that process.
“Women Take the Floor” runs through May at the Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave. Boston. The exhibition is free with museum admission. Call 617-267-9300 or visit mfa.org.