The press opening of the MFA’s newest exhibition, “Women Take the Floor,” was supposed to introduce an exhibition of 100 women artists, celebrating both anniversaries. But it was actually meant to atone for sins of the recent past.
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.
The public apology now includes “Women Take the Floor.” The press conference had the feeling of a purge, rather than an exhibition overview.
Normally curator Nonie Gadsden would provide valuable insights into the art; instead five different speakers preceded her, including the museum director, the board chair, a senior Bank of America executive, and the CEO of YW Boston. Boston’s poet laureate, Portia Olayiwola, joined in as well.
When she eventually spoke, Gadsden referred to the MFA’s “inconsistency of supporting women.” She also referenced the “lack of inclusion of people of color in the suffragist movement.” By the time the viewing itself began, many sins had been confessed.
But fortunately, the artists of “Women Take the Floor” spoke for themselves, no matter what context they were forced into. 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 predominant dynamic of the collections (almost all of these works are taken from the MFA hoard). Beth Chandler, of YW Boston, did made a salient point when revisiting her childhood museum memories: “Rarely did art reflect my experience.” This exhibition might.
Highlights are many. They include two Polly Thayer paintings—a self-portrait from 1927, and a still life—and two by Alice Neel. Several works by Georgia O’Keeffe, and others by Frida Kahlo and Joan Mitchell. A charged geometric abstract by Carmen Herrera, “Blanco y Verde.”
Prints—a dozen or so glorious prints—focused on the work from Tatyana Grosman’s ULAE studio, one example of many printmaking collectives that revitalized the genre during the midcentury. Sheila Hicks’ fabric sculpture, “Bamian,” dominates one room.
The exhibition design sadly lacks purpose, and challenges visitors. One 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 nonetheless, as rewarding as any exhibition including 100 artists, all with a lifetime of substantial creations, could possibly be. MFA director Matthew Teitelbaum said that this “was a promise we made a few months ago, to put words into action.” “Women Take the Floor,” against multiple misdirections and handicaps, does just that.
“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.