The pandemic blew up museums’ exhibition schedules, delaying opening dates for months or even years, leaving artists and visitors disappointed.
The quietly powerful show “Don’t Let This Be Easy,” which opened Thursday at Walker Art Center, didn’t meet that fate. It was pushed back only two weeks from its original opening date, in part because it draws from the center’s own collection.
The exhibition features 76 works in every media by 30 women artists. Most of the works were created from the 1970s through the 1990s, with the exception of a few recent acquisitions such as Ojibwe artist Andrea Carlson’s screen print tackling settler colonialism and Native histories and Christina Quarles’ “Feel’d,” an abstract painting confronting race, sexuality, gender and queerness.
Curators Nisa Mackie and Alexandra Nicome, who are part of the Walker’s education department, have organized the show to inform without being didactic. More broadly, it looks at structural inequality in the art world, focusing on how that plays out in the Walker’s collection.
The show utilizes an intersectional feminist framework, focusing on “womxn,” a term that centers transgender, nonbinary and nonwhite women. It was organized as part of the Feminist Art Coalition (FAC), a platform that collaborates with arts institutions across the country on social justice and structural change.
“Don’t Let This Be Easy” is about having those difficult conversations, so it’s opening at a perfect time, as institutions reconsider what “equity and diversity” really means following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.
The works are both familiar and surprising. Howardena Pindell’s iconic “Free, White and 21” (1980), a video about racism she experienced as a Black woman in America, marks both the entrance and exit in this content-rich heavy show that jams everything into one big seventh-floor gallery space. Pindell alternates between telling stories as herself, a Black woman speaking in a deadpan manner. At one point, she talks about discrimination in hiring practices for a picture researcher position, then pivots to herself as a blonde white woman who remarks: “Don’t worry, we will find other tokens!”
That woman “could be considered a ‘Karen’ of today,” said co-curator Mackie, director of education and public programs at the Walker, referencing the current slang for an entitled, middle-aged white woman who is often racist without realizing it.
More than half the works in this show are artist books in glass cases, arranged in the middle of the gallery. One, dated 1986, feels like it could’ve been made last month — Adrian Piper’s “My Calling (Card) #2,” located under glass in the show’s “Humor” section. The business card becomes a way to call out a racist comment. “Dear Friend, I am Black,” the card begins. “I am sure you did not realize this when you made/laughed at/agreed with that racist remark.”
The exhibition also critiques the ways that institutions form collections.
The Walker owns pioneering Postminimalist sculptor Eva Hesse’s “ ‘Untitled,’ From the Portfolio ‘7 Objects/69’ ” (1969), a brick-size sculpture made of gauze, rubber, balloon and powder that looks like a thick piece of wax or folded flesh. Mackie pointed out that while the Walker often collected such male contemporaries of Hesse as Bruce Nauman, Alan Saret and Richard Serra, the museum has only this one work of hers in the form of a small multiple.
Similarly, a collection of three mixed-media works made in the 1970s by feminist artist Ree Morton weren’t acquired until 2011. Mackie discovered that during the ’70s, artworks by men were collected at the time they were made, but for women it took decades longer.
“There are lots of women artists who practice their whole lives and are virtually undiscovered, or get picked up by male curators while they are in the later years of their lives and heralded as ‘grandmothers,’ ” said Mackie. “When does a woman artist get to be famous? It’s either when you’re a bright young star, or when you’re much older.”
Works by women artists now account for 21% of the Walker’s collection, Mackie said.
While this show is focused largely on works from decades ago, it’s hard not to think about how so many of them feel ominously contemporary, marking histories that viciously repeat themselves.