Lorraine Wild | Opinions

On the Basis of “Art”

On the Basis of Art

Women were only accepted into Yale University in 1969, but in fact, the Yale School of Art had started admitting women a hundred years earlier. This important anniversary was marked by an exhibition at the Yale University Art Gallery, and documented in a catalog published last year, On the Basis of Art: 150 years of Women at Yale (Yale University Press). The exhibition, which closed in January of 2022, included work by notable alumnae (and faculty) across all media, except for one: graphic design. This bizarre omission of a very large group of women from the “official” history of their own school has bothered quite a few graphic design MFAs, and a letter finally confronting the leadership of the Yale University Art Gallery about their reductive ideas about art, design, and the Yale School of Art has been sent and is copied here, below.

While it is hard to complain about the art and artists featured in On the Basis of Art, it is the absence of a more inclusive story of all of the women’s work of the School that is so troubling. But if anything good has come out of this flawed exhibition, it is the near-simultaneous publication of Marta Kuzma’s History of an Art School (Yale School of Art / Walter und Franz König). Kuzma, the first female Dean of the School of Art, was invited to contribute an essay to the YUAG project addressing the last 50 years of the School. Faced with limited pages in the exhibition catalog, she decided to expand her narrative into a book-length manuscript, which includes not only the challenges faced by the women who were painters and sculptors, but of everybody else (even graphic designers!). Kuzma’s more nuanced History of an Art School (designed by Irma Boom Office) describes the school not only as the site of individual artists’ struggles, but as a place where the collective presence of women (as both students and faculty) has influenced the pedagogy through questions about critique, critical theory, labor, the market, but most of all, who has the right to have a voice. The book ends with an interview with Professor Angela Davis, who at one point says “I have come to embrace the idea that art can yield a kind of knowledge that is not categorical.” —LW

To: Stephanie Wiles
The Henry J. Heinz II Director
Yale University Art Gallery

Kymberly Pinder
Stavros Niarchos Foundation Dean
Yale School of Art

Dear Stephanie Wiles and Kymberly Pinder,

Since 1952 when the graduate program in Graphic Design was established in the Yale School of Art, hundreds of women have earned MFA degrees (and several distinguished women have served as faculty). Those women – and their work – have had an undeniably important impact on the field of graphic design, and their work has had influence on the culture of design both nationally and internationally.
And yet, when it came time for the Yale University Art Gallery to celebrate the 150th anniversary of women who have either studied or taught at the Yale School of Art, not one graphic designer was included in the otherwise formidable exhibition and catalogue. While the project celebrated the work of painters, sculptors, photographers, printmakers and even the work of two architects, On the Basis of Art: 150 Years of Women at Yale effectively disenfranchised an entire group of women graduates of the Yale School of Art.
I’m sure the curator of the exhibition had excuses: that the YUAG does not collect graphic design is purportedly the major one. But it is standard practice for museums to borrow works to create coherent exhibitions, and if it had been important to the organizers of On the Basis of Art to represent all the women and all of their practices to the public, they could have found a way. The fact that the YUAG did not do this is evidence of an intellectually lazy and anachronistic notion that there is a hierarchy in the world of art, and that design is on a lower rung of that hierarchy.
This notion does not come without its own history. While the catalogue tells many stories of the difficulties that the women of Yale have faced with institutionalized sexism, many women graphic design majors have experienced a double prejudice, where (on top of sexism) their status as art majors was implicitly questioned. Eons of Dean’s Letters where the Graphic Design program went unmentioned; drawing teachers questioning the presence of design students in their classes even though the classes were required; ask any graphic design alumni, and they can all attest to the stubborn presence of the hierarchy. (But of course the hierarchy has its limits: graphic design alumni are beseeched to donate to the School of Art, just like the other art majors).
The Yale University Art Gallery and the School of Art are two separate entities; and while sexism in the School of Art has at least been altered by the evolving status of women in leadership positions, there are still signs that the hierarchy-remains (perhaps not so much in the heads of design students, but in the heads of those around them). Instead of challenging the full breadth of prejudices facing some women in the School of Art, On the Basis of Art doubled-down on them. At the very least, the organizers of On the Basis of Art need a serious update of their cultural literacy around a field that has been taught within yards of their museum for seven decades.
I can’t imagine what current women graphic design students in the School of Art perceived as they saw themselves written out of the history of their own School by Yale University’s own Art Gallery. Thankfully, the lingering effects of the pandemic may have suppressed the number of visitors to the YUAG to see this sorry, incomplete narrative dressed up as a triumph for women at Yale. But for those of us with our Yale degrees in graphic design, it’s a rude reminder of another kind of bias that Yale, of all places, should have figured out how to contend with long ago.
That Yale University supported this project with funds meant to honor the history of women at the School of Art is disappointingly thoughtless.
Lorraine Wild
MFA Yale School of Art 1982
Faculty, California Institute of the Arts
Creative Design Consultant, Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Posted in: Arts + Culture, History

Lorraine Wild Lorraine Wild is a designer and educator in Los Angeles. She established her own design practice, Green Dragon Office, in 1996 to focus on collaborations with architects, curators and publishers.

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