Front Range Women in the Visual Arts was born in 1974 as a response to severe inequalities in the art world: There was not a single female art faculty member at the University of Colorado. Now celebrating its fortieth anniversary, the arts group is the subject of the retrospective The Transit of Venus: Four Decades of Front Range Women in the Visual Arts, featuring work by 25 artists, which opens Friday and will be up through February 23 at RedLine. The show marks the beginning of RedLine's year-long focus on female artists in the She Crossed the Line series, and was curated by William Biety. "To be asked to curate the show was one of the compliments of my curatorial and human experience," he says. In advance of the opening, we spoke with Biety about the impact of Front Range Women in the Visual Arts on today's dynamic Denver art scene.
Westword: Who are the Front Range Women in Visual Arts, and what will the show encompass?
William Biety: It was a group of women who gathered in 1974 to help to support each other primarily, but also because they were mostly Boulder-centered and the University of Colorado had no female art faculty or art history faculty and weren't hiring any of them. These were all university-trained artists. So they started working at making inroads into the institutions to get more parity for women in the arts. Over forty years, they've influenced each other, as I can see from looking at all the work, in many subtle levels. Aside from the fact that they really exacerbated immense change in the institutions they were involved with, I think they've also helped each other to a deeper awareness of women's positions in the world and how to change that and how to make personal change as well. It's been very fascinating to me to work with them, because everybody's late-fifties, sixties, some in their seventies now, and all have kept working. All have maintained their studio practice and careers and have engaged their communities very heavily and most of them have also raised families. It's a group of very dynamic personalities who were about helping each other and helping the population of women artists. From what I've seen, they've made very interesting inroads in the institutions that they set out to remake.
How did they create change in the university system?
They really lobbied to get women hired as faculty and it started happening. Many of them went on to teach at CU as faculty or as adjunct faculty. It really made a difference. They stood up and said, What's the deal? Why aren't you hiring women? Don't you think it's odd that a greater percentage of your classes are women and you have no women teaching?
What do you hope that people take away after coming to see the show?
I hope that people get what I've gotten, which is a deeper understanding of how relatively small and subtle action can really institute and foster change in society. What I've really learned from my exposure to this group is that while doing what they do they also changed attitudes in themselves as well as their environment. It's a sense of community, I think, that I really hope people come away with. Along with the realization that work that has originated in this region is really top quality. Many of the artists have gone on to international careers and are still very engaged. Betty Woodman had a full one-woman retrospective of her work at the Metropolitan in New York and Barbara Takenaga is showing at one of the top New York galleries. Their reach has expanded.
I get out in the world and I see a lot of art, so the other thing that I'm always happy to do is raise the awareness in Denver of what's happening in this region. When I first got here I spent a year and a half doing nothing except looking around and going to people's studios and seeing what was actually happening here, and I was stunned. I get around a lot and I thought, I don't know, am I losing it? Or am I seeing an awful lot of really high quality, very innovative work being done here very quietly? The market in Denver is not so great for the work that's being produced here and that's an awareness that I'd also like to see changed. There seems to be a perception that because it's here it can't be that good, and I've never found that to be true. When I look at things I see here I think it's as good as things I see anywhere. I can spend a week in Chelsea in New York going from gallery to gallery to gallery and I can spend a week going from studio to studio to studio in Denver and I rate my experience in Denver as high as that in New York. The creative community here is very powerful and strong.
What do you mean when you say that the artists changed attitudes within themselves?
I think that by being a support system to each other, they raised their consciousnesses about the feminine energy and being a woman. I'm a man observing this from the outside, but it has been my impression that at that time there was not so much support for this idea that women should have complete equality with men in the world. It seems much more common today than it did then. And I think that they were the group that stood up and said, hey, wait a minute, this is not fair. Don't pretend it is fair. We're not going to let you get away with trying to pretend it's fair. You've been doing this for a long time but it's not right and we're not going to sit for it. I really think that's how it happened, and in so doing they worked with each other, they got to know each other, they supported each other in their process as artists. They weren't getting support from the outside world with that process. They were basically overlooked as artists in the gallery systems and in the museum systems. All of the arts institutions had for generations ignored what women produced and delegated it to handiwork or craft or homespun whatever. They said hey, we're serious about this. This is our passion. This is what we do and what we love and we want to be taken as seriously as a male who does this. I think in doing that, the support that they gave each other has really given them all a strong foundation to move out into the world and not feel second-class, which is I think the way it was prior to the last couple decades. It's still not even, in my opinion, but it's certainly moved tremendously in the last couple of decades toward equality and parity.
How does this show fit into the whole She Crossed the Line series that RedLine is putting on this year?
It's the perfect kickoff, because the whole year of programming is about women's issues, women's artwork and women's place in society today. So we're kicking that off with a group of women who really helped to establish what's happening today and how the world responds to women today. I think it's really exciting. I think there's going to be a lot of discussion along with the rest of the programming at RedLine for the year. It's a great time for people to renew and step up the awareness, because it's not a deal that's finished in our society. It's certainly not equal yet. It's moving toward it, but it has a long way to move still. I think it's a great opportunity for our immediate community to reenergize this conversation so that it doesn't seem stale.
There's still not completely equal rights for women in this country, as I discover from so many women that I know who are involved in the legal system and who are involved in other areas of the world. I think that these are opportunities for us all to push that agenda a little further, if not a lot further to its culmination because that gap needs to become completely closed as far as I'm concerned. I'm a gay man and I was recently married and I feel a lot of kinship with this whole thing, because there are a lot of parallels for me in the fact that it moved along very quickly in a short amount of time, but is still not there. I, like the women that I'm dealing with, have gone from 0 to 60 in the last forty years in terms of seeing change and experiencing change. People who are significantly younger than we are are starting from a completely different point than we did, and it's really because of the work that past people have done to push it ahead. I think it's great that we're living in a different world. We don't have the same trauma and the same struggle, but I don't think it should be left untalked about. The history is very important to keep in the conversation, and that's what RedLine is really about this year -- to keep the conversation going and push it forward and not to let it get stagnant. It's not just being done for a select group of people, it's being done for everybody on every level of society.