Portland's Newest Gallery Is Only Representing Female Artists

"Women are being dismissed and erased. And we’re taking the credit back.”

Despite the fact that almost 75 percent of Master of Fine Arts students are female, women make up only 30 percent of the artists represented by contemporary galleries. In the midst of a resurgent movement of women-only art exhibitions aimed at correcting this imbalance, co-curators Zemie Barr and Shannon O'Connor have gone one step further by starting a gallery that only represents female artists.

When asked what they would say to folks who think female artists shouldn't pigeonhole themselves by gender and should try to establish themselves alongside their male counterparts, Barr, who understands the uphill battle women face in the art world, says: "I respect that opinion but don't agree with it. You need to get your work seen."

Barr and O'Connor started Old Town's Wolff Gallery as an homage to Virginia Woolf, who famously claimed that "Anonymous was a woman."

"In literature or science, women's contributions are hidden or stolen, and men write their name on it," O'Connor says. "It happens a lot. Women are being dismissed and erased. And we're taking the credit back."

According to its mission statement, Wolff is "dedicated to a feminist, collaborative organizational model," which means rejecting certain things women have been told to believe. "In my curatorial program, I was taught by two men who said, 'You tell the artist what to do,'" Barr says. O'Connor finds this curious. "The art world is where you're supposed to be creative," she says. "But it can be so authoritarian. It's not necessary to dictate to artists how to do things."

The collaborative model is about forging relationships with artists who allow for vulnerability. "Women are more comfortable showing people how they're growing and learning," O'Connor says. Adds Barr: "We're conditioned to do that. Men have to have it figured out. It's culturally acceptable for women to be more uncertain about what they're saying, to create a conversation. Working with men, there's less comfort with gray areas or creative chaos or things that aren't figured out yet."

It is their hope that by providing a platform for female artists, by bringing to light what is personal and vulnerable and gray, Wolff Gallery will become a space that feels approachable to the community. Reflecting on the past year, Barr says, "Our dream for Wolff is that it can be a place that supports people when maybe there isn't another means of support."

Rhetorical Geometry by Liz Mares is at Wolff Gallery, 618 NW Glisan St., 971-413-1340. Through Oct. 29. New photography by Jamila Clarke is Nov. 3-Dec. 10.

Willamette Week

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW's journalism today.