The Museum of Fine Art’s new exhibit, “Women Take the Floor,” is no wallflower. Situated on the top level, overlooking a vast courtyard, is a shameless red sign indicating its whereabouts in the museum, almost daring visitors to ascend the steep flights of stairs right then and there. Upon entering, the familiar hushed silence becomes rather a pulse of energy, emanating from the vast expanse of works by female artists whose voices have never been heard, whose visions have never been seen, and whose viewpoints have never been shared—until now. The MFA describes it as a “takeover” of Level 3 of the Art of the Americas Wing by female artists who challenge the twentieth-century domination by male artists, showcasing women whose work has been underrepresented and virtually unacknowledged throughout history.
What’s fascinating is that most pieces in this exhibit were already part of the MFA’s permanent collection, though they’ve never been featured in a special light nor given the attention they deserve. As this year coincides with the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment which gave women the right to vote, this exhibit is immensely relevant and imperative to the museum’s commitment to inclusivity.
On the very first wall is a museum label that asks its reader, “Can you name five women artists?” The answer reveals the unfortunate truth that, for most people, this is a very difficult task. The statistics are maddening, but sadly not shocking: female artists earn 76 cents for every dollar made by male artists, only 13% of artists represented in major U.S. museum collections are female, and less than 4% of art sold at auctions is made by women. Under this list of statistics, the MFA recognizes its own inconsistency in exhibiting female artists in a very candid and honest list of the gaps it’s had in previous exhibitions.
However, it vows to do more; through this exhibit, the MFA seeks to be a catalyst of change, not only internally, but also by starting this conversation with and between museum-goers. In 2017, the MFA even published MFA 2020, their strategic plan for diversification by next year, their 150th anniversary.
The exhibit is split up into seven sections, each displaying pieces of an art style in which women were heavily involved. Although all defy expectations, one of the most striking is located in the central room, entitled “Women Depicting Women: Her Vision, Her Voice.” Filled with contemporary pieces depicting various cultural, political, and social perspectives, the common thread seems to fearlessness: making a statement and speaking on behalf of fellow women. Featured pieces include a podium made of cast concrete by Argentinean artist Amalia Pica, entitled Now Speak! Standing resolute yet inviting, it contains a stack of laminated historic speeches and declarations, such as Greta Thunberg’s address to the COP24 plenary session in 2018. The artwork welcomes guests to pick up a speech and start speaking it aloud to absorb others’ words and join the movement.
Many women of color are represented in the exhibit, the potency of their pieces echoing throughout the floor. Another piece of performance art, what is the suffrage for a blk wmn?: an anthem, a poem by Boston’s own Poet Laureate Porsha Olayiwola, plays in the background, catching the attention of passerby and inspiring discussions between friends and strangers alike.
To Rhyia Bibby, a second-year Northeastern student majoring in Journalism, the most surprising thing about the exhibit is its size. “You know,” she says, “I was a little skeptical because museums have been saying for years and years and years that we want to diversify an artist for everybody, but you know largely, when you think about these feminist exhibits, you think of Georgia O’Keefe, you think of Frida Khalo, and you think, ‘oh, they show them for a couple of weeks, and then they switch it out’…but this exhibit is really big, and it’s going to be here until 2021, so...it’s fantastic.”
In terms of the exhibit’s importance in our contemporary landscape, Bibby spoke on the MFA’s 2020 plan for diversification. “It shows that institutions are willing to open up the floor for other artists...it’s extremely important that they’re taking (the MFA 2020) seriously.” She also applauded the layout of the exhibit, saying that “I think that art is kind of seen as being high brow and far off, and not a lot of people are into the fine arts,” so to Bibby, it’s exciting that the MFA is “making it accessible for especially college students in the area to come to see it and experience it and make it more consumable for the everyday person.”
Women Take the Floor is sticking around until May 3, 2021, so there’s still plenty of time to put down the books for a few hours (this is your reminder to take a break!) and get down to the MFA. Admission is free for BC students—all you have to do is bring your student ID. This exhibit is truly remarkable, not only for its message, but also for the art itself. The pieces are beautiful, captivating, and breathtakingly sincere. You’re not going to want to miss it. These female artists have “taken the floor,” and now they’re asking for you to take the time.