This is not Ideal: Gender myths and their transformation

  • Gallery discussion: Art History in the #MeToo Era


    From #MeToo to What Now?: Coping with Sexualized Violence in Art History

    Author: Nicole Scalissi, HAA graduate student

    In mounting This is Not Ideal: Gender Myths and Their Transformation the curatorial team wisely produced a slate of public programming to create space for community processing, discussion, dissent, and response to the challenging and often difficult content in the exhibition. The first of these events was an open discussion for us—students, instructors, curators, artists, and members of the public—to talk about what it means to engage with artworks that show gender-based and sexualized violence in the era of #MeToo.

    In 2017, #MeToo became a viral hash-tag following high-profile and celebrity disclosures of sexual abuse, and spawned a public referendum on sexualized violence. Me Too was originally founded by Tarana Burke and had been helping survivors, especially women and girls of color, find pathways to healing since 2006. Our open discussion was intended to be a space for offering up questions and sharing knowledge about how can we rethink how we (or do we) include—in our galleries, research, and classrooms—artworks that directly engage with gender-based and/or sexualized violence in the Me Too moment? With contributions from Sylvia Rhor, Curator and University Art Gallery Director, and artist Sarika Goulatia, the discussion was provoked by the sophisticated curation process of the Museum Studies students who produced This is Not Ideal, and it’s a big question that some museums, artists, and universities are only starting to grapple with publically. 

    On the one hand, that seems like an over-due question: isn’t it about time? On the other hand, this is a profoundly difficult question to take on for people who curate, teach, or learn about art history: throughout time, and especially in the Western tradition, the history of art is full of images of naked women and scenes of their victimization—sexual and/or otherwise. Women’s bodies have been pressed into service not just in but asnational histories and identities, myths and cautionary tales. Thinly veiled as “allegory,” women’s bodies have been made vulnerable, exposed, restrained, and consumed as art history. So, how then, are we as students and instructors, curators and artists, to deal with a culture of images that so often takes the female body not as subject but as object—i.e. not as people but as things—as a material, form, or concept to be mined and manhandled, gazed upon and fetishized? If we understand #MeToo or #TimesUp to be a reckoning, a cultural point-of-no-return where survivors, especially women—anatomically and not, cis-gendered and otherwise—can speak up and be believed, then what do we do with works of art that illustrate or are the real world product of actual gender-based violence or oppression?

    We panelists got the conversation started with our own research and concerns. As the historian on the panel, I wanted to get a few things to the surface and sketch out the recent national dialogue surrounding sexualized violence, especially as it has intersected with the universities and art world since over the past 5 years: 

    • controversial changes to Title IX under Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos (more ‘protections’ for those accused of sexual assault, closeddoor adjudication processes) [1]
    • remember Emma Sulkowicz, who carried a 50lb mattress around Columbia University campus for their 2014 senior year in artistic dissent of how CU (mis)handled their rape case? [2]
    • a listing of men’s names, including artist Chuck Close, who have been publically shamed and/or fired—or should be—for sexual misconduct [3]
    • and on the day after the portentous midterm elections and just days after Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony in the US Senate (that the nominee to the Supreme Court Brett Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her), it was right to note the ways in which we have recently witnessed what are perhaps the highest stakes for this nation’s understanding of sexualized violence and its ability, or inability, to believe its bravest survivors. [4]

    Sylvia and Sarika shared with us how presenting Prosecuterix, an interactive exhibition based on real disclosures of sexualized violence, in a university setting impacted upon their work as curator, artist, and as citizens. Sylvia showed us how wading into the difficult territory of public display and sexualized violence produced new questions, ethical considerations, and the building of empathy and support networks, and how that experience shaped how she imagines an audience and her work most broadly as both a educator and curator. For example, how to envision and install an exhibition that allows for varying levels of engagement with problematic content, or how to loop in the Title IX office to support viewers and student curators at different levels in the exhibition process. Even still, the question arose again of how to handle problematic or potentially triggering images in the classroom.

    The discussion was built and shaped by members of HAA at all levels, undergraduate students in HAA and/or Museum Studies, graduate students, and faculty—including the Chair of the department. Undergraduate students who co-curated This is Not Ideal shared the debates they had in selecting objects and writing wall captions, and making decisions about which images would represent the exhibition to the public—issues that emerged from close—and sustained looking in this current social context. Most important, they provided feedback to the instructors in the room about what they felt would help them grapple with such images in the classroom, including what has worked and how they felt they could be better supported. (For this, we are grateful.)

    As new ideas emerged, so too did new questions: if content warnings are utilized on the walls of the UAG to support a diverse audience in navigating the difficulty in This is Not Ideal, might we also use these at the start of lectures, on a syllabus? How specific a warning? How to do we prepare as a learning community to handle unforeseen, unwarned triggers that emerge in a class? How can we help our students beyond the “warning,” how can we direct them toward survivor resources, and build a community of support that outlasts the class? How can we as a university community embed this in our culture, not just in specific lectures that engage with this content? 

    Maybe it is not just warnings and support, but enriching our content. For example, if we teach Alexandre Cabanel’s Birth of Venus (1875), or any of the thousands of female nudes in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum, then perhaps we must also teach The Guerrilla Girls Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into the Met Museum? (1989)—and also that the Met does not own it or any work by the Guerrilla Girls.[5] If we teach the paintings of Chuck Close or Pablo Picasso, ought we also teach about the multiple allegations of sexual misconduct made against them, and the art made in response such as Emma Sulkowicz’s nude performances in front of their paintings at the Met and MoMA? 

    Sylvia and Ellen Larson, Curatorial Assistant at the UAG, convened a panel surrounding a knotty and difficult question, one that is perhaps not answerable in one, final way. A way to begin answering it, however, and to continue the reckoning #MeToo set into motion is something like this discussion: it is navigating this terrain together, responding to the question with more questions, drawing on ideas from other fields, and dialoguing as a community across and through different roles at the university. 


    [1] See Megan Cerullo, “Betsy DeVos Proposes Sexual Misconduct Rules that Would Protect Alleged Offenders,” Los Angeles Times (August 29, 2018),

    [2] Note: Sulkowicz has used gender-neutral pronouns publically since 2017. See Soraya Nadia McDonald, “It’s Hard to Ignore a Woman Toting A Mattress Everywhere She Goes, Which is Why Emma Sulkowicz ss Still Doing it,” The Washington Post (October 29, 2014)

    [3] Claire Voon and Jillian Steinhauer, “For More Women Allege Sexual Misconduct by Chuck Close,” Hyperallergic (January 16, 2018),

    [4] See published transcript, “Christine Blasey Ford’s Opening Statement for Senate Hearing,” [National Public Radio] (September 26, 2018),

    [5] As the Guerrilla Girls pointed out in the artwork—which surely seemed overdue in 1989, too—“Less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art Sections [of the Metropolitan Museum] are women, but 85% of the nudes are female.”


    If you feel you are a survivor of sexual harassment or assault, the University of Pittsburgh has support resources, some of which can be obtained anonymously. For more information and to report, see the Office of Sexual Harassment and Assault Response and Education (SHARE)



    • Graduate Work
    • UAG
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh

    Kim Fox's installation


    Gendered spaces, materials, forms ... and their transformation

    Author: Brooke Wyatt, HAA graduate student and HAA1030 Museum Studies Exhibition Seminar student – Fall 2018 

    Handwork is an exhibition of new work by Pittsburgh artist Kim Fox, currently on view in Contemporary Craft's BNY Mellon Satellite Gallery in the lobby of the Steel Plaza T-Station downtown. Six works are presented, ranging in size from the large-scale Eight-Pointed Star Quilt II (2018), a work that employs two salvaged wooden barn doors for its support, to the more intimate Log Cabin Quilt Block (2018), scaled to the size of the reclaimed wood lath that frames the composition. Fox engages a range of found materials, including vintage tin, paper dress patterns, and a tabletop that was used to cut glass in a hardware store, as seen in Blue Honeycomb (2018). In some cases, Fox links these materials to their previous location and function in manufacturing towns around Pittsburgh. Through wall-text information, we learn that the tabletop came from Clairton, PA, home of U.S. Steel's Clairton Works, the largest coke-producing facility in the United States. The salvaged wood used in another work, Honeycomb (2018), was found at the Jeannette Glass Works, defunct since 1983, but once one of Pennsylvania's premier consumer glass manufacturers. 

    In conjunction with these echoes of the region's industrial history, Fox's use of forms and patterns drawn from the world of quiltmaking reflects parallel traditions in the area's production of housewares and crafts. In Handwork, references to mechanized industry and factory production interface with the aesthetics of homemade, hand-stitched textile work to evoke a complicated reading of gender. Materials and techniques associated with masculinized spaces such as the factory floor and the realm of hard labor intersect with interior, domestic spaces often coded as feminine. The works allow layers of meaning to accumulate as found objects join together with the mark-making, collaging, and repetitive ordering that reveals the artist's working process. Fox combines materials and techniques from craft practice with more conventional fine art approaches, effectively playing with embedded hierarchies about which forms are most valuable or visually provocative. Through her material exploration of these binary constructions —masculine/feminine, public/private, fine art/craft, work/hobby — Fox's work unravels dichotomies to present a composite, layered meditation on labor, place, and the convergence of past and present.

    Bringing new interpretations to traditional paradigms of gendered space, material, and form is central to Fox's visual language, and reverberates with the work of Katie Ott, another Pittsburgh-based artist whose work is currently on view in the University Art Gallery (UAG) at the University of Pittsburgh. Part of the student-curated exhibition This is Not Ideal: Gender myths and their transformation, Ott's work makes a queer and intersectional feminist intervention into the historically masculine domains of woodworking and furniture-making, literally turning the tables on established gender norms around art and craft practice. 

    Handwork is presented in conjunction with Contemporary Craft's biennial show Transformation 10: Contemporary Works in Found Materials, the Elizabeth R. Rafael Founders Prize Exhibition and is on view from September 14, 2018 to January 5, 2019

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  • A 1908 Overland model on display at The Car and Carriage Museum


    Driving the Disenfranchised

    Author: Meghan Lees, HAA1030 Museum Studies Exhibition Seminar student – Fall 2018

    Organized by one of our partners, The Frick Pittsburgh, Driving the Disenfranchised: The Automobile’s Role in Women’s Suffrage explores how the automobile served not only as a turning point for modern life, but also as an iconic symbol for female suffragists during the Progressive Era. Through the installation of a range of women’s fashion and vintage vehicles, many in the trademark yellow of the suffrage movement, the exhibition sends the visitor on a journey through the early twentieth century activism. The creation of the automobile allowed women a form of escape from the confines of the home. It was a symbol of individual mobility and social change. Vehicles were used in activist rallies and decorated in the suffragist’s message for independence and equality.

    This history closely connects with the ideas raised by our exhibition This is not Ideal: Gender myths and their transformation, opening at the University Art Gallery on 26 October. But one way that these exhibitions differ is in their overall tone. Since it commemorates the journey of activism towards giving citizens the right to vote regardless of sex from the first Women’s Rights Convention in July 1848 to the ratification of the 19th Amendment, The Frick Pittsburgh’s exhibit has an appropriately upbeat tone. It is conveys a feeling of pride in documenting the work of these early-twentieth century activists, and shows how a technological innovation, such as an automobile, can produce profound psychological changes in society. This is not Ideal, on the other hand, is less straightforwardly positive. With the title – This is not Ideal – we are taking a stand on issues of gender. The viewer is not meant to look fondly on the narratives told by many of the works we have selected from the UAG collection. Our exhibition asks the visitor to reflect not just on the changing nature of gender myths, but also on the progress that remains to be made.

    The Frick Pittsburgh’s Driving the Disenfranchised: The Automobile’s Role in Women’s Suffrage is currently being held at the Car and Carriage Museum and will continue to be displayed through October 21. This is not Ideal: Gender myths and their transformation opens October 25.

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    Guerrilla Girls, Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?, 1989, offset laser or inkjet print poster. The Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, © Guerrilla Girls


    Guerrilla Girls and the CMOA

    Author: Annie Abernathy, HAA1030 Museum Studies Exhibition Seminar student – Fall 2018

    “Only 4 of the 42 artists in the Carnegie International are women.” So declares a message by the Guerrilla Girls in 1986, produced as part of this feminist art collective’s sustained attack on the inequalities of the art world. As Pittsburgh prepares to welcome the 57th edition of the Carnegie International, the situation is thankfully much better. This year, 17 out of 32 artists included in the International are women.

    The Guerrilla Girls are also making their presence felt in the permanent collection displays of the Carnegie Museum of Art. As part of Crossroads, the museum’s recent rehang of the contemporary galleries, a collection of their posters are currently on display in the Scaife Galleries. What would the Guerrilla Girls think of This is not Ideal: Gender myths and their transformation, the student curated exhibition at the University Art Gallery that opens a few weeks after the Carnegie International? Given their own iconic billboard designs of the 1980s, what might they make of our inclusion of Tom Blackwell’s print I-610 North? Where the Guerrilla Girls use art to protest the art world itself, Blackwell’s work appears to merely repeat and reinforce traditional gendered imagery. Both women in these works are reminiscent of classical depictions of the female nude such as Manet’s Olympia or Titian’s Venus of Urbino. Drawing upon a history in which women have consistently been presented as passive objects, the Guerrilla Girls take a stand. The group of their posters on show in Crossroads at CMOA use the traditional female nude to call out institutional sexism.

    This is not Ideal also uses a historical lens to confront contemporary issues, reinterpreting artworks in the collection to expose their sexist content. The CMOA has often collected works through the Carnegie International, such that the decisions of its curators make a lasting impact on the museum’s collection. As the students curating This is not Ideal have discovered, it is a constant struggle in exhibition making to acknowledge the limits of the collection you are drawing upon. The UAG collection also has its disparities: the statistics are difficuly to calculate, but only about 8% of the works in the collection were created by women. In This is Not Ideal, sexist and traditional histories are challenged through their dialogue with non-normative images. By using a biased history to tell a new narrative, we hope that viewers will see how the past still resonates in the present, and what transformations must occur to effect lasting change.

    Crossroads is now open in the Scaife Galleries at the Carnegie Museum of Art. This is not Ideal: Gender myths and their transformation opens October 25.

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    Andy Warhol, Ladies and Gentlemen (Wilhelmina Ross), 1975, Acrylic and silkscreen on canvas. The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.


    Ladies and Gentleman: Queer subjects at the Warhol and the UAG

    Author: Rebecca Moser, HAA1030 Museum Studies Exhibition Seminar student – Fall 2018

    The student curated University Art Gallery exhibition This is not Ideal: Gender myths and their transformation focuses on themes that revolve around idealized beauty and gender norms as well as the subversions of these ideals by queer subjects. It is no surprise that there is a huge collection of art at the Andy Warhol Museum that can be discussed in regards to gender and sexuality. One of Warhol’s series of works that best fits into such discussions is his Ladies and Gentlemen series.These works are currently on display in conjunction with the Warhol’s forthcoming solo exhibit of the work of Devan Shimoyama, curated by Jessica Beck.

    Although queer subjects are rarer in the University Art Gallery collection than at the Warhol, several works in This is Not Ideal do present variations from the conventions of gender expression. Historical prints of the Chevalier d’Eon and Mary Frith, for example, register the long history of non-normative identities. A more contemporary example featured in the exhibition is the photograph titled Jennifur, by Daniel D. Teoli from his Gender Bender series. As a self-taught social documentary photographer, his goal was to assemble an archive of the people and cultures of Los Angeles street life in the 1970s. While no record of the sitter’s identity exists, their appearance suggests the sitter to be a drag performer or a transgender person.

    This photograph was taken at the same time that Warhol started shooting the Polaroids for his Ladies and Gentlemen series. In recent years, Warhol’s models have begun to be identified and credited, but Teoli’s models still remain unknown. The biggest difference between the works, however, is how each of the artists deal with the fine details of their sitters. In his paintings, Warhol erases the models features that seem less ideal to him, such as masculine attributes, obvious wigs and overdone makeup. These are characteristics that Teoli instead accentuates. Shot on opposite sides of the country, both Teoli and Warhol’s images provide important documents of queer culture in the late twentieth century.

    Devan Shimoyama: Cry Baby opens October 13. This is not Ideal: Gender myths and their transformation opens October 25.

    Rebecca Mosser was also the Milton Fine Museum Profession Fellow at the Andy Warhol Museum in Summer 2018.

    Read more about her internship experience here

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

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