Seattle Art Museum’s upcoming exhibition is bigger than feminism. 

“People think if you’re a feminist, all you talk about is women. But it’s much larger than that; all things are connected.” –Kathleen Hanna, Pitchfork, Aug. 15, 2012

In 1992, when four women were voted into the United States Senate for the first time in history, news media declared “The Year of the Woman.” To which newly appointed Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland retorted, “Calling 1992 the Year of the Woman makes it sound like the Year of the Caribou or the Year of the Asparagus. We’re not a fad, fancy, or a year.”

Twenty years later, women are still considered a special interest group. In 2012, simply being a woman can be a revolutionary act. Instead of a Year of the Woman, pundits proclaim a War on Women. More than ever before, feminism conflates politics and popular culture, obscuring an ongoing struggle so entrenched it’s easily overlooked. Consider the antithetical coexistence of Pussy Riot, Sarah Palin, Hilary Clinton, Liz Lemon, Girls. And soon, Elles, a revisionist history of art in the 20th century.

For three months this fall and winter, Seattle Art Museum will showcase work by 75 women artists from around the world—paintings, drawings, videography, photography, sculptural objects and graphic design created between 1907 and 2007. The exhibition, which opens Oct. 11, will feature 130 artworks from the Centre Pompidou in Paris, which houses Europe’s largest collection of modern art. From the Pompidou will come works by Frida Kahlo, Cindy Sherman, Hannah Wilke, Dora Maar, Diane Arbus and many more.

The only museum in North America to host the Elles exhibition, SAM will also reinstall its contemporary galleries with 30 artworks from its permanent collection, supplemented by works on loan from local private collections. This portion of the exhibition includes work by Georgia O’Keefe, abstract impressionist heavyweight Lee Krasner, conceptual artist Jenny Holzer, Japanese mixed-media artist Yayoi Kusama, Seattle-based artist Victoria Haven, video artist Adrian Piper and others.

Curators at SAM were inspired by the Pompidou’s elles@centrepompidou exhibition, which opened in 2009 after the museum’s senior curator, Camille Morineau, returned to Paris from a sabatical spent studying art history at Williams College in Massachusettes.

“In the States, you think about women’s art. In France, never,” Morineau told the LA Times in 2009. “It’s not a subject. If the subject does not exist, there is no possibility of discussion. For me, that’s the big issue about doing this. We are turning it into a subject.”

Whether that exhibition fulfilled Morineau’s mission was debatable. “The art press simply ignored it,” wrote The Guardian’s Germaine Greer in an ambivalent review. She went on: “By lumping the major with the minor, and by showing only minor works of major figures, elles@centrepompidou managed to convince too many visitors that there was such a thing as women’s art and that women artists were going nowhere. Wrong, on both counts.”

Germaine Greer, it must be noted, is a longstanding firebrand feminist. Despite her dismissal—or rather in addition to it—the exchange of ideas Morineau envisioned comes to life in this cross-continental connection between the United States and France, American feminism and Gallic progressivism. The original elles@centrepompidou couldn’t exist without it.

Marisa C. Sánchez, SAM’s assistant curator of modern and contemporary art, picked up the exchange two years ago during a visit to the Pompidou. Along with her counterpart at there, she selected the works that will travel from Paris to SAM. Catharina Manchanda, SAM’s lead curator of modern and contemporary art, is overseeing SAM’s portion of Elles.

“This is not a definitive survey of everything women have done over the course of the 20th century,” Manchanda says during a recent walk-through at SAM. “We look at this as the tip of the iceberg, a beginning from which you can ask many other questions and tell different stories.”

Adds Sánchez, “The questioning and the probing and openness of interpretation that comes with an exhibition like this—it’s gonna be wonderful to see how our audiences engage in the conversation.”

For Seattleites, the conversation will be hard to ignore. SAM’s tagline for the exhibition, which will appear on television commercials, billboards and buses, is provocative: women take over. The theme will spill out of the museum and into the community at large, with three months of exhibitions, lectures, theatre and dance performances, films and other assorted events taking place in venues around the city—from the Henry to Capitol Hill boutiques to Pioneer Square galleries—involving organizations like Reel Grrls, On the Boards, El Centro De La Raza and the Seattle Psychoanalytic Society and Institute. Along with the downtown museum, the Seattle Asian Art Museum will host new works by Indian and Chinese women.

“We were in a meeting with community partners about Elles and I was like, Wouldn’t it be amazing if we curated the city?” says Sandra Jackson Dumont, SAM’s deputy director for education and public programs/adjunct curator. “The idea being it’s not just about SAM but about how we create a synergistic moment in the city where people feel like everywhere they go they feel this thing, through the lense of culture and commerce and communication. It’s about agency and sharing power.”

Those terms—“agency,” “sharing power”—are associated not only with feminism but with civil rights in general. Other recent SAM exhibitions of similar size—featuring Picasso and Gauguin, for example—humanized their subjects, indirectly suggesting ideas of inclusivity and diversity. But Elles is even more indicative of the museum’s evolving position in Seattle’s cultural landscape.

“I’ve seen us move into some uncomfortable conversations and change the way we do things, the mentality and civic responsibility that SAM exudes,” Dumont says. “The museum becomes the site for these exchanges about amazing ideas.”

Here’s one of those ideas: Say someone walks into SAM totally ignorant of the Elles exhibition and its theme. He or she spends time appreciating the artwork (which will take up half of the second floor and all of the third). Will this hypothetical person determine that the work is entirely by women? Is there a female sensibility?

“That’s an interesting question,” Sánchez says. “But it’s not the case.”

Germaine Greer wasn’t thinking big enough. In true feminist fashion, Elles is not an argument, it’s an invitation: A survey of women artists of the 20th century that suggests there’s nothing so definitive, so limiting, as women’s art. Instead there is conversation, there is sharing, there is everything.


Elles: Women Artists from the Centre Pompidou, Paris opens Oct. 11 at the Seattle Art Museum and closes Jan. 13, 2013. Pictured above: “Nusch Eluard” (1935) by Dora Maar.