Women's Work Is Never Done

An Oral History of Women & Their Work's First Quarter-Century

Chris Cowden and Kathryn Davidson
Chris Cowden and Kathryn Davidson (Photo By Bret Brookshire)

A sign of the times: People once mistook Women & Their Work for a secretarial service; now, a quarter-century after its inception, people mistake Women & Their Work for an entrepreneurial service. It is, indeed, neither. Started in 1978 as a grassroots feminist arts collaborative, Women & Their Work has evolved into an Austin institution, which has survived collapsing economies and shifts in location and mission to become one of the city's premier visual arts spaces. While sister galleries grew outdated or disgruntled, Women & Their Work simply grew. How it got from here to there is a story of art and finance, luck and loyalty, and the work of some fiercely talented women. These are a few of them.

Part I: Of Fellowship and Feminism

Begun as a six-week women's arts festival -- the brainchild of artists Deanna Stevenson, Carol Taylor, and Rita Starpattern -- Women & Their Work soon became a year-round venture, promoting all sorts of women's arts around the city. "They were doing everything," poet Harryette Mullen remembers. "And they were doing it right." Of its three founders, Starpattern stayed the longest, developing the visual arts side of the organization that would eventually become its primary identity.

Deanna Stevenson: I was interested in forming an organization that met the needs of women artists and multicultural artists. My background was in music, and I wanted a partner who had a second field of interest in the arts, and that became Rita Starpattern. Rita and I didn't know each other, but I had inquired about a person who would be an excellent political visual arts partner and who had feminist leanings, as did I. What we found was that we weren't seeing the work of women around us anywhere, and we were interested in looking at Texas as a whole.

"During this period, many women started organizing around the issue of equal representation in the arts, in terms of both gender and race. The first alternative galleries devoted to women -- Womanspace in Los Angeles and AIR Gallery -- were founded in 1972. Over the next six years, more than ten like-minded associations formed across the country."

"25 Years of Women & Their Work,"
Amy Dove, ArtLies, Fall 2002

Stevenson: I coined the name. Since we were multifaceted in terms of the arts, we kept saying "work" -- work in dance, work in music. And we also wanted to conflate art and work together, because there was an interest in saying that people were "art workers." They weren't stars, they didn't just hang their pieces on walls. They were productive people, and this was their work. Our first attempt was a six-week festival for the arts. I think you can't even imagine the excitement with which people approached this. It was as if a whole new world opened up for the artists involved. After that, we got a small staff of part-time workers, and our visibility grew, as did our programs. We had some extraordinary writers workshops with some of the most famous writers in the United States. We had some pushback from people who felt that they didn't want to be identified as women artists. They wanted to be "artists" and thought this would ghettoize their work. And yet, in the end, we had people like Millie Wilson, who has become a well-known visual artist. We had Harryette Mullen, who is a poet known across the world. We had women of high quality as well as women who were beginning to get their feet wet.

Harryette Mullen: When I was a student at UT, they sponsored a workshop that brought in Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde, and I participated in the workshop as an inexperienced poet going to meet the great ones. So there they were offering me role models and inspiration and even a workshop where I could hear something about women writing poetry. And I got encouragement and continued and eventually became someone whose name was on the program. And I remember going to the gallery, seeing art exhibits that they sponsored. We were interested in just anything that would expand our horizon, because sometimes, you know, bluebonnets are not enough.

Stevenson: I was there for the first five years of the organization's history. It was exciting to put it together, to bring people in whose ideas were similar, but I became less interested in the actual structuring of the organization, although I believe strongly in it being a permanent institution. So, many kudos for the leaders who stayed and continued to make the organization relevant.

Jill Bedgood: In the Eighties, Rita Starpattern had organized a meeting that I attended. Part of the issue was how to get work as women artists. How do you get into the system? One thing Women & Their Work offered was some kind of networking system. I wanted to learn how to write grants, and Rita Starpattern was invaluable. She sat down with me for hours and poured out her information to me. For an artist, this is so incredibly important. And now I've gotten grants from the Rockefeller Foundation, from the National Endowment for the Arts, and I can go back and say, "She's the one who taught me how to write grants. And I have received x amount of money due to that."

Connie Arismendi: I started volunteering at Women & Their Work in the Eighties, and Rita Starpattern and I became friends. What she taught me, and what I carry to this day, is that if you see something lacking in the community, if there's something to be done, you can make a change. I have watched the arts scene change in Austin, and that's happened through the service and commitment of some really wonderful people, and Rita is right up there.

"Rita Starpattern, née Rita Jeanne Murphey, died of cancer on April 21, 1996 ... Once described by Ms. Magazine as one of the '80 Women to Watch in the '80s,' Rita Starpattern was a talented energetic artist, a feminist, and a civic leader ... She served as director [of Women & Their Work] for eight years; during her tenure Women & Their Work was the first organization in Texas to be awarded a grant by the National Endowment for the Arts in Visual Art. Women & Their Work continues as one of the most successful women's cultural arts organizations in the United States."

-- April 24, 1996, Austin American-Statesman

Rita Starpattern
Rita Starpattern (Photo By Ave Bonar)

Part II: Trading Spaces

Though its files were once kept in bicycle baskets and Deanna Stevenson's van, Women & Their Work spent the Eighties and Nineties in search of a space that could accommodate its aesthetics as well as its pocketbook. Since 1995, Women & Their Work has owned an elegant and eminently transformable 2,000-square-foot gallery on Lavaca, operated by Executive Director Chris Cowden and Associate Director Kathryn Davidson.

Chris Cowden: Rita got a position at the Texas Commission on the Arts, so I became the director -- six weeks before my first child and three months before the entire Austin economy imploded. That was 1986. We were in a one-room office over the Revco drug store, in bankruptcy now, which just shows you that some art is more enduring than commerce. Those were dark hours. We were 8 years old, but we didn't have a space. We got this place, two rooms and a hall on Fifth Street -- after we moved out, the children's museum used it as a closet, but we were so excited. We had over 100 applications to show, even in this space that was not adequate at all. Austin wasn't the Austin we know now. In 1990, everything was in bankruptcy.

Kathryn Davidson: When I came from Houston in 1989, I was looking for art galleries in Austin, and I couldn't find any. Women & Their Work was one of the few art galleries that was here. And I thought, "Where's the art?"

Cowden: There's a line from Samuel Johnson: "Nothing so concentrates the mind as knowing you will hang in a fortnight." And knowing that we didn't have any money, we just wrote grants like crazy.

Arismendi: It was kind of a guerrilla group in terms of finding exhibition space. Chris found the gallery space over on Sixth Street [now F8]. You could show larger, more contemporary work. And as an alternative space, Women & Their Work is committed to showing art that maybe doesn't have a place in commercial galleries.

Cowden: People always said that space had a New York feel, because it had a 15-foot ceiling and exposed pipes. We were there for five years, then we got gentrified out. The economy started to rebound. But we needed more space anyway. So we moved to Lavaca in '95.

Bedgood: They always desired to have their own gallery space, but it's also important that you stay alive and don't get in over your head. We all know in Texas there's these grandiose ideas for institutions to develop some kind of exhibition venues, and the economy does a downturn, and instead of having something we have nothing at all. I think Chris made some tough decisions in order to keep the place alive.

Part III: It's the Artist, Stupid

Women & Their Work has shown the work of nearly 1,700 artists, launched innumerable careers, and won "Best Gallery" in the "Best of Austin" Readers Poll for the past two years. Recipient of a $100,000 grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation, W&TW has all the earmarks of endurance: a gallery, a board, internship and educational outreach programs, and most important, a loyal community of artists.

Cowden: How we saw ourselves as being important was that we were focused on the artists, and museums were focused on the art. We pick the artist based on the aesthetic that we see in the slides, but they're not bound to that work. They can create all new work for a show. Not every experiment succeeds, but it's something they get so little chance to do, to have these 2,000 square feet and go.

Beverly Penn: Women & Their Work is well-known as a pretty wonderful opportunity for people who want to show work at an alternative gallery. And they are open to all kinds of work -- installation work, performance art. It's pretty spectacular, that carte blanche to be able to do whatever you want. And they pay artists, which is rare.

Bedgood: Being an artist whose work is considered controversial, I have to acknowledge that commercial galleries are not part of the art that I make. And what Women & Their Work allows is for artists to do whatever they want. It's an opportunity for people who have a voice that's different from someone who sells in a commercial gallery to exhibit their work and therefore for other people to see it.

Margo Sawyer: I had my first show in Austin with them, and it was early in my career, so primarily Women & Their Work functions as a sort of opportunity for artists to have their first major solo exhibition. I later had a second solo show with them, and that represented a big shift in my work. So it's been a career milestone and a stepping stone.

Women's Work Is Never Done

Bedgood: I think it has always provided an opportunity for young people, but also it continues to support women who are more mature, who continue to make work.

Penn: It's one of the best places in the city to look at art, too. And now they create these brochures for every show, which kind of flag the space. It's a benchmark -- either people want to do their brochures like Women & Their Work's brochure or not like Women & Their Work's brochure. It's a point of comparison.

Cowden: There are precious few galleries like Women & Their Work left. Someone asked me, "Well, why are you still here?" And it kind of took me back for a minute. I think some of the other women's galleries got tripped up on doctrine or ideology or internal fighting. We might have been able to avoid that by focusing on the artist. And there's still a need. Women certainly have come quite a long way. No question. But some statistics are sobering, and we keep that voice heard.

Artists in the U.S.
Males: 53%
Females: 47%

Invited Exhibitions
Males: 81%
Females: 19%

Eleanor Dickinson,
Gender Discrimination in the Art Field, 2001

Sawyer: There aren't many not-for-profits in the arts that have been around for 25 years. I think it owes to good leadership -- Rita and now Chris. And also to the artists themselves and the work that's been done over the years. It has really made the career of many artists in Texas, and for a long time it was one of the most beautiful spaces in Austin. So often when I show my slides, people are like, "Wow, where's that?" Within Austin, I don't think people realize what a jewel they have in Women & Their Work. It's a great institution. It's in Austin -- not in Dallas or Houston or San Antonio -- and, you know, it's a biggie.

Cowden: There's always this tension between becoming an institution and staying a fresh voice. But I'll tell you, there's a lot to be said for becoming an institution. This woman from the Warhol Foundation was saying, "In 25 years, you've only had one deficit, and you're in Texas, and you're a women's organization!" Because Texas is maybe not the state you'd think would put forward the work of women artists. I don't know if we should say it's shocking that it's happened here -- but some people might. end story

Deanna Stevenson lives in Los Angeles, where she works in local politics.

Harryette Mullen is a professor at UCLA. Her books of poetry include Muse and Drudge, S*PeRM**KT, and Trimmings.

Jill Bedgood is an Austin sculptor and an adjunct professor at Southwest Texas State University.

Connie Arismendi is an Austin installation artist.

Chris Cowden has been the executive director of Women & Their Work since 1986.

Kathryn Davidson has been the associate director of Women & Their Work since 1990.

Beverly Penn is an Austin sculptor and installation artist.

Margo Sawyer is an installation artist and professor of art at the University of Texas. She also serves on the board of Women & Their Work.

  • More of the Story

  • "Inside/Outside: Work by Texas Women Photographers"

    The Women & Their Work exhibition "Inside / Outside: Work by Texas Women Photographers" finds established Texas artists alongside newcomers, and what this important exhibit reveals are new and older generations in step with one another, the future and the past side by side.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

New recipes and food news delivered Mondays

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle