GERMAINE GREER, in her book The Obstacle Race, tells the story of the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876, where, to compensate for under-representation in the main building, a special Women's Pavilion was created, in which a number of contemporary American female artists exhibited their work.
Not all was sweet solidarity; some women artists preferred to vie for space in the main building, in open competition with men. Their fear was of being confined to 'mere backwaters, harems in which women could be segregated and ignored'.
Should women have their own separate pavilion? The question is being debated again 120 years on because of a proposal to set up a Museum of Women's Art (MWA) in London. The idea has occasionally been mooted in the 15 years since Greer's book, and a model already exists in Washington: the National Museum for Women in the Arts, which includes 600 works by 200 women from more than 25 countries. But it's only now that two women, Monica Petzal and Belinda Harding, have put together a strategy and business plan for an MWA in Britain. If all goes well, it could be open within three years.
The flagship for the MWA, an exhibition called 'Reclaiming the Madonna', has just arrived at the Economist Tower in London. It's an undistinguished vessel, the theme of which - 'Art and Motherhood' - is genteel enough to have come from the programme of the London Society of Women Painters 100 years ago. But Petzal and Harding, both of them artists but neither part of the art establishment, seem to have the energy, nous and conviction to get their museum off the ground.
They have certainly got people arguing. Women's art, say supporters of the MWA, needs patronage; their opponents say that's patronising. A gallery is needed, supporters claim, because the art world is male-dominated and women's paintings are still languishing (key word) out of sight or wrongly attributed; no, times have changed, and in the past 15 years anything worth retrieving has been identified and put on display. Look at what Virago did for forgotten women authors; yes, but look at Virago's current financial problems.
These arguments coincide with rows over other proposed museums, 'separatist' or 'thematic' depending on your point of view, such as a London-based Institute of New International Visual Arts (Iniva, an arts centre to promote contemporary artists from Africa, the Caribbean and Asia) or a gallery for Scottish art in Glasgow. But the main issues are simple. Is the MWA a good idea? What will it display? Should we men feel threatened? What's in it for the woman on the Clapham omnibus?
'IT WOULD be a first,' says Maggi Hambling drily, in her Clapham studio and from the far end of her nth cigarette. 'As far as I know, there isn't a museum of men's art.' Hambling, whose new show, 'Towards Laughter', opens at the Barbican this week, would be a prize exhibit in the contemporary section of any museum of women's art. But she is also an artist who says she doesn't 'understand this whole notion of separating the sexes'.
'I couldn't agree more with Picasso, who said that we're all part-male and part-female, and that in a work of art we bring the two together. To be exclusive in art is dangerous. My view is that I'm an artist who happens to be a woman. Sex is part of the creative process, but the work of art itself is beyond sex.
'I used to refuse to take part in women's shows: I thought you might as well have shows devoted to left- handed artists, or artists with red hair. I still hate the idea of a kind of gauze coming between the work of art and the person going to see it, so that the viewer's first thought is: this is a work of art by a woman. George Melly, in the catalogue to my new show, decribes me as a predominantly masculine artist; John Berger, in a letter he sent, says I'm deeply feminine. I find that very amusing.'
As someone with an international reputation, Hambling doesn't need the exposure a Museum of Women's Art might bring. But her point is that she didn't need it before, either, didn't suffer from a lack of role models or encouragement: 'When I was a student at Camberwell in the Sixties, there were far fewer female art students. But Bridget Riley was one of the lecturers. And I suppose I had a feeling that I'd got to be not only as good as the boys but better.'
Hambling, full of wit and challenge, echoes Virginia Woolf in her classic of feminism, A Room of One's Own (1929), which argued that creativity is androgynous: 'It is fatal for a woman to lay the least stress on any grievance; to plead even with justice any cause; in any way to speak consciously as a woman.' Despite this, Hambling is 'all for there being more museums' and would be happy to exhibit at this one, provided its chief criterion was 'quality'. It's a word several other artists and critics also emphasise: their great fear is that the MWA would include work on grounds not of merit but of mere gender correctness - and that its open-door policy would turn it into a kind of Royal Academy Summer Sisterhood Show.
Monica Petzal denies this, while also questioning the q-word: 'Quality is so much a matter of fashion and taste. Does the Tate hold the same attitude towards Carl Andre's bricks as it did 20 years ago? What will people think of Damien Hirst's pickled sheep 20 years from now? Besides, we're not so much addressing the contemporary scene as retrieving older work from the vaults. These works may not necessarily be masterpieces, but if they're interesting and valuable enough they will alter our picture of the history of art. Telling us it's not worth looking would be like having told Carmen Callil not to bother with Virago because she wouldn't find any Victorian fiction worth publishing. We can't know until we've seen what's in the vaults.'
AT THE Tate, Judith Collins, curator of the Modern Collection and of the recent 'Writing on the Wall' show of 20 women writers and artists, takes me to the nearest vault. It's here, below the Thames, that the vast majority of the Tate's collection of paintings by women are to be found - out of sight to all but staff and research students. Many other provincial galleries likewise display only a fraction of their holdings of women's art. The idea has grown up in some feminist critics that, as Germaine Greer puts it, 'a good deal of women's work is rotting in storage'.
The vaults of the Tate may not be typical but there are few signs down here of neglect. Behind huge iron flood-proof doors, in rooms where temperature and humidity are meticulously controlled, each painting is logged and classified. Judith Collins pulls out one of the large, wheely, wire-mesh racks. Two of the 12 paintings on one side of it are by women: an Italian landscape by Winifred Knights and a portrait by Janet Cree, both bought in the early 1930s when these women were recent art-school graduates. There was no purchase grant in those days, says Collins, but no prejudice against women either. She shows me other racks - here a Dora Carrington, there a Vanessa Bell. The Tate needs more wall space: it will get it, with Bankside, in the year 2000, but until then only about 20 per cent of its collection is on display. Most of this, though - perhaps 90 per cent - is by men:
'The Tate's collection is like a wardrobe. We can bring out only a certain amount at a time. But that isn't to diminish the value of what's left inside. The policy of an annual rehang means that anything of value will come out next year or the one after that. If some things never get on the wall that's because the acquisitions policy was too gentle. There is no prejudice on grounds of sex.
'We buy about two things a week. We don't question the gender of the artist - they simply have to reach a certain standard. The Tate responds, rather than leads: I don't think it's the job of a national gallery to correct a historical imbalance. But conditions for women artists are much better now, and if you looked at the proportion of women's work we purchase alongside men's you would see a graph rising at breakneck speed.'
While defending the Tate over the matter of its stores, Collins tentatively supports the MWA: 'I'm against the word 'museum', which means a permanent collection or canon. But there are certain temporary exhibitions, or thematic shows, which get put on in the provinces but never at the Tate or Royal Academy or the Barbican: I'd like to see a show of women landscape artists of the Twenties, or women artists at the Slade, 1890-1970 - women who were a little pushed under by their male contemporaries. We can't do those here because we need the gate money from blockbusters or major monographic shows. A Museum for Women's Art could recover careers in that way. It could also be valuable as a resource or educational centre. We still need to retrieve and store information. There are almost no monographs on women artists.'
Gill Saunders, author of The Nude: A New Perspective and curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum's department of prints, drawings and paintings, broadly supports the MWA. But she, too, is troubled by the question of loans.
'It's true that there's an awful lot in store here, but to preserve works on paper there has to be. Prints and drawings, in particular, can't be on permanent display. We would consider loans to the MWA, as we do to other museums, but only on a short- term basis. It's being over-optimistic if it hopes to assemble a permanent collection from other people's vaults.
'Here at the V & A we have assembled with purpose, and to remove certain items - portrait miniatures, for example - because they happen to be by women would be wrong. They need to be seen in context, alongside work by men; otherwise you're doing women a disservice.
'At present we're working with a publisher to microfiche the women's art here. But we can do that without distorting the collection. I think the MWA has more future as a study centre than a permanent collection.'
Is there such a thing as 'women's art', as opposed to art by women? Susan Wilson, painter, lecturer and curator of the 'Reclaiming the Madonna' exhibition, thinks there is: 'I'd define it as the instinct to decorate and embellish. I see it in my students' work. I see it in Paula Regotdl: an urge to tell stories, an urge to use detail. Since Roger Fry, the theory of pure form has dominated in art history, at the expense of feeling. But sentimentality was prized here once, in the late 19th century. We could see a swing back to that.'
Others agree that a Museum of Women's Art could subtly alter our notion of the past - and of artistic 'value'. Germaine Greer has argued that traditional female 'crafts' deserve to be taken more seriously as art. And Gill Saunders thinks there is a case 'for re-evaluating women's art such as flower painting, once seen as the lowest of the low'.
In the new order, more extreme critics suggest, Abstract Expressionism would be shown up as art for boys, swaggeringly ambitious but deeply sterile. Women's art gentler, prettier, more domestic and accessible - would at last be given its due.
But insistence on these soft 'feminine' qualities risks sending women's art back to the basement. rather than out into the light. Paula Rego, who with her haunting myths and quasi-narratives is the contemporary most often cited as a quintessential women woman artist, expects something more odd and dangerous from the MWA: 'As a woman painter, you bring your own experience with you and have a different story to tell. I think a Museum of Women's Art is a good idea because of the unusual things you might see. 'If you're called a major artist, sometimes not a lot comes across. In outsider art you have glimpses of the fresh and unexpected. It's always good to look at art that's not official art. That's what I'd hope to see.'
HOW realistic is that hope? Or even the hope of establishing the museum at all? The MWA's business plan shows that the immediate task is to raise pounds 14,000 to host a show of Kathe Kollwitz prints next year, and pounds 20,000 to bring the Phoebe AnnAnna Traquair exhibition from last year's Edinburgh Festival. Beyond that, it needs to raise pounds 2m millionfor its own building, projected to open in January 1997. Monica Petzal mentions the Arts Council, the Gulbenkian Foundation, the National Lottery, the Millennium fund. But she thinks most of the funding will be from private sources: 'Women are at last beginning to get their hands on money, in commerce and industry, and I'd expect most of the money to come from them.'
Already the MWA has ve considered several spaces. Someone offered 32 acres in Wallingford, Oxon. There was the chance of a National Trust site in Enniskillen, Fermanagh. A building came up just off the Euston Road in London, a Victorian warehouse with 20,000 square feet of floor space, near the new British Library: if the offer had come later, with more funds accrued, it would have been perfect. London remains the preferred location, not out of metropolitan elitism but because there's a gap in the market restored from here: certain kinds of medium-size innovative shows are more easily put on in the regions these days than in the capital. to here This is the best argument for the MWA: that it would fill a hole. Judith Collins knows that if she were to put on a Gwen John exhibition at the Tate 'there'd be queues round the block'; she can't because the Barbican did so only recently, but perhaps this would be something for the MWA, on a smaller scale.
The problem of separatism remains this wouldn't be just any old non-gender-specific London gallery but Marina Warner, this year's Reith lecturer and author of Monuments and Maidens, sees the MWA as part of a larger movement towards contextual rather than 'pure' exhibitions: 'There's been a definite advance in wanting to scene-set work, to acknowledge that art is not naive and that even a Berthe Morisot carries hidden meanings.
'I think it's a shame in a way that there has to be a Museum of Women's Art it shows that there's still a problem but I think museums that are self-defined in some way (that specialise in tapestry, say) are the way we are moving. It's a reaction against the aesthetic school of hanging, which wants paintings to speak on their own, and is a response to a public, which is saying: 'Help us understand. Teach us how to look'.'
Monica Petzal will be heartened by reactions like this: she wants the MWA to be seen as 'meeting a need, not doling down to the masses from on high. Of course, there's a been much a lot of art-world carping. But I'm interested in art being part of people's lives. I'd want the kind of women who'd feel intimidated going into a Cork Street gallery to come along with their children and feel OK.'
These are good, user-friendly sentiments. In the end, though, the MWA will rise or fall by the quality of the work it assembles. Its critics think that it will not be able to borrow, beg or buy enough work of stature to grace its walls; Monica Petzal and Belinda Harding disagree.
In the meantime, we can all play that well-known boys' game and compile our dream teams: as well as the living and dead those already mentioned, Artemisia Gentileschi, Rosa Bonheur, Elizsabeth Vigee le Brun, Angelica Kauffmann, Mary CassatCassatt, Judith Leyster, Natalia Goncharova, Suzanne Valadon, Frida Kahlo, Barbara Hepworth, Elizabeth Elisabeth Frink, Brigid Bridget Riley, Rachel Whiteread . . . Ghetto or not, a pavilion that brought these artists together would be worth having.
'Maggi Hambling: Towards Laughter': opens at the Barbican, London EC1, EC2 (071-638 4141), on Monday weekon from Tues. 5 July 'Reclaiming the Madonna': runs is at the Economist Tower, St James's St, London SW1, until to 15 July. 15. Today's The symposium on 'Creativity and Motherhood' is at the Scientific Societies Lecture Theatre, New Burlington Plazce, W1, today, from 10am- to 5pm. The ICA, SW1 (071-873 0061),have has organised two debates this week: 'Why a Museum of Women's Art?' (Tues July 5) and 'Art and Motherhood' (Thurs July 7), both 7.30pm. Details of the MWA are available from Lesley Hynes, 071-435 3728 (fax 071-431 8689).
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