Here Are 25 Inspiring Women in the Art World Who Overcame Obstacles to Accomplish Incredible Things in This Surreal Year
These museum directors, artists, curators, and dealers stepped up to the plate in 2020.
It has been an unpredictable year for us all.
Faced with having to adapt to new challenges, we have each had to come up with new ways of interacting, coping, growing, and understanding the world. And perhaps the biggest lesson of the year is how deeply interconnected our lives really are, and how important it is to listen to one another and work together, so that individual successes ensure a more equitable future.
As the year comes to a close, we look at a group of art-world women who have inspired us this year, and whose innovative, resonant, and forward-looking work has proven essential throughout 2020. Here’s who they are, and how they inspired us.
Who She Is: President and CEO, United States Artists
How She Inspired Us in 2020: Within weeks of the world shutting down in March, Haggag and a group of cultural funders assembled, Avengers-style, to provide much-needed help to struggling artists—fast. The result is the now nearly $20 million Artists Relief Fund, which is offering individual $5,000 grants to thousands of creators and makers in need through December. And Haggag did not stop there: in October, news broke that her organization would work with the Mellon and Ford Foundations to administer the only financial award in the US for disabled creatives from all disciplines.
Who She Is: Director and CEO, Lucas Museum of Narrative Art
How She Inspired Us in 2020: In a year of job losses, Jackson-Dumont made headlines for hiring… and hiring, and hiring, and hiring. In the year since the former head of education at the Metropolitan Museum of Art took the top job at the yet-to-open Lucas Museum, she has built an unparalleled team, including Pilar Tompkins Rivas as chief curator and Amanda Hunt as director of public programs and creative practice. Arts leaders struggling to build a diverse staff should take note: Five of six recent leadership roles at the institution have been filled by people of color. And all six are women.
Who She Is: Director, Counterspace collaborative architectural studio
How She Inspired Us in 2020: Vally is forging a new canon of African architecture that factors in social concerns as well as issues of sustainability. With her colleagues Sarah de Villiers and Amina Kaskar, Vally has been commissioned to design the 2020–21 Serpentine Pavilion in London, which the trio are making from thousands of bricks made from recycled rubbish, manufactured without the carbon-emitting process of firing. As a way to bring different communities into the prestigious commission, the pavilion will also include objects inspired by designs seen in diverse community spaces around London.
Who She Is: Curator, Serpentine Galleries
How She Inspired Us in 2020: The curator founded the Serpentine’s general ecology program in 2018 in an effort to model an ecologically friendly institution. The long-term project is a strategic effort to embed environmental subjects and methods into everything the gallery does, from pledging to reduce its own carbon emissions to dedicating this entire year to exploring ecological concerns. This year, it invited more than 60 leading artists, architects, poets, filmmakers, scientists, thinkers, and designers to devise projects responding to the environmental crisis.
Christine Sun Kim
Who She Is: Artist
How She Inspired Us in 2020: In 2019, Kim sent ripples through the art world with her humble charcoal drawings at the Whitney Biennial visualizing “deaf rage.” The artist—one of eight who withdrew their work from the show because of former board member Warren Kanders—then moved on to the country’s most widely-viewed TV event when she was tapped to perform the National Anthem at the Super Bowl alongside Demi Lovato as part of an ongoing partnership between the NFL and the National Association of the Deaf. In 2020 she was awarded an inaugural fellowship through the newly created Disability Futures foundation.
Who She Is: Curator, Brooklyn Museum of Art
How She Inspired Us in 2020: When Black Lives Matter protests roiled New York this summer, Hermo and the Brooklyn Museum stepped up to provide safe spaces for activists to rest. Then, as arts and cultural workers around the city were furloughed or laid off, Hermo shifted gears to help raise $64,000 in mutual-aid funds for axed employees. If that weren’t enough, in October, she curated “Ministry of Truth: 1984/2020,” a sprawling public-art show featuring billboards designed by 20 artists across New York City.
Who She Is: Curator, Studio Museum in Harlem
How She Inspired Us in 2020: This year, Russell published her first book, Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto, which explores how digital tools have opened up spaces for queer identity, trans identity, and marginalized people in general, and how artists have been utilizing these spaces. Meanwhile, whereas others struggled to find footing in digital programming during this year, Russell jumped right in, hosting a stream of nuanced artist talks via Instagram Live. She also curated one of the few readily accessible exhibitions of the year, “Chloë Bass: Wayfinding,” at St. Nicholas Park in Harlem.
Who She Is: President, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation
How She Inspired Us in 2020: Considered by some to be the single most influential person working in philanthropy today, Alexander is a force to be reckoned with. This year, the Mellon Foundation teamed up with the Arison Arts Foundation to create a $10 million relief fund pledging $5,000 awards to 100 artists every week through September 2020. Later in the summer, Alexander leveraged her position at the helm of the country’s largest arts and humanities funder to shift the organization’s perspective toward social-justice reforms, announcing that its entire grant-making program would be reoriented to “create a more fair, more just, and more beautiful society.”
Who She Is: Curator
How She Inspired Us in 2020: The 24-year-old curator is a fast-rising star in the art world who says she wants to “level the playing field” for Black artists. Not only have star artists including Derrick Adams painted her likeness, but Ross-Sutton was also tapped by Christie’s this year for an auction that—in a rare move—benefitted artists. The sale, “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud),” featured 22 emerging and mid-career creators.
Who She Is: Artist
How She Inspired Us in 2020: Although Rose Wylie followed conventional pathways into a career in art, the pioneering painter was unafraid to break with de rigeur styles, producing colorful and expressive paintings over the course of a six-decade career. Her late-career market success is a testament to her diligence: she is now represented by the mega-dealer David Zwirner, and had her first US solo in Aspen this year.
Who She Is: Artist
How She Inspired Us in 2020: Since her striking portrait of Michelle Obama was revealed in 2018, Sherald has occupied a unique place in the public eye. Following the death of Breonna Taylor, Sherald debuted a luminous portrait of Taylor, which appeared on the cover of Vogue magazine. Sherald also earned headlines when she resigned from the board of the Baltimore Museum of Art as the museum neared the execution of a controversial deaccessioning plan.
Who She Is: Chair, board of trustees, Otis College of Art and Design
How She Inspired Us in 2020: This August, the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles announced that Mei-Lee Ney has committed $1 million to bolstering anti-racism initiatives. “I made my donation because racial injustice is something I feel strongly about,” Ney said at the time. “Systemic racism within our educational, financial, and societal institutions disproportionately affects Black communities and can create additional obstacles for students, faculty, and staff.”
Who She Is: Artist
How She Inspired Us in 2020: The Ethiopian-born artist’s work, which she describes as “story maps of no location,” took on visualizing much of the tumult that has rocked the United States this year. A recurring theme in her large-scale canvases are sites of protest: she uses cartography and data to collapse orderly city plans into abstracted data graphs that are punctuated by calligraphic marks. A survey of Mehretu’s work debuted at LACMA in 2019, and will open in spring 2021 at the Whitney Museum in New York.
Who She Is: Artist
How She Inspired Us in 2020: We spent a lot of 2020 scrolling to alleviate the boredom of lockdown, while also trying to stay on top of tectonic shifts taking place in the public sphere. New York-based artist Meriem Bennani’s video series, “2 Lizards,” captured that spliced reality perfectly. The short videos, which she made with film editor Orian Barki, feature a pair of reptiles coping with life in a way that is funny, poignant, and—curiously—deeply human.
Who She Is: Artist
How She Inspired Us in 2020: One of the preeminent Young British Artists, Emin is known for her disarmingly autobiographical paintings and sculptures—and has been for decades. But this year, her staggering cancer survival story left us even more inspired by the artist for her ability to convey strength and vulnerability in tandem. In a year marked by major crises, the artist quietly battled her own—and spoke of hope and optimism.
Who She Is: Founder, Concept NV curatorial agency
How She Inspired Us in 2020: Vassell, a Jamaican-born model who moved to New York in 1996, joined Deitch Projects in 2005 as the gallery’s director. After Jeffrey Deitch shuttered the space to head up MOCA in Los Angeles, Vassell moved over to the blue-chip Pace Gallery, where she served as director for two years before leaving to launch Concept NV, a curatorial agency through which she has organized exhibitions for major Black artists such as David Hammons and Nick Cave, and then-emerging talents like Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. Earlier this month, Vassell revealed that she would be embarking on yet another project: a New York gallery space of her own to elevate and show new work by dynamic artists from all backgrounds.
Who She Is: Chief curator, Baltimore Museum of Art
How She Inspired Us in 2020: Naeem spearheaded the Baltimore Museum of Art’s institutional commitment to acquire only works by women artists in 2020. This—coupled with year-long programming focused on female artists—coincided with the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, granting women in the US the right to vote. Naeem dubbed the museum’s programming initiative a “re-correcting of the canon.”
Who She Is: Artist
How She Inspired Us in 2020: In her hyperreal paintings, the Los Angeles-based artist Calida Rawles studies triple consciousness: Blackness, life as a woman, and the myths of America. Scenes from her work took on new life after the police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. In her art, the gravity of the moment—its politics, history, violence, and lessons—is presented and reckoned with in ways that are both sobering and hopeful.
Who She Is: Artist
How She Inspired Us in 2020: The New York- and Berlin-based artist has been engaged with the zeitgeist issues of the year. In the spring, she worked with a group of artists on the Mask Crusaders project to deliver equipment from artist studios to frontline workers in need, as well as the Cancel the Rent campaign. More recently she offered paintings to fundraise for #SayHerName, a benefit for the African American Policy Forum. Henrot’s timely 13-minute video art tour-de-force, Grosse Fatigue (2013)—a video mashup of life on earth via a collage of internet and museum research—streamed in the online exhibitions “Video Lives” at the Museum of Modern Art, TRANSMISSIONS, and “In The Beginning” at the Hirshhorn Museum.
Ebony L. Haynes
Who She Is: Dealer
How She Inspired Us in 2020: Ebony Haynes, the on-the-rise gallerist who has served as director of Matos Gallery while being a guest professor at the Yale School of Art, launched a monthly program of free classes for Black students hoping to learn how to better navigate the art industry. Last month, Haynes stepped into arguably her biggest role yet, heading a new, exhibition-focused gallery and curatorial program in cooperation with David Zwirner. The space and its programs, which will be led by an all-Black staff, will be a kunsthalle of sorts, according to Haynes, and will seek to create, in Zwirner’s words, “a new mold for gallery programming.”
Who She Is: Artist
How She Inspired Us in 2020: The Brooklyn-based sculptor Simone Leigh’s large-scale ceramic sculptures, which reference utilitarian ceramic vessels used throughout the African diaspora, reflect the histories and personal experiences of Black women, calling attention, in particular, to their labor as the backbone of community. After exhibiting at the 2019 Whitney Biennial and debuting her work in a solo exhibition at the Guggenheim, following her Hugo Boss prize win in 2018, Leigh’s star has only risen, cementing her place as one of the most prominent artists working today. Next up, she will conceive the American pavilion for the 2022 Venice Biennale.
Who She Is: Co-founder and executive director, of Stoneleaf Retreat
How She Inspired Us in 2020: Toomer, a long-time champion of women artists who has helmed the Pulse, Collective Design, and IFPDA art fairs, hasn’t let 2020 slow her down. This summer, Toomer launched Upstate Art Weekend to bring together art lovers fleeing New York for greener pastures in the Hudson Valley. And with Katy Donoghue, she staged virtual events for the growing Art Mamas community, dedicated to supporting mothers in the art world.
Who She Is: Curator, Bronx Museum of Art
How She Inspired Us in 2020: With co-director Rebecca Jampol, Wahi has brought socially engaged art from emerging figures to Newark’s Project for Empty Space for a decade. This September, Wahi starting a second job in New York, while at the same time managing to find a new space in downtown Newark for her other project. Her new post at the Bronx Museum as social justice curator—plus her 23,000 followers on Instagram—provide Wahi with the perfect platform to address issues of structural racism and equity in the art world.
Who She Is: Director, Queens Museum
How She Inspired Us in 2020: When New York City became the epicenter of the global health crisis, Corona, Queens, was New York’s most heavily impacted neighborhood. Recognizing how hard hit the Queens Museum’s local community had been, Tallant began to work with nearby organizations to provide relief. In June, the Queens Museum launched the La Jornada Together We Can Food Pantry, offering weekly food distributions to families living in the Corona zip code. (Since opening, the pantry has fed 14,650 families and counting.) And as the museum reopened its galleries in September, it made admission free of charge, allowing New Yorkers in any financial situation to experience its exhibitions.
Who She Is: Director, Blanton Museum of Art
How She Inspired Us in 2020: While museums around the US were unleashing wave upon wave of layoffs and furloughs, Simone Wicha oversaw a survey of workers allowing museum staff to identify underutilized skills that were deployed to finish tasks that had long been on the museum’s back burner. A museum HVAC specialist, for example, was tasked with penning handwritten thank-you notes to donors in excellent cursive. Wicha’s creative thinking paid off, and allowed the Blanton to keep its staff intact throughout the shutdown.
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