Curator Katy Hessel’s Museum Audio Guides Spotlight Overlooked Women Artists

These new guides will roll out in museums in the U.S. and U.K. throughout Women's History Month.

Katy Hessel at the Met. Photo: Aurola Wedman Alfaro, courtesy of the Met.

Within an endless procession of museum halls filled to the brim with celebrated male painters, it is an exciting novelty to spot just one or two works by some relatively unsung woman artist. Hanging in pokey corner, they can easily be missed and there’s not often much info with which to gain a deeper insight.

The art historian and podcaster Katy Hessel has a plan to pull historical female and gender non-conforming would-be greats out from the margins and into the spotlight with the launch of “Museums Without Men.”

The new series of audio guides will be rolled out in March, or Women’s History Month, at various landmark institutions in the U.S. and the U.K., starting today with the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. This will be followed up with the Metropolitan Museum of Art on March 8, the Hepworth Wakefield in northern England in March 19, the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington D.C. on March 22, and Tate Britain on March 25. More guides will be launched in the future.

A painting of horses

Rosa Bonheur, The Horse Fair (1852). Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Cornelius Vanderbilt, 1887.

Hessel’s voice will expertly navigate audiences towards works by underrepresented artists that might be otherwise lost in a sea of Old Masters and macho modernists. The Met may have once been on the receiving end of stern words from the Guerrilla Girls, who infamously asked in 1984 whether women need to be naked to get in. After all, though they made up less than four percent of the artists, women were overrepresented among the nudes at 76 percent.

As visitors in 2024 will learn from the new audio guide, things are finally looking up. The tour will introduce listeners to the work of artists like 19th-century animal painter Rosa Bonheur, Surrealist bad girl Leonora Carrington, and New York-based artist Wangechi Mutu.

On the other coast, visitors to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco will be directed towards the organic-inspired sculptures of Ruth Asawa, one of Bisa Butler’s striking tapestries, and a print by the leading Impressionist Mary Cassatt.

Lee Krasner, Siren (1966). Photo: Cathy Carver, courtesy of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

Unsurprisingly, the modernist pioneer Barbara Hepworth will dominate commentary at the Hepworth Wakefield, but ceramicist Lucie Rie will also have her moment. Huge contemporary art stars like the painter Jadé Fadojutimi and photographer Rene Matić also feature.

“I hope this project will help focus attention on the works by women that already exist in collections worldwide,” said Hessel. “My wish is to introduce new and existing museum visitors, of all backgrounds, to artists they may not be familiar with.”

Hessel is the founder of the @thegreatwomenartists account on Instagram and hosts a podcast with the same name. In response to The Story of Art, Ernst Gombrich’s quintessential art historical tome, she wrote The Story of Art Without Men, which was published in the U.K. in 2022 and in the U.S. a year later.

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