Work In Progress: Eighteen Months Ago, Woman Made Gallery Started An Overhaul in the Wake of a Racially Charged Unraveling

“Boundaries”, judged by Whitney LaMora. Work by Morgan Bukovec / Photo: Georgia Hampton

It has been more than a year since the country’s artistic institutions published their promises, declarations and commitments, in various verbiages, to “do better” with racial justice. Some have stayed the course, others have returned to the status quo. Most fall somewhere in the middle and have spent the past year and a half adjusting to a new standard of equity and inclusion.

Woman Made Gallery is a non-profit exhibition space that focuses on women and non-binary artists. In June 2020, the new director of the Woman Made Gallery left, citing “racism in the organization and micro-attacks in the workplace,” according to a gallery statement. Then a staff member resigned, for similar reasons. Then a council member left. In the end, the gallery ended the summer with full staff turnover and a very small board of directors.

The 5th Midwest Open, with a jury from Alison Wong. Illustration by Candace Compton Pappas, with WMG Managing Director Jamie Pitts / Photo: Ireashia M. Bennett

At the time of her racially-motivated disentanglement, Woman Made was also operating under pandemic conditions and facing her own brand of Founder’s Syndrome. “It was in this environment that I was hired,” explains Jamie Pitts, the gallery’s current general manager.

When we spoke in mid-November 2021, Pitts wanted to be honest – she’s tired. “Exhausted” is the word she uses, and the word she will continue to use throughout our conversation. “The model of a scrappy, artist-run space was exhausted,” Pitts says of Woman Made when she was hired. “It was no longer possible for [it] to continue to function as before.

Pitts did her graduate studies in visual culture and in studies of women, gender and sexuality. “Basically feminist art,” she says. She came to Woman Made with big ideas about her staff model and approach to fairness. She wanted to see a radical shift in the direction of intersectional feminism and readjust the gallery’s employment structure into a less hierarchical model. But first, she had to listen.

“Boundaries”, judged by Whitney LaMora. Work by Morgan Bukovec / Photo: Georgia Hampton

“For me, as the new leader of an organization, I needed… to find the truths,” says Pitts, “to hear everyone’s position, to determine what we need to stabilize ourselves after such rupture where all the staff left for various reasons. And I knew the board was exhausted.

From his previous experiences, Pitts also knew the pitfalls of trying to lead an organization to a place of inclusion without top-level support. After getting to know the board, she again made it clear her commitment to intersectional feminism. For Pitts, that meant “asking questions about how work is done and who has the power in making the decision.” Some members have left. “They were exhausted, they had been through a very traumatic experience,” says Pitts. “They left because they didn’t see themselves growing up with me and the new vision for the organization.”

Woman Made Gallery programming coordinator Darshita Jain at the reception for ‘Water Becomes Blood’, with a jury by Lish Atchison Roeder / Photo: Ireashia M. Bennett

With a lean but willing board of directors, Pitts has identified a four-month racial justice training course that anyone can take. “This was the first time the organization had invested financially in learning about racial justice,” says Pitts. She also made her first and only hire: Darshita Jain, as the gallery’s programming coordinator.

Throughout the interview process, Pitts has been resolutely transparent about the environment. In the final job interview, Pitts asked Jain, “As a woman of color, would you be okay with working under these conditions? Jain wasn’t just okay with it, she was excited for it. “[The gallery] I needed to start working on anti-racism and working on decolonization, and I signed up to be that person, ”Jain says. “That’s the kind of person I am.”

When the Woman Made Gallery was founded in 1992 by Beate Minkovski and Kelly Hensen, it was founded out of lack. Minkovski and Hensen were graduate art students at Northeastern Illinois University and were frustrated with the lack of space to show their work. They rented space at Ravenswood Manor on the North Side of Chicago and opened their own store. They opened the gallery with an exhibition titled “Man-Made Woman”. Their second, a group show, was called “Women Do Women”.

“It was born out of second wave feminism. It was really the aesthetic of the gallery’s first ten years, ”Jain says. “Very Judy Chicago. We still have a painting of Judy Chicago somewhere in the gallery. It was very old school, very ‘rage against men.’

This will not happen until about thirty years later. The friends of friends ethic that supported the gallery in its early and mid-decade was turned upside down with the social justice movement of 2020. “If you are two white women, then your friends and friends of friends and your friends of friends of friends are probably all white women, ”Jain says.

Exhibits at the Woman Made Gallery are usually group exhibitions, where participating artists are chosen by a jury. One of the first things Jain did as a program manager was develop a jury matrix. The matrix has eight columns: career position, medium, identity, geography, alignment of concerns, relationship with gallery, role in the art world, and extent of influence.

“When you do the work of anti-racism and decolonization, you have to constantly check your own biases,” Jain explains, “So that’s how we control ourselves. The matrix helps the gallery to recognize its own patterns and to break its own cycles.

Installation view, “Boundaries”, jury by Whitney LaMora / Photo: Georgia Hampton

If Jain looks at the document and finds that the previous juror was a mid-career artist, she’ll be looking for someone very new or very experienced. If the gallery has hosted a few new media artists in a row, then they will try to “cater to the old school crowd” by putting on a more pictorial exhibition. And she’s always on the lookout for the realization: “Hey, we’ve had too many white women lately,” Jain says.

Over fifty percent of the gallery’s current board of directors is women of color, the most diverse it has ever been. They formed committees within the board to create a more focused environment and to honor the different strengths and experiences of board members.

The gallery’s programming is also changing direction. “What are the intersectional feminist topics that are relevant to our artists? Pitts asks. “Moments Like This”, a recent exhibition whose jury is Jessica Bingham, focused on slow living. It was about “resisting the need to overproduce in a capitalist society,” says Pitts. “It was also blazing a trail by being anti-capitalist, too.”

“Water becomes blood”, directed by Lish Atchison Roeder. Illustration by Haylie Jimenez / Photo: Ireashia M. Bennett

The word “abundance” appears in conversation with Pitts almost as often as “exhaustion.” “An abundant creative community,” she says repeatedly, “is one of my values. We have limited resources and only one gallery space, but how do we overcome the scarcity and become abundantly spirit? “

The nonprofit world is often seen as congruent with the world changers, the noble visionaries who want to bring good to the world. It is less often possible to view the nonprofit as a site for change in itself. And while it’s important for us to point out the gains, and the lack thereof, over the anti-racist statements of the summer of 2020, it’s also important to recognize that being a work in progress takes a lot of work.

Internal change has forced Pitts and the team to come to terms with the fact that their work is not linear. “We’re cutting back on conditions rather than coming up with a preconceived outcome,” says Pitts. And although she is hesitant to make “big announcements,” admitting that Woman Made still incubates her reshaped values ​​and commitments, she is confident that the structures and team they have built over the past year will support the new management of Woman Made. .

“I like to see this moment as an opportunity to reinvent an organization,” says Pitts. An organization “which was cherished by a large number of artists, which had a history of inclusive programming to develop, and which had a strong base of supporters keen to see WMG transform into the bright, intersectional, feminist future that Darshita and I. , along with the board, are now planning. (Parker Yamasaki)

Woman Made Gallery, 2150 South Canalport,

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