Woman’s Building Lost to a Hitch in ‘Herstory’ : Arts: The downtown structure opened up a new world for feminist artists; with its closing, the leaders are left to ponder an uncertain future.


They came from all parts of the country to Los Angeles. They were art school students from the Midwest, writers from the East, housewives from Orange County, second-time-around college students from the Inland Empire, women making the trek to a new feminist mecca.

The time: mid-'70s. The place: the Feminist Studio Workshop, later to become the Woman’s Building. The quest: to find themselves, to make art, to change the culture.

It was a heady time, and their destination was a place like no other. Both an accredited arts school and a gathering and exhibition space, the Woman’s Building was one of the centers of the feminist art movement. It also played a key role in the development of performance art as a medium.


In Los Angeles, moreover, it was the first arts organization to locate downtown, spearheading the quasi-bohemia that thrived there amid the lofts and warehouses during the late ‘70s and the ‘80s, and that now has all but disappeared.

With the closing last summer of the Woman’s Building home on North Spring Street, an era has come to a close. The board will continue to meet, looking at options for future incarnations.

The archives have been housed at the Smithsonian Institution and elsewhere. The affiliated Women’s Graphics Center has moved to Pasadena’s Armory Center for the Arts, still staffed and used by Woman’s Building members. The Vesta Awards also continue: The 10th annual event in the fall featured art critic Lucy Lippard as keynote speaker, and its proceeds went toward an oral history of the organization.

But the Woman’s Building has passed into “herstory.” And that passing illuminates not only the obstacles to making art in Los Angeles, but also the internal and external threats facing feminism.

Partly because of the increased attention to the politics of race, both class and gender often take a back seat nowadays. That isn’t to say that feminist rallying points don’t exist; there’s the feminization of poverty, for starters, as well as the debate over abortion rights.

“It’s sad to see that public space close,” says Village Voice critic and art historian Arlene Raven, one of the founders of the Woman’s Building. “But I’m proud of it having been open for 18 years--the longest-operating feminist institution. It’s a terrible time for women’s endeavors.”

It’s also a difficult time for the women, whose artistic and professional lives have been shaped by this organization. Now scattered across the country, with established artistic careers and holding a variety of influential positions in the arts, they have lost a vital common ground.

Upon hearing of the closing, artist and Woman’s Building co-founder Judy Chicago sent a postcard to a current board member, summing up the fate of an L.A. cultural landmark.

“I’m upset about the Woman’s Building,” Chicago wrote. “Why can’t we sustain our institutions? That’s what I’d like to know!”

The Woman’s Building, named in homage to the all-but-forgotten structure of the same name and similar intent at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, was the brainchild of three founders: Chicago, Raven and Sheila deBretteville, all of whom were teaching at CalArts during the ‘70s.

Frustrated by the problems of trying to offer feminist education in what they saw as a male-dominated institution, the three left CalArts and set out to found a school of their own in 1973.

That school was the Feminist Studio Workshop, which originally met in DeBretteville’s living room but would soon find a home in a large building near MacArthur Park. Fueled by the momentum of the women’s movement, it lured other fledgling organizations to the same building as tenants: galleries, a travel agency, the Sisterhood bookstore, the National Organization for Women and others.

In 1975, the building was sold, and the workshop transferred to the Spring Street location, although most of the other associated organizations did not go along.

Save a few groups that rented space in the new, three-story downtown location, the Woman’s Building had by 1976 become a single entity. Within that structure, there were various educational, social and cultural programs, including the Feminist Studio Workshop.

“The move downtown really changed the organization,” says performance and video artist Cheri Gaulke, the individual with the longest-running association with the Woman’s Building and a current board member. “Businesses fell out because there was no foot traffic. There was no downtown art at the time. There was just the core community of the Feminist Studio Workshop--women from all over the country wanting to explore what it meant to be feminists and artists and how that could converge in a new kind of art form.”

Things went relatively well during the latter half of the ‘70s, with support from government grants and the groundswell of popular feminism on the political horizon. There was room to breathe, room to make mistakes.

“We never had any traditional administrative structure because we were all artists,” Gaulke says. “We didn’t know how to run a building, and in the ‘70s, the economy was such that you could get away with that. You could float on the strength of a vision.”

They did more than float. In addition to the thriving two-year program of interdisciplinary and collaborative arts--from graphics to video, performance to writing--there were large-scale exhibitions and media events, social, educational and artistic activities of many kinds.

“What was wonderful about the school was that the different disciplines were not separated, and collaboration was encouraged,” says writer Terry Wolverton, who moved from Michigan to Los Angeles in 1976 because of the Woman’s Building and spent 13 years affiliated in various capacities, including a stint as executive director. “It not only encouraged women to focus on their experience as women, it mandated it.”

The emphasis was on finding ways “to put politics into your work,” as Gaulke puts it. An oft-cited credo--frequently attributed to co-founder Raven--stated that the goals of the group’s feminist art were to raise consciousness, to invite dialogue and to transform culture.

From 1976 to 1980, the Feminist Art Workers, a group founded at the Woman’s Building, toured the Midwest with interactive performance and installation artworks. Another group spawned there--the Waitresses--staged works in restaurants focusing on the waitress as metaphor for women in society.

The Incest Awareness Project was a groundbreaking series of efforts in 1978-79 that included an installation in which audience members sat in an area surrounded by video monitors, on which incest survivors recounted their experiences.

“In Mourning and in Rage,” a media and performance event, placed 10 tall women--draped in black, with head extensions to make them 7 feet tall--on the steps of Los Angeles City Hall. Staged at the time of the Hillside Strangler case, the event presented each woman as a symbol for one of the serial killer’s victims and also for a statistic of violence against women.

“1976 and 1977 was a time when the art world was really in the doldrums,” recalls Steven Durland, then a writer for High Performance magazine. “It seemed like the only interesting work being done was coming out of the feminist art world, being done by people like Judy Chicago, Miriam Shapiro, Suzanne Lacy, Leslie Labowitz and others who were (at the Woman’s Building).

“My interest didn’t have to do with any sort of commitment to their politics but in the way they were taking an aesthetic and politicizing it,” says Durland, now High Performance’s editor. “In performance art, most of what had come before was formal experimentation. Had feminist art not come along, the form would probably have died a natural death.”

It was a match that has shaped much of what performance art is today.

“It was a form lacking in misogynist history,” Durland says of the feminists’ being drawn to performance. “Not only did they take the form and politicize it, but they (oriented it toward) autobiography. Now that’s used by artists from cultures outside the mainstream for self- and group affirmation. It’s a way of letting people know they aren’t alone.”

The heyday ended with the ‘70s--some say because of the political climate, some say because of internal, organizational constraints and conflicts. Most people say it was both.

“Things there were great--and extraordinarily difficult,” Wolverton says. “We were experimenting with cooperative management structures, and there were tons of disagreements. Some people didn’t want men in the building. Some wanted it to be public. You name it. And nobody had any experience in management.”

In 1980, after a brief period off the payroll, Wolverton returned to the staff, this time as the assistant to then-director Suzanne Shelton. Wolverton continued to take on more and more administrative responsibilities, and in 1984 she and Sue Maberry, who joined the organization in 1977 and would eventually spend 10 years on staff, became co-executive directors.

“We lived through the debacle of the early ‘80s, when the whole country shifted,” Wolverton says. “President Reagan did away with programs that were responsible for employing 60% of the Woman’s Building’s staff.

“In 1981, we closed the Feminist Studio Workshop. Suddenly, if women were going back to school, they were going into MBA programs, not into experimental feminist art programs.”

Financial cutbacks also caused the Woman’s Building to limit its hours and to sublet two-thirds of the building to individual artists for studio space.

By 1981, all of the founders had left. A second generation--women such as Gaulke, Wolverton and Maberry, who had been students of the original core--set out to professionalize the operation despite difficult times.

“In the ‘70s, there was a certain ease in choosing a marginalized stance,” Wolverton says. “In the ‘80s, there was the feeling that you wouldn’t survive.”

One effort to stave off the slide was the start of a graphics business in 1981. Using the last part of a substantial government grant as seed money, Maberry and others set up a typesetting and design service that was, for a while, a success.

“Everything was leased and borrowed, but the business grew quickly,” says Maberry, who now works at Pasadena’s Armory Center. “It did well the first couple of years, but the Macintosh computer was being developed and there are very few typesetters that made it through that computer revolution.”

When the graphics business folded in 1987, the pool of income that had paid Maberry’s salary was gone. Wolverton served as the sole executive director from 1988 to April, 1989, when she left to pursue her own artistic work. “That last year, in which I did two people’s 60-hour-a-week jobs, took a lot out of me,” she says.

Pauli De Witt was hired to replace Wolverton, but she stayed only briefly and was unsuccessful in rescuing the operation’s finances. Since her departure, the Woman’s Building has been run by its 13-member board.

And the grants are no longer coming in.

“When you’re affiliated with something like the feminist movement, after a while people don’t want to hear about it any more,” Gaulke says. “People think it’s out of style. With the National Endowment for the Arts, we started feeling that we’d get less and less money each year because we weren’t fashionable anymore.”

There may be more, though, than the waning of feminism and the onset of Reaganism to blame for trouble at the Woman’s Building.

Despite something of an artists’ district downtown during the late ‘70s, the true SoHo-ization of that area never materialized, some say because of lack of concerted efforts on the part of the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency.

The late Los Angeles Theatre Center, for example, had been intended to be the jewel in the crown of a gentrified Spring Street, but that never came about. And many small theaters and arts spaces moved out during the ‘80s or have gone under, including High Performance magazine and the Factory Place, Wallenboyd and Boyd Street theaters, the last three under the aegis of director-teacher Scott Kelman. Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, which opened in 1978, remains one of the few alternative performance venues.

“In the late ‘70s it was a little easier because it got sort of trendy to be downtown,” Gaulke says. “But still, it’s not like the art district in Chicago, where all the galleries are on a couple of blocks and they have openings on the same nights and it’s a big party. In L.A., you can be downtown and still be three miles away from someone else who’s downtown.”

“The downtown location was always a problem,” Maberry says. “As the economy got worse, people perceived downtown as being more dangerous. It’s a completely different area than it was.”

Both LACE and the Woman’s Building have had more break-ins in recent years.

Less easy to measure are the ideological schisms that may have exacerbated problems at the Woman’s Building since 1980.

One debate has been over the merits of separatism: both the exclusion of men by women and the exclusion of heterosexual women by lesbians. Even now, these are touchy subjects for some of the women affiliated with the group.

“1980 was the great lesbian showdown--whether the Woman’s Building was going to be all lesbian or not,” says Linda Burnham, co-director of Highways performance space and founding editor of High Performance magazine. “I went down there with (the performance duo) Bob & Bob, and there were these women there who said, ‘Get out!’ Well, Bob & Bob were both wearing nail polish at the time, and they were cordial and managed not to get thrown out.”

That scene was just a symptom of a bigger problem, though. “On the one hand, I can totally understand separatism, especially for a group as marginalized as lesbians,” says Burnham, who ceased to be closely involved with the organization around that time. “But all of their troubles stem from that period.

“They began to be seen as an exclusive organization, and funding and public opinion went in a different direction, toward inclusion rather than exclusion for nonprofit arts.”

Co-founder Raven counters: “Separatism is a crucial part of feminism, a kind of feminism you have to have. Without women segregating themselves off for some part of their lives, they can’t understand themselves apart (from the male-defined culture).”

Wolverton says: “Whether it’s innate or socially constructed, women do have a different set of experiences, often a disadvantaged set.”

Still, the image causes problems.

“I did an article for the Advocate on lesbian artists then and now,” Wolverton says. “Most of them who are now in their 20s cited how restrictive they believed those times to have been (based on what they’ve heard about it), how the movement infringed on personal freedom. The political correctness drove a lot of women away.”

“It’s not that feminist artists don’t exist,” Gaulke says, “but they perceive being involved with an organization like the Woman’s Building as being ghettoizing, not effective for their own careers.”

And divisive as separatism may have been in 1980, it’s even more so--although in different ways--more than a decade later.

“The Woman’s Building was identified as a separatist organization,” Maberry says. “It was positive and necessary for the women at the time, but it’s definitely not what women say they want now.”

This closing of the Woman’s Building had been brewing for some time. Wolverton had been lobbying to leave the Spring Street location since 1983. Then, off and on for the last couple of years, there had been talk of moving to Santa Monica’s 18th Street Arts Complex, where Highways, High Performance magazine, Community Arts Resources and the Electronic Cafe are now located.

Eighteenth Street would have been a particularly poignant location, since Judy Chicago’s installation “The Dinner Party” had once been exhibited there. But those plans fell through with the board’s recent realization that the move was financially untenable.

“With the burden of having that three-story building that cost $5,000 a month in rent and a staff, it was difficult for us to envision the future,” Gaulke says. “The day-to-day responsibility of trying to meet those debts felt like an albatross.

“There’s a real crisis in (determining) what the feminist art strategy is now. In deciding to close the public space, the board acknowledged that we don’t know what the strategy is.”

That, say the women who know, is not only a problem of logistics but also one of operating philosophy.

“Even before I left, there was an awareness that the model on which we were operating needed to change substantially,” Wolverton says. “Because the Woman’s Building had become so institutionalized, it had lost its ability to be responsive to the times.”

Perhaps more than anything, though, it’s a sign of tough times for feminism.

“Women were so angry in the ‘70s, looking at our experiences--rape, incest, battery,” Wolverton says. “When feminism started, there was this idea that in five or 10 years we were going to turn things around. When that didn’t happen, women didn’t want to live in that pain and anger anymore.”