Ainsley Cameron on the Cincinnati Art Museum’s ‘Women Breaking Boundaries’ Exhibit
The Cincinnati Art Museum has a special place in my heart. During my DAAP days, I spent hours sketching on the large staircase, staring at the indigo spirals of the Chihuly chandelier, and curling up in the courtyard, trying to identify exactly what surrealist abstraction meant to me.
As a Cincinnatian and a woman, I feel honored to have access to an institution that was founded by female pioneers in art curation. The Cincinnati Art Museum champions the work of female artists – whether they’re well-known or they slipped through the historical cracks. For more than 100 years the Cincinnati Art Museum has been bringing in groundbreaking work created by women, and the tally for female artists they represent has only grown since Dr. Ainsley M. Cameron, curator of South Asian Art, Islamic Art, and Antiquities, joined the team.
“Since I’ve been here, I’ve been acquiring all female artists. I didn’t tell anyone I was doing it; I just did it. And it’s been great, and I plan to continue,” she told us.
Ainsley is one of the masterminds behind the Cincinnati Art Museum’s latest exhibition, “Women Breaking Boundaries,” which celebrates its community opening on October 12 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. The exhibition will be accompanied by a series of breakoff events and galleries – including a special light display for Blink Cincinnati (October 10-13) that supports the exhibition’s goal of celebrating artists who identify as women.
I had the pleasure of sitting down with Ainsley in the museum’s courtyard on a late summer day. We chatted about her personal connection to “Women Breaking Boundaries” and why you should experience it – no matter who you are!
Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your personal history?
I’ve only been in Cincinnati for about two years. I moved here from Philadelphia. Before that I lived in England for about 10 years, and I’m from Canada, originally. So, I’ve moved around a lot. I haven’t lived in Canada since 2003. I miss it. It’s always home. I grew up in Calgary, Alberta, but I went to university in Toronto.
What brought you to Cincinnati?
When you’re a curator, and specifically a curator of the areas I am – South Asian and Islamic are my areas of expertise – you go where the job is. My husband and I are both curators and we were looking for jobs, and the opportunity to come here came up.
We were so excited; it was a great opportunity for us both to have roles, and for us to live in the same city. It’s a great institution to be a part of, and it’s a really great time to join the institution – there’s a lot happening. Membership has skyrocketed and so has attendance; it has been great to see there’s real momentum and energy. It’s great to be part of it.
And have you enjoyed living in the Queen City?
I’ve liked it a lot. It reminds me a little bit of home – of Alberta. I fell in love with the rolling hills and the old houses, all the brick... It’s really beautiful. As an art historian, I love to see beautiful things everywhere.
How was the “Women Breaking Boundaries” exhibition conceived? Can you talk a bit about the connection between the exhibition and Power of Her?
2020 is the 100-year anniversary of women’s suffrage, and we at the Cincinnati Art Museum – along with many arts institutions in the city – were thinking of ways to honor that, celebrate that, and champion women in the arts. I think Cincinnati is so lucky that so many of our arts organizations were founded by these amazing women in the 19th century who were trailblazers. They wanted arts and they made it happen. So, we were trying to find a way to honor that history, and as a curatorial team we came together, thought of a lot of different ideas about the founding history, and our earliest acquisitions. We came across this idea of women breaking boundaries, of women artists who were change-makers in their field, and that really spoke to me.
Can you talk about the women who founded the Cincinnati Art Museum?
There were several women. Our institution was founded in 1881 through the Women’s Art Museum Association. The Women’s Art Museum Association went to Philadelphia in 1876 and saw the Centennial, saw their museum and said, “We want one of those”; came home and made it happen. They opened up the furthest-west museum, and it was an amazing opportunity that they had here. I think Cincinnati has always been a place of entrepreneurship and of change. So, thinking of flashing forward to the Power of Her, it’s the same – organizations coming together and finding ways to champion that.
Can you tell us more about the curation of the exhibition and your process for choosing pieces?
Originally, what we did as a curatorial team – there’s eight of us – is we all came forward with artists and artwork that really spoke to this theme of women who were change-makers. Women who disrupted male-dominated traditions, who were incredibly innovative in what they did.
We all came together with these ideas, and very quickly there’s a hodgepodge of material. We go from the 17th century through today. But, very quickly themes started to develop – very interesting themes. There are artists who deal with race and power dynamics. There are artists who deal with the female nude and sexuality; there are artists who were sort of fighting against male-dominated workshop systems, and finding and forging their own paths. So, through these different avenues, I managed to bring together the historic artworks and the contemporary artworks in really innovative ways, because these are artworks that usually wouldn’t be seen in the same gallery. I’ve got a 17th-century Japanese screen painting by a female artist trained in the Tosa school and I’ve got it next to contemporary fashion Coco Chanel piece – it’s interesting.
What does this exhibition mean to you on a personal level? What does it mean to you to bring these eclectic pieces together into one space?
It has definitely become a passion project for me. I think as a female curator, as a working career woman, as someone just out in the world, I’m facing a lot of these issues that women have always faced in the workplace. I am a mother; I have a 3-year-old son, and I’m trying to raise him to be incredibly socially conscious. I’m in the midst of teaching him about race, identity, and his place in the world and what that means. I feel like a lot of it comes back to that – my dual identity as mother and career person that fed into this for me. It’s been a great opportunity to bring that passion to this project.
Now is a great time to be an artist, and to be a female artist.
I’ve really enjoyed it – learning more about the different artworks on display, but also thinking more broadly about the issues. A lot of what I’m talking about comes down to representation. The representation of artists who identify as female in museum collections – what does that mean? 17.2% of our permanent collection was created by an artist who identifies as female and the national average is 12.6%... That’s pretty good, right? You think we’re doing good. But then thinking more broadly about what’s in the galleries, what are we talking about, what’s on our exhibition schedule? It’s been fascinating to take these ideas and apply them critically to museum practice. It’s something I’m really passionate about. We’re going to have a gallery map that specifically guides visitors through the institution thinking about ideas of gender and representation.
In my research, I found it really difficult to find a lot of art attributed to women before the 17th century. Why is that the case?
It depends where you’re looking, and what society and culture you’re looking at. There wasn’t really a place and space for women to follow an artistic practice. It was a very elite practice, often. So, you had to have the money in order to spend the time and energy on training. At some point in the academies, sure, women were allowed to learn and train, but they weren’t allowed to attend a drawing class because there would be a male nude. So, there have always been these barriers to pushing forward. What’s also really interesting is we talk about anonymous women. There are a lot of anonymous women – lace makers, quilt makers, a lot of art forms where the identity of the artist didn’t survive in the historic record. Maybe it wasn’t deemed as important enough, maybe it was seen as a craft tradition and not an arts tradition.
When did women start emerging more in the art industry? Was there a certain turning point?
I think what you see that’s really interesting in the exhibition is some 19th century art done by a woman whose biography we do not have. And then you see some of the ceramicists and women who were working in silver who have their name and are known, but they were pushing a boulder uphill. They were working in very much male-dominated systems.
And then you move forward to the 1950s with Helen Frankenthaler, who was an incredible abstract expressionist, who had some recognition while she was alive and while she was creating these art works, but even that – abstract expressionism was a male-dominated art form. You see known women and named artists at the fringes of a lot of traditions, but you don’t always see them at the center. As that moves forward, if you think of contemporary art more broadly, now is a great time to be an artist, and to be a female artist.
What were some of the challenges faced by these artists and how did that inform their creations? Can you give us a glimpse into some of the pieces we’ll see?
So, how I approached it was a few different ways. Part of it was through artistic innovation. You have some artists portrayed in the show who were doing radically different things. You see Bonnie Cashin – one of the fashion designers in the show; she really transformed the way women wear clothes. She incorporated pockets and purses inside of the garment itself to keep your hands free. And she did that for herself. She traveled a lot and thought, “This is incredibly cumbersome.”
I’ve got diaspora artists; I’ve got a work by Shahzia Sikander, who grew up in Pakistan and moved to the U.S., and the piece that we have is from 1993 – her first year in the U.S. Talking about the boundaries that she had to break as a Muslim, as a woman, as an immigrant, as a young person trying to find her way, so it’s everything. The boundaries are everywhere, and how we overcome them is a part of that.
These are some really powerful women who are working within established traditions, disrupting it just enough to get what they need, and really making a difference.
Lillian Whitteker was based in Cincinnati. She made a little suffragette doll – it was sold as a pattern. Subversive protofeminism – you’re a mom; you’ve got a young daughter; you want to talk about women’s rights and the right to vote, so you give them a doll. They stitch it – women’s work. It’s a massively important political message.
Fashion designer Madeleine Vionnet worked very hard to remove the corset from women’s clothing, altering the way a woman’s body was perceived in public.
Hester Bateman ran her husband’s silversmithing company for 30 years after he died. I’ve been really enjoying the 19th century decorative arts that I’ve been putting in, because these are some really powerful women who are working within established traditions, disrupting it just enough to get what they need, and really making a difference.”
Ann Lowe was a really incredible African American fashion designer who designed Jackie Kennedy’s wedding dress. Very intricate and incredible craftsmanship.
One other work that’s being featured – it’s by an artist named Amanda Curreri, who was featured at the Contemporary Arts Center last year. She’s mainly a textiles artist, but she’s a social activist and sort of participatory experience maker. We’re working with her to create a piece that will work as a place for reflection to critically engage with the themes of the exhibition. So, she’s creating a garment rack full of wearable garments that the visitor will come and put on and think about some of the themes – voting rights, empowerment through fashion or representation, or gender and identity. It’s going to be a powerful work.
What are some of the emotions you think people will experience at “Women Breaking Boundaries”?
I look for connection. Whether it’s through the beauty of the art, the emotional connection, any which way. I don’t think there’s only one avenue to connect with an artwork. So if you come to the gallery and say, “I love that”; “I hate that”... Have a reaction. Have it trigger a memory, a thought, something you want to look up later when you get home. Just have an experience. We want to create memorable experiences for visitors.
Who is the most inspirational woman in your life?
My mom. My mom broke boundaries; she did incredible things. She was an incredible career woman, feminist; raised me and my brother to be global, socially conscious citizens before it was cool to do that. We moved around a lot; we followed her career; we followed her passions. She taught me that following your passion brings joy.