[Note: this story has been modified since its original posting to correct errors.]
Last fall, David White began thinking about how, in today’s global political climate, women’s ideas, images, sounds and words needed to be seen and heard.
For years, White, executive director of the Missouri Symphony Society and Missouri Theatre, has been producing a summer music festival. White presented his idea of a women’s art festival to more than a half-dozen local artists, who didn’t need much persuading.
“I am thoroughly convinced that patriarchal society has not provided an equal artistic voice for women,” White says. “It’s totally your turn to figure out this mess.”
The result is the inaugural Women in Tune Festival, a four-day exploration of the visual arts, music, dance, theater and storytelling by women.
The festival was conceived as a celebration of women’s creativity that will simultaneously raise awareness of social and health issues. Columbia has supported women’s art in the past. Last fall’s six-day Beaux Arts Bizarre Educational Society’s Arts Bizarre at the Missouri Theatre featured 50 women artists selling everything from hand-crafted jewelry to textiles and soap.
The concept of a women’s festival revolves around the relationship between identity and experience. The planners started with the assumption that women need a supportive platform to communicate individual experiences, and that by making art, culture is produced and understood.
The convergence of art and social issues in the same space gained importance during the women’s movement of the early 1970s. Events such as Women in Tune raise questions about whether identity politics is still relevant today and, more importantly, whether it can be used to raise social consciousness.
Female artists had a difficult time making it in the art world until the late 1960s, when politics and creative expression became tied to gender, race and ethnicity. Groups, such as the Black Panthers, embraced separatist ideologies as a means to self-empowerment and to create change in specific communities. Likewise, the women’s movement evolved from the splintering of the New Left political movement, and by the 1970s, women’s-studies programs were being created at academic institutions.
Women’s-art festivals, quite naturally, grew out of the understanding that identity was constructed both individually and collectively. Women made art to share the realities of their lives. In 1972, visual artists Miriam Shapiro and Judy Chicago created Womanhouse by transforming an empty Hollywood house into scenes that told the story of women’s everyday experiences. The images of sewing, cooking and ironing joined personal experience with political awareness.
More than 30 years later, after many advances for women’s rights, the WiT Festival and Womanhouse share the ideology that art can do something — tell stories, celebrate experience, ask questions, raise awareness.
Women’s art has been part of the mainstream art world for a generation now, but it is still often showcased as a historically underrepresented body of work. For example, the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., which opened in the late 1980s, contains the work of women artists from a variety of periods and nationalities.
The WiT Festival’s program, spread out over four venues, brings together a culturally diverse group of local and national artists that planners hope will attract people of all ages, from teens to senior citizens.
While the festival features the work of women artists, Kanani May, one of the festival’s planners and director of public relations for the Missouri Symphony Society and Missouri Theatre, said she hopes men will enjoy the festival’s entertainment and educational opportunities as well.
Still, May uses a popular 1960’s-era phrase to describe the planner’s belief that women still need a platform for expression in today’s culture. “Although we’ve come a long way, baby,” she says, “we’ve still got a long way to go.”
Meanwhile, White believes our culture has deteriorated under men’s leadership. He hopes festivals like WiT can offer a different perspective on culture and politics through words, music, dance, paint and theater.
In a year when Michael Moore’s documentary “Fahrenheit 911” has broken box office records, the relationship of art and politics is on America’s radar. The WiT Festival will foster this discussion.
“Art is art,” White says.