The New York Feminist Art Institute
by Katie Cercone

Place of first publication
nparadoxa:  international feminist art journal: Incidental, volume 22 2008

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The New York Feminist Art Institute (1979-1990): incidents and anecdotes

The New York Feminist Art Institute
By Katie Cercone

An oral history of the New York Feminist Art Institute (NYFAI) based on interviews with founders, faculty, and members is currently being compiled as a donation to the Rutgers’s University Library which houses the NYFAI’s documentary archive. This is a project funded through a generous grant by the daughters of deceased NYFAI member Helen Stockton in honor of their mother. This short history of the NYFAI uses some of this material to demonstrate how the teaching curriculum contributed to this unique institution.

On a spring day in March 1979, hundreds gathered to celebrate the installation of Louise Nevelson’s commissioned wall sculpture in the lobby of the World Trade Center in New York. An important force within contemporary sculpture, Nevelson’s accomplishment acted as a symbolic monument to the potential for all women artists to be recognized as the equals of men. A benefit held in the same space also marked the beginnings of the New York Feminist Art Institute, a new feminist art institution, organized with the help of then Ms. Magazine editor Harriet Lyons and the Ms. staff.

The NYFAI was founded by a small collective of women artists: Nancy Azara, Lucille Lessane, Irene Peslikis, Miriam Schapiro, Carol Stronghilos, and Selena Whitefeather. The feminist process of consciousness-raising in the preceding decade which they had each undertaken had helped them to recognize the need for an art school on the East Coast that approached the visual arts from a feminist perspective and used consciousness-raising as a primary technique in developing women’s experiences into artistic ideas. As Nancy Azara recalls, “It was in 1970 in my consciousness-raising group that I first used the word I in conversation with a sense of my own power and the first time that I called myself a woman.” Through consciousness raising the women who founded the NYFAI became critical of cultural artistic myths about gender, race and sexuality. They were keen to open up a space where they could enter into and make art for and about their experience as women.

The Institute opened its classroom doors on July 9, 1979 with the ambitious vision of giving students both an increasing self-awareness and the skills necessary for the visual translation of a personal point of view shaped by an historical and political consciousness. The first members of the NYFAI utilized consciousness-raising techniques, particularly the circle-format meeting group in which all spoke in a way that put emphasis on the word “I,” and encouraged each woman to articulate and reflect on her life experience. Consciousness-raising circles emphasized the importance of each woman’s experience because at the time many women spoke in terms of “we” rather than the more assertive and self-affirming “I.”

Irene Peslikis suggests the context of the Institute was important because “New feminist ideas need an environment in which to be developed and nourished, as well as the power of an institution to make them known.” The NYFAI was the only school on the East Coast at that time to combine both art and feminism and, as a holistic educational institution, the NYFAI entered an art world in which nurturing the artist as a person, particularly as a woman, was absent from most other creative study programs. As Alix Kates Shulman noted in the introduction for the catalog of the NYFAI’s first full time program in September 1979, “An art institute which has the daring and vision to undertake the education of the whole artist – not only the eye and the hand, but the mind, feelings, sensibility and deep sources of vision – has the possibility of creating art we have not imagined before. For too long women have been discouraged from acquiring the full range of artistic skills, cut off from full expression of feeling arising from women’s wide achievement, relegated to the periphery of the public world of artistic creation. The brilliantly conceived holistic program of the New York Feminist Art Institute seems designed, not only to remedy the scandalous exclusions and injuries women have traditionally suffered as artists, but to encourage the discovery of untapped powers of insight and expression.”

New York Feminist
Art Institute
© 2009
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