May 6, 2015


After Matthew Offenbacher won a $25,000 art prize, he did something radical. He made a conceptual artwork with Jennifer Nemhauser that consisted of buying works by women and queer artists for Seattle Art Museum.

by Jen Graves

Woman Landing on Man on the Moon by Ann Leda Shapiro. It has never been exhibited before. Now Seattle Art Museum owns it. Images courtesy of the artists and Seattle Art Museum.

When the traveling Elles exhibition came to Seattle Art Museum in 2012 from one of the most respected modern art museums in the world, Seattle encountered an embarrassing problem.

Elles was a big show, organized by the Centre Pompidou in Paris, with more than 130 pieces in it dating from 1907 to 2007. Momentously, it included zero male artists. Women artists alone told 20th-century art history, from Frida Kahlo to Diane Arbus to Marina Abramovic.

As a symbolic gesture, Seattle Art Museum wanted to create a companion exhibition out of its own holdings. The plan was that SAM would empty out the galleries and rehang them entirely with art in their permanent collection by women.

There was just one problem.

SAM’s 20th-century holdings, like the holdings of most museums, are so woman-poor that there was no way to fill their galleries solely with art by women. Private lenders were solicited to step in. SAM’s “collection” galleries temporarily became galleries filled with other people’s stuff.

The point had been to demonstrate how much Seattle’s largest art museum values women. But Elles inadvertently revealed how much it hadn’t.

Among the women artists whose work SAM had never acquired was Ann Leda Shapiro. Shapiro lives on idyllic Vashon Island, the perfect place for an early feminist artist to hide out during the Reagan, Clinton, and Bush years. The last time Shapiro made a splash as an artist was in 1973, when she had a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, her hometown.

Two Sides of Self by Ann Leda Shapiro, which the artist says was censored in the ’70s by the Whitney Museum of American Art. Courtesy of the artist and Seattle Art Museum.

There were two solo shows by women at the Whitney in November of 1973. The other artist was Lee Krasner—an abstract painter who, at that time, was still almost entirely known as a famous man’s wife (that drip-painter fellow, rhymes with “bollock”).

Unlike Krasner, Shapiro is no abstractionist. She’s completely out there with her subject matter. Her 1970s watercolors are feminist and antiwar fantasias, depicting hermaphroditic mermaids with interlocking nipples, fish that look like little missiles, and female astronauts whose penises and breasts are imprinted with the American flag.

When the drawing department at the Whitney invited her to show, Shapiro sent slides, the works were approved, and then she sent in the works themselves. At that point, she was confoundingly informed by the curator that two pieces, one titled Two Sides of Self (the mermaids) and one titled Anger, would not be allowed to be shown in the Whitney because “anything erect was edited out, anything limp was hung, if you know what I mean,” according to Shapiro. (This anecdote may prompt your own extended consideration of whether the female mermaids’ penises are, in fact, erect. They appear to be in something of a middle state.)

In other words, Shapiro’s work was deemed obscene and inappropriate for a fine-art museum. But she took notice the following year when her friend Jim Nutt, a male artist who uses overtly sexualized imagery, had a big exhibition at the Whitney.

At the time of her own show, Shapiro didn’t even think of fighting it.

“I was young and I was shocked, and I just sort of said, oh, I’m lucky the show is hanging, and that was that,” she told me. “I chose not to participate in the art world per se after that, just at alternative spaces or university art galleries. But what I think is important is that I didn’t do internalized censorship. I painted what I wanted to paint.”

An archivist at the Whitney confirms Shapiro’s exhibition in November 1973, but the museum’s files contain no mention of censorship. Nor do the files contain a final list of which works went up on the walls.

After a time, Shapiro turned her studies toward acupuncture and Chinese medicine, moved to Vashon Island, and mostly disappeared from the art world. She kept painting, but Seattle Art Museum, the major art museum in her adopted region, never even knew she existed.

A few weeks ago, Two Sides of Self, the mermaid watercolor, and another watercolor that has never gone on exhibit anywhere, Woman Landing on Man on the Moon, crossed over to the other side—into SAM’s permanent collection.

Now SAM is spending its money and energy protecting these pieces, each no larger than a kitchen cutting board. Shapiro hopes that SAM in 2015 will be willing to exhibit what the Whitney of 1973 would not.

“I hope they hang it on the walls—that’s my concern,” Shapiro said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they don’t.”

She paused.

“I usually show at the credit union on Vashon.”

The only reason that Ann Leda Shapiro has been inducted into future art history as told by SAM is that Seattle artist Matthew Offenbacher recently won a prize and, together with Jennifer Nemhauser, decided to do something revolutionary with it.

Offenbacher is a mid-level Seattle artist. He’s a painter but also an organizer of artists, and the publisher of a smart, influential zine called La Norda Specialo. His paintings are not included in any Seattle museum collections, but he has been recognized for them. In 2013, he won the Neddy at Cornish in painting, which comes with an unrestricted $25,000 award. An unrestricted award means you can do whatever you want with the money—buy a convertible, blow it on the best beach vacation ever.

But Offenbacher and Jennifer Nemhauser, his partner of 25 years, decided to take the money coming into their household and send it right back out. They bought art by female and queer artists who live locally and they donated it to SAM for the permanent collection.

“It’s a conversation we’ve had for as long as we’ve been together—the issue of who is valued, who gets to be written into textbooks in history,” Nemhauser said. She’s a biology professor at the University of Washington, and has the same questions about science as Offenbacher has about art.

After Elles made painfully obvious just how slim museum holdings are, meetings of Seattle artists were convened, including one called the Seattle Women’s Convention, to ask: What next? What can we do to support women artists better?

Not long after Offenbacher won the $25,000, he sent SAM curators Catharina Manchanda and Chiyo Ishikawa a simple e-mail requesting a meeting. Right away, there was interest. Soon the two curators were in a fifth-floor conference room with Offenbacher and Nemhauser, talking about their idea. Offenbacher and Nemhauser had brought with them a list of 50 artists and works they felt represented the best of local feminist and queer art.

It was, Manchanda said, “the most unusual project in relation to an acquisition that I’ve ever worked on.”

Offenbacher and Nemhauser proposed the whole project as a work of art unto itself, called Deed of Gift. The work is not only the gift of the small collection to the museum, but the process leading up to the gift.

“As a gesture, as a project, as an undertaking, I see it as an extension of Matt’s larger self-understanding as an artist,” Manchanda continued, “and as an artist who wants to make a difference in the local community. I may be overstating it if I say I’m seeing it as an art project, but it felt that way.”

Deed of Gift—there is an actual legal deed documenting the deed that was done—can also be seen as an epic act of kindness.

“What a generous gift,” said Robert Kaplan, a museum trustee who is on the acquisitions committee. (Kaplan is a major collector of Australian aboriginal art.) “He must be quite an interesting person.”

But that’s not how Offenbacher and Nemhauser prefer to see it.

“We don’t like it at all when people say,“‘You’re so generous,’” Offenbacher told me. “The intention of it wasn’t to be generous, really... I’d like it to be understood as an art project that was trying to start conversations and have symbolic value in the community around how artists and artworks are valued, how museums make value.”

“It starts from a hard place,” Nemhauser elaborated. “It wants to bring up really hard things to talk about. Charity is a little different. [Deed of Gift] is not selfless. We’re really deeply invested in our community in Seattle and think there are some hard questions that need to be asked and discussed. This art project is a bit of a prod.”

In other words, giving to SAM was a way of critiquing SAM from the inside.

“I’m not naive, I never would have made it into the Seattle Art Museum,” said Joey Veltkamp, the only male artist of the seven.

His piece that entered the collection as part of Deed of Gift is a quilt, referencing that domestic “feminine” craft, made using fabric that’s patterned with butch plaids and symbols of the rugged outdoors in Montana—plus swatches with bears and squares of fuzzy faux polar-bear fur. “It’s just so damn sweet. It’s just such a gentle institutional critique. Like a hug. Like, ‘Okay, you’re missing some things, so let’s give them to you. That seems to be really hard, maybe this will help.’”

When Manchanda visited Veltkamp for a studio visit as part of her stealth research for Deed of Gift, Veltkamp didn’t know why someone so important was visiting him. He’s a self-taught artist. Being part of SAM’s collection is “shockingly validating,” he said later. It was good at the time he didn’t know the stakes were high, because he figured why not go for it, and he and the curator were able to have a real conversation, he said.

Joey Veltkamp’s Glacier quilt. His version of the domestic “feminine” craft is patterned with butch plaids and symbols of the rugged outdoors.

“She talked about [how] it actually is hard to get work at SAM by women artists and queer artists, because, you know, someone might approach you with money, and you direct them toward a piece, and that money might dry up if it’s a piece by a woman or a queer artist,” said Veltkamp. “It just kind of shocked me that in 2015, that’s still a challenge sometimes.”

(Manchanda said later that she would characterize their conversation differently. As she explained it, “Some people are drawn to things that are more classic—to, say, key moments in the history of art—and then others want to be politically engaged.” Manchanda added that she “would personally love to build the legacy” at SAM in feminist work and conceptual art of the 1960s, two areas where SAM’s collection is thin.)

SAM does not keep tabs on the gender breakdown of its modern and contemporary art collection, according to a spokesperson. But upon request, SAM was able to tally how many works by male and female artists the museum has acquired in the last two years for its modern and contemporary collections, which cover the 20th and 21st centuries.

In that span, SAM acquired 221 works total: 35 by women and 186 by men.

It’s difficult to come to tidy conclusions about a project as complex as Deed of Gift, but one sure thing is that Deed reveals how much unseen power and sway people with money have over what the museum decides to preserve for posterity.

This should come as no surprise. Almost every art museum in this country was founded by a rich man giving over his rare, expensive stuff. The family gets the windfall from the tax break for donating, and the public gets culture, so it’s a win-win.

But science was always part of the picture, too. Museums are meant to gather together artistic experiences and assess them in a comprehensive way that no single person’s taste could. They are meant to write history, to be factual. They classify art by breaking it down into time periods and geographical regions and styles, and those styles are understood as more than mere fashions—they reflect back the larger world from which they derive.

The professionalized, academically based, quasi-scientific, yet popular art museum—the American art museum as it stands today, like Seattle Art Museum—is crawling with conflicts and paradoxes that never overtly make it into the galleries. Those are the heart of Deed of Gift.

Seattle Art Museum is a private entity, but with that name, it sounds like a public agency. As a civic symbol, it ought to reflect the entire city and not just an elite slice of it. Offenbacher and Nemhauser chose SAM rather than the Henry Art Gallery or the smaller Frye Art Museum for that reason. What SAM owns in some senses the city owns. If SAM supports women artists, then this particular city is a comparatively good place for women artists.

“Giving work to a museum is automatically made to be a charity act,” Offenbacher said. He’s getting heaped with praise for being a donor. But, he said, like it or not, “collectors and donors should realize they have much more of an influence” on the city and the museum than they might think. And with power comes you-know-what.

There is a bright side to the arbitrary way that a single donor can make a difference. Someone with money who wants to help round out a museum collection simply “has to put a stake in the sand,” said Josef Vascovitz, a wealthy Seattle donor.

Vascovitz and his wife, Lisa Goodman, donate almost exclusively art by artists of color to SAM. Somebody has to do it, because the museum has very little budget for any new art, let alone artists who aren’t household names. The art-going public still prefers Picasso, Matisse, and the impressionists. Donors can intervene to provide balance in the permanent collections.

“If you say ‘feminist artists’ or ‘black artists,’ even if those artists are offering their commentary on landscape, you scare museum-goers away,” said Vascovitz, who was on the acquisitions committee that approved Deed of Gift.

“It’s one thing when Lisa and myself give, because everybody assumes we can and should,” said Vascovitz. But when people like Offenbacher and Nemhauser take “their very limited resources and use them as a multiplier effect like this? It’s exceptional, and I don’t use that adjective lightly.”

Offenbacher and Nemhauser have an agreement that they check in with each other any time either of them wants to spend more than $100. She recalled how this time he described his idea over dinner, and Nemhauser “basically said, ‘Wow, you have such an awesome brain—I totally want to do this with you!’ It was really that simple.”

By contrast, “This time of year, we spend a lot of time... debating about how many bunches of asparagus are reasonable versus pure decadence.”

Klara Glosova, another Seattle artist whose work is entering SAM’s collection thanks to Deed of Gift, has always made art from her everyday. She has teenage sons who play soccer. A lot of soccer. For Glosova, this means many hours spent on the edges of sports fields, the edges of her sons’ heartbreaks and triumphs.

Klara Glosova’s Life on the Sidelines. From a series of giant watercolor-on-paper paintings, this one was recently acquired by SAM.

Last year, Glosova made something of a departure from her more typical ceramic sculptures of everyday objects—dirty socks on the floor, for example—by creating a series of huge, gorgeous watercolors on paper called Life on the Sidelines. The paintings depict, over and over, rows of parents on the sidelines of athletic fields. The parents cast long shadows, and nothing is happening on the field. You never see faces, only backs.

Last month was the first time Glosova had ever been behind the scenes at SAM. She is used to showing work in galleries and DIY spaces. When Glosova brought the watercolor SAM had acquired through Deed of Gift, it was treated with a reverence she’d never experienced before. “Nobody wanted to touch it, and they asked me to slide it off the cardboard,” she said. “It was like it crossed over to another place that’s very unfamiliar to me.”

While she was there, she noticed the freight elevator was so big and beautiful, she encouraged them to put on shows there.

As for how it felt watching her art entering SAM’s collection, she talked about it like a parent giving away a child. “Somebody else will take care of it much better than I ever would,” she said. “That’s huge for an artist.” Being part of Deed of Gift “kind of seems like the best thing that could ever happen to an artist.”

Offenbacher admits with a smile that the path Glosova’s painting took to get into SAM’s collection was “extremely nonlinear.”

“We started with a very naive view,” Nemhauser said.

“We didn’t realize how much of a political process it is,” added Offenbacher.

Don’t forget that Offenbacher and Nemhauser started with a list of 50 artworks; Deed of Gift ended up consisting of seven total. As for what didn’t make the cut, all the specifics of the conversations between the donors and the museum are confidential. Nemhauser explained that artists in Seattle are told often enough that they’re inadequate that they don’t need to know they were on the losing end of yet another competition for scarce resources.

But it sounds like the curators and Offenbacher and Nemhauser really hashed it out. “Those conversations were substantive,” Nemhauser said.

At first, Nemhauser wanted to donate more obscure pieces. “That doesn’t fly at all at a museum,” she learned. The museum wants an “iconic” piece by Wynne Greenwood—one of her nationally known videos, for example—not one of her soft sculptures. Greenwood’s signature 2007 video YOUNG WOMAN WARRIOR PREPARED FOR BATTLE was selected for Deed of Gift.

Wynne Greenwood in one of her signature videos, this one titled YOUNG WOMAN WARRIOR PREPARED FOR BATTLE, which was just acquired by SAM.

Over the course of months of e-mails, phone calls, meetings, and studio visits, there was horse trading. There were times when the curators came back from the director’s office with changes. Offenbacher and Nemhauser never met the director or any board members. “The idea of ‘women’s experience’ came from the museum, and ‘feminist and queer thought’ was coming from our side,” Nemhauser said. “So—those met.”

Nemhauser and Offenbacher both laughed, and she said, “It’s politics, right? Museums are intensely conservative. It’s more clear to me now why holes that everybody can see and point to don’t get filled over time.”

In the end, Offenbacher and Nemhauser spent $16,800 directly on the art. They estimate they spent about $20,000 total on Deed of Gift, including various expenses, paying themselves an artists’ fee, and a planned party. The artworks cost from $5,000 down to $6 for a chapbook by Anne Focke, who emerged in the 1970s by founding the interdisciplinary center and/or, and went on to become a legendary Seattle artist/administrator.

The curator Manchanda argues that Offenbacher continues Focke’s legacy. “She redefined artistic practice at an earlier time,” said Manchanda. “She writes, ‘the patterns I make, the work I do, is functional like a container... not simply a container for something else. A form-er.’”

Likewise, Deed of Gift is functional like a container, and it forms something new.

And think about this: Offenbacher, the original instigator, is the only artist in all of this who does not have art in SAM’s collection. One issue of his zine, containing an excellent essay he wrote about Northwest artists titled “Green Gothic,” is held in SAM’s library, which means that when Manchanda searches for “Offenbacher” in SAM’s internal system, she at first thinks he is officially included in the permanent collection, then no, then maybe, and finally: no.

“That really pleases me, that my status in relation to the museum is confusing,” Offenbacher said, in his calm, gentle-voiced, nonconfrontational way. He sounds curious. He always sounds curious.

The only work of art SAM did not acquire is Deed of Gift itself. That belongs to Offenbacher and Nemhauser, and they’d be willing to sell—but the price is $25,000, which they would turn around and spend the same way, on more art for a museum.

On April 21, SAM hosted a party for the donors of all recent acquisitions. There were drinks and hors d’oeuvres, and most of the people were in fancy dress, suits and ties. This was the final “window into how SAM does things” that Offenbacher and Nemhauser got. Artists were also invited, and all sat together at one table. No seats were assigned, but the tables ended up divided by role anyway: donors, artists, museum staffers.

Seattle artists Dawn Cerny and Victoria Haven were there. They collaborate under the pseudonym Daft Kuntz, a name that’s a play on “cunts” and kunst, the German word for “art.” Their 2012 silkscreen So Good It Could Have Been was also included in Deed of Gift, so it was part of the video slide show depicting all the acquisitions SAM has made so far in 2015. The newest work in the slide show was Glosova’s 2014 Life on the Sidelines; the oldest were Japanese prints from the 1790s. (This blew Glosova’s mind.)

When the video got to the Daft Kuntz silkscreen, you could at first see only the top of the print, with the words “So good it could have been” on a white background. Then the camera scrolled slowly down to see the rest of the words: “Made by a man.”

“Somebody later told me they were sitting behind Barney Ebsworth, and he was audibly chuckling when it panned down,” Haven said. “Because it’s softer and sentimental at the top, and then it hits you over the head at the end.”

Ebsworth is a former cruise-ship and Build-A-Bear tycoon who lives on the Eastside and owns a 20th-century American art collection many museums covet—important pieces by major artists. He has, or has given to SAM or the National Gallery of Art, major works by David Hockney, Edward Hopper, Charles Sheeler, Andy Warhol, Georgia O’Keeffe, and other artists.

For a moment, the fan of American classics was enjoying two new American artists.

“So good it could have been made by a man” is something a man told artist Victoria Haven, who is half of Daft Kuntz.

A chapbook by Anne Focke. The founder of the 1974 alternative art space and/or published this piece called “a pragmatic reponse to real circumstances.”

And the only reason that Daft Kuntz piece was ever made in the first place was because of a gendered insult.

After the opening of Elles at SAM in 2012, Haven and friends walked to a nearby bar for drinks. Another piece of Haven’s had been included in SAM’s Elles companion show, and a male artist—Haven won't say who it is—told her he loved her work.

“I don’t know why it has to be [in] an all-female show,” he told her. “Your work is so good, it could have been made by a man.”

June 21, 2015

Seattle painter turns his award into a gift to Seattle Art Museum

After winning $25,000 in the annual Neddy at Cornish Awards, Seattle painter Matthew Offenbacher decided to plow it back into art: he and his partner, Jennifer Nemhauser, purchased seven works of art and donated them to the Seattle Art Museum.

by Gayle Clemans

It’s hard to make a living as an artist.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, job growth for artists is slower than the national average and many “artists have at least one other job to support their craft or art careers.”

It’s a paradox that Seattle painter Matthew Offenbacher and his longtime partner, University of Washington associate biology professor Jennifer Nemhauser, were determined to do something about. In 2013, when Offenbacher received a $25,000 Neddy at Cornish Award, they saw their chance.

The Neddy grant is supported by the Behnke Foundation in memory of Robert E. (“Ned”) Behnke and is housed at Cornish College of the Arts. (Full disclosure: I teach at Cornish College of the Arts, but am not directly involved in the Neddy process).

The Neddy is awarded annually to two artists from the Puget Sound region and it is unrestricted. The recipients are allowed to do anything with the money — pay bills, go on vacation, whatever they’d like.

Offenbacher did none of those. In collaboration with Nemhauser, he invested the money right back into other artists, ultimately purchasing seven works by six locals.

And they didn’t stop there. Offenbacher and Nemhauser donated the works to the Seattle Art Museum in a gesture that sheds light on collecting, donating and participating in the cultural life of a city.

Even more intriguing: The couple conceived of their project as a work of art in and of itself. The entire process — identifying the art in collaboration with SAM curators, the acquisitions, the donation — is a conceptual work of art that Offenbacher and Nemhauser have called “Deed of Gift.”

They arrived at the title at the end of the two-year process, when SAM sent them a “deed of gift,” a standard document that made their donation official, to sign in March.

It’s a win-win-win situation, but make no mistake — it was not borne entirely from generosity. (Offenbacher and Nemhauser deny that the move was generous, but I beg to differ.)

It stems from — and raises — questions about the way society values art, the biases that affect how art is collected, and the interplay between individual and institutional responsibility.

Offenbacher and Nemhauser say that when they approached SAM curators Chiyo Ishikawa and Catharina Manchanda, their project was greeted with enthusiasm. In fact, Offenbacher says that, “in the realm of museum donorship, the amount of money was a drop in the bucket, but I think we received a special amount of attention because they were interested in the ideas and themes that the art project brought up.”

Offenbacher says the couple was most concerned with “asking how we might create a more robust art ecosystem” in Seattle and fostering diversity within collecting practices.

Nemhauser added that they wanted to “include people who are absent or underrepresented in institutions of power because of current day and historical inequity and injustice.”

For curator Manchanda, it was a “striking and unusual proposal” that developed into an extended conversation. At one point, she suggested they focus on feminist art, in order to dovetail with her desire to strengthen that area of the museum’s collection. Offenbacher and Nemhauser agreed, then broadened the scope to include queer art.

With that goal, they all proposed names, visited artist studios and agreed upon seven works of art.

The final selection: a print by Daft Kuntz (Dawn Cerny and Victoria Haven), a softcover book by Anne Focke, a watercolor by Klara Glosova, a video by Wynne Greenwood, two watercolors by Ann Leda Shapiro and a fabric piece by Joey Veltkamp.

December, 2015


Seattle couple’s generosity inspires Seattle Art Museum’s disruptive Rebel Rebel

By Jim Demetre

THIS SEASON, AMID THE FRENZY OF DOWNTOWN SEATTLE, where shoppers descend and office workers close out the fiscal year, there is an exhibit that disrupts our notions about artists and museums while affirming our faith in generosity and inclusion. Rebel Rebel, at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM), appears at first to be a modest show of local artists, most of them women. But the story behind the exhibition is one of the more inspiring and unusual in recent memory.

Matthew Offenbacher is a Seattle painter who holds a unique place in the city’s increasingly vibrant art scene. Most who know him were not entirely surprised in May when he and partner Jennifer Nemhauser, an associate biology professor at the University of Washington, announced what they called “Deed of Gift.” The couple had used the bulk of the proceeds from Offenbacher’s 2013 Neddy Award in Painting, presented by Cornish College of the Arts—$25,000—for the purchase of seven works by seven local artists to donate to the Seattle Art Museum.

Rebel, put together by Catharina Manchanda, SAM’s curator of modern and contemporary art, is the exhibit that showcases and celebrates this gift. The seed of “Deed of Gift” was planted in 2012, when SAM was scheduled to host the touring Elles: Women Artists from the Centre Pompidou, Paris show.

The museum had decided to mount a companion exhibition of works from its own collection, but found its representation of 20th-century female artists decidedly thin. Within the local art community, a discussion began about SAM’s holdings and its priorities. After Offenbacher received the Neddy Award the following year, he and Nemhauser saw an opportunity to make a difference. They approached SAM’s astonished curators, offering to donate works that would be selected from a list of 50 by local, living women and LGBTQ artists.

Working closely with Manchanda and other curatorial staff, they selected the seven works in Rebel. This bold yet low-key show, which also includes notable works from SAM’s permanent collection by Mary Beth Edelson, Rosemarie Trockel, legendary University of Washington art professor Howard Kottler and others, presents an alternative art history, where the wit, irony and passion of women and LGBTQ artists subvert the familiar canon. Offenbacher says of “Deed of Gift” and the resulting exhibition, “I am interested in finding constructive, positive positions at often difficult intersections of individuals, communities and institutions. Artist Andrea Fraser, a pioneer of this sort of work (which historically has been called ‘Institutional Critique’), has observed that our art institutions are formed inside everyone who believes in the authority of those institutions. This really resonates with me.”

He notes that in past projects, he’s taken on multiple roles: publisher, writer, organizational director, curator, dealer, teacher. “The Neddy Award made it possible for Jennifer and me to temporarily become collectors and museum patrons,” Offenbacher says. “In doing this, we had a chance to grapple with larger questions and make an institution we value stronger.” “Deed of Gift” is as much about creating a discussion about museums, collectors and artists as it is about expanding and diversifying the museum’s collection, as Manchanda’s Rebel demonstrates.

The story of Rebel begins with Ann Leda Shapiro’s “Two Sides of Self,” a painting that was part of the artist’s long-forgotten 1973 solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. The small watercolor depicts two hermaphrodite mermaids, eyes locked together with female breasts and male genitalia in close contact. Shortly after the opening, the work was deemed too obscene for the institution, and the show was taken down. Shapiro continued to paint, but would do so far from her native New York, moving to Vashon Island. Returning this piece to the walls of a museum, alongside Shapiro’s accompanying “Woman Landing on Man in the Moon,” (both purchased through “Deed”) provides the exhibit with its narrative arc.

The other works donated by Offenbacher and Nemhauser in Rebel include Klara Glosova’s “Life on the Sidelines,” a large watercolor painting of parent spectators waiting for a soccer game in a wintry field; Wynne Greenwood’s video “Young Woman Warrior Prepared for Battle,” in which the subject (Greenwood herself) haphazardly covers herself in paint and gold leaf; and Joey Veltkamp’s “A-side: Glacier, B-side: Glacier National Park (Pendleton Park Series),” a quilt of patterned fabric layered with associations upon a familiar wool blanket. Also included is a pamphlet by Anne Focke, titled “A Pragmatic Response to Real Circumstances.”

But Rebel also reminds museumgoers that historical change in society and the arts remains slow. “So Good It Could Have Been,” a piece by artists Victoria Haven and Dawn Cerny (collaborating as Daft Kuntz), reframes the text of an overheard comment by a male colleague at the opening of Haven’s 2012 SAM show, who ended the statement with “made by a man.” It is a sobering reminder that there is still much work to be done.

In September, the museum hosted an evening for the “Deed of Gift” artists and their friends in the gallery, during which several of them spoke about their contributions to the show. They talked about the significance of the event, and the seeming unlikelihood of gazing at their work and that of their fellow artists on the walls of the city’s major art museum. Veltkamp, describing the event, says, “There was a surprising amount of emotion as folks talked about the origin stories of their work,” Veltkamp says. “Hearing Dawn explain how she and Vic’s [Haven] piece entered this world can’t help but break your heart. It felt very cathartic to get to tell these stories to our peers.”

June 17, 2015

Formerly censored painting now belongs to SAM

“Woman Landing on Man on the Moon” by Ann Leda Shapiro is now part of the Seattle Art Museum’s permanent collection.

by JULI GOETZ MORSER, Vashon-Maury Island Beachcomber Arts Editor

It’s taken over 40 years, but the art world has finally caught up to island artist Ann Leda Shapiro. Two of Shapiro’s paintings, once deemed offensive by New York City’s Whitney Museum of Modern Art, this year became part of the Seattle Art Museum’s permanent collection. The censored painting, “Two Sides of Self,” and another from the same era, “Woman Landing on Man on the Moon,” now take their seat in SAM’s small but growing holdings of 20th century art by women.

In her sunny studio overlooking Tramp Harbor — a far cry from the concrete canyons of her hometown New York City — Shapiro recently recounted her artistic journey and the effects of early success and subsequent censorship.

While still in her 20s, Shapiro received a significant artistic nod with a solo show at the Whitney in 1973. It was the nascent days of feminism, and Shapiro’s work explored questions about what it meant to be female or male. But the topic of gender back then belonged in the realm of the avant garde, so much so that the museum censored two paintings out of Shapiro’s exhibit. That stunning experience sent Shapiro traveling an unexpected artistic path, a path that came full circle when SAM acquired her paintings.

“I was shocked (by the censorship),” Shapiro said. “My response was to withdraw from the art world rather than fight it, but I did not internally censor myself. I went back into the studio, and not looking over my shoulder at the art world, I was able to create a truly original body of work that’s getting recognition now. What I thought then was the worst experience ended up the best. What I thought was a tragedy turned into a benefit.”

The benefit Shapiro discovered was the freedom to make art without the strings of social mores attached, and she’s been working steadily — for more than 45 years — ever since.

Shapiro’s artistic life first took shape when as a child she and her mother visited New York art museums, followed by her own daily trips to the American Museum of Natural History.

“I would meander through the museum,” Shapiro said. “That’s how I learned to draw and to fall in love with other cultures. And that’s where I got introduced to Chinese medicine.”

As a university art teacher who taught life drawing for 14 years, Shapiro understood the body well, saying she always worked with “the body as landscape.” But Chinese medicine, which works with the flow of energy called qi, peaked Shaprio’s curiosity about what might lie beneath the skin, below the bones and muscles. That curiosity brought Shapiro to Seattle in 1991 to attend acupuncture school. She’d read the philosophy behind the traditional Chinese medicine, but wanted to investigate, research and understand the system of energy meridians. Never intending to become a practitioner, Shapiro nonetheless fell in love with acupuncture.

She also fell in love with the Northwest and in 1992, moved to Vashon, where she opened her acupuncture practice.

“I only did acupuncture for work then, but I always did my art. Now I have acupuncture days and art days.”

Until recently, Shapiro also only showed her artwork at Puget Sound Cooperative Credit Union, having essentially dropped out of the art scene. Invisible to the region’s curators and art buyers, Shapiro’s art found its way to SAM by a novel and somewhat radical route.

According to Shapiro, her work was acquired by the museum via the conceptual artwork of Seattle artist Michael Offenbacher. With $25,000 of prize money from winning Cornish College’s Neddy Award, Offenbacher and his wife Jennifer decided to work with SAM curator Catharina Manchada to acquire art by women and queer artists for the museum, a decision that didn’t come out of the blue.

In 2012, the traveling show “Elle,” organized by Paris’ Centre Pomidou and featuring women artists from the 20th century, opened at SAM. The museum planned to also exhibit its paintings by women artists from the last century, only SAM had a paltry collection.

“So Matt and Jennifer realized there was a gap and decided they would become collectors and use the money to buy feminist and queer art,” Shapiro explained.

Manchada saw Shapiro’s art as a member of a grant review committee. Next thing Shapiro knew, she got a call from Manchada, then a studio visit and now a spot in SAM’s permanent collection. Manchada had shown photos of Shapiro’s work to Offenbacher, who bought the paintings and then donated them to SAM.

Back in her studio, Shapiro is in the midst of completing several projects — a group of large scale paper cut-outs, a visual memoir of the American Museum of Natural History executed as a series of paintings that she’s turned into a deck of cards plus another children’s book. And after 23 years of working on it, Shapiro plans to finally publish a graphic novel that illustrates the history of Chinese medicine.

“So I’m very patient,” Shapiro added with a laugh. “And it’s been great to live on Vashon, to live out my potential. I’ve even fallen back in love with the two paintings all over again.”

The Rebels Among Us

September 4, 2015

By Amanda Manitach

The most recent exhibit to open at Seattle Art Museum is easy to miss. It takes up a single hallway laced between a labyrinth of third-floor galleries. But in it you’ll see work unlike anything else at SAM: A watercolor rendering of hermaphrodite mermaids whose rosy lips and nipples and thickly-veined penises touch in a glancing, underwater embrace. One of Joey Veltkamp’s genre- and gender-bucking Pendleton Park Series quilts spangled with plaid fabric swatches and John Deere tractors. Jane Hammond's faux-gold sarcophagus printed with wishbones, butterflies and little pinafored girls. A lo-fi video of Wynne Greenwood in which she shellacks her body with gooey paint, gradually effacing herself into a cardboard, cartoon version of a girl getting ready to go out.

The teacup-size Rebel Rebel is the result of a project by Seattle artist Matthew Offenbacher and his wife Jennifer Nemhauser called Deed of Gift. After winning the $25,000 Neddy award in painting in 2013, Offenbacher took the bulk of the prize and purchased art with it. All of that art consisted of works by women and queer-identifying artists, including Daft Kuntz (Dawn Cerny and Victoria Haven), Anne Focke, Klara Glosova, Wynne Greenwood, Ann Leda Shapiro and Joey Veltkamp. They then gifted it all to SAM. The gesture was both a calling-out and a last-ditch guerrilla effort to rectify the shortage of work by female artists in the museum’s permanent collection.

Two of the pieces donated to SAM through Deed of Gift are paintings by Ann Leda Shapiro. The hermaphrodite mermaids are hers. She painted the piece, titled Two Sides of Self, in 1971. The New York City native has multiple degrees in art history, has held teaching positions in universities across the nation and had a solo show at the Whitney in 1973. But she’s never had much of a career in Seattle. For years she’s been living and working quietly on Vashon Island, still making paintings and practicing acupuncture for a day job. Since Deed of Gift, the trajectory of her career is beginning to shift; people are starting to recognize her work and seek her out.

For that reason alone, you could say this show and Offenbacher and Nemhauser’s offering have succeeded. Other aspects are nagging. To see the exhibit cordoned in so liminal a space—literally mounted in a hall designed for transition between big galleries—suggests the work doesn’t quite fit or play well or belong with the rest, at least in the institutional narrative. Still, it’s there. It’s a start. With the blackest of humor, the word stitched across Veltkamp’s quilt provides a scorching critique of the whole process: GLACIER. If things are moving in the right direction, they’re moving because of the sacrifice of the zealous. And they’re moving painfully slowly, impeded by the institutional hoops and committees and tastemakers with deep pockets who determine the eventual canonization of art.

[. . .]

May 5, 2015

The Gift of Perspective : A Conversation with Matthew Offenbacher & Jennifer Nemhauser

When we received an email announcing Deed of Gift, a collaborative art piece by Matthew Offenbacher and Jennifer Nemhauser, we immediately asked them to share with us the story and their perspective of this unique project. It was so moving to us, the way this work is simultaneously an act of subversion, humility, generosity, and kindness. This work moves us and makes us grateful. So thank you, thank you, thank you to Matt and Jennifer for the growth you are creating in this community. We'll let you take it from here.

Jennifer Nemhauser: Maybe we should start by describing our project.

Matthew Offenbacher: Right! It’s an art project called Deed of Gift. We took around $20,000 of a generous art award I won two years ago [the Neddy at Cornish], and used it to buy a collection of artwork to give to the Seattle Art Museum for their permanent collection. It’s the first time we’ve “officially” collaborated, even though we’ve been partners for 25 years, and we talk through work things with each other all the time.

J: The artists are Daft Kuntz (which is a collaboration between Dawn Cerny and Victoria Haven), Anne Focke, Klara Glosova, Wynne Greenwood, Ann Leda Shapiro and Joey Veltkamp.

M: We worked closely with SAM curators to finds points of common interest to shape this list. It was a long process of conversation that resulted in the work that we bought and SAM took. I’m very proud of the artists and work we came up with. The artists all live in the Seattle area—

J: Do you want to explain why that is significant?

M: I think there’s some aspect of this work that’s arguing for why a kind of “regionalism” makes sense right now—a focus on the specialness of art and the history of art from the perspective of this place. I don’t mean in a folksy kind of way, separate from what’s happening globally, but in the sense that a commitment to our region is a commitment to understanding the world. Like, you know, that Matthew Stadler essay I love so much? Let me find a quote: “The institution and the city are at the center of a connected, dynamic globe, always—never a remote or special space awaiting the arrival of art and insight from distant capitals, always the center of a global discourse that returns and returns, as blood through a heart.”

J: Nice.

M: The other thing I wanted to point out is that all the works have feminist and queer themes.

J: We are such children of the 70s!

M: That’s when Ann Leda made her two paintings! Kissing hermaphroditic mer-people and astronauts. So amazing. The astronaut one has little airplanes skywriting “one needs a cock to get by”.

J: I love that Ann Leda’s paintings have a history with the Whitney [Two Sides of Self was censored from a show at the Whitney in 1973, and Women Landing on Man in the Moon was made in response], and the Daft Kuntz print has a connection with SAM. As I understand it, “So good it could have been made by a man” was something Vic overheard at the opening of her show at SAM, at the time of the Elles show two years ago. Just goes to show: the more things change….

M: I like how we ended-up with a group of artists who all do things in our community—as organizers, teachers, activists, community leaders. I’m interested in how this plays out in their work. For example, I think Joey has taken up a form of art that’s associated with family and community and turned it kind-of inside-out—so that the public spaces his quilts end up in are somehow transformed into communal spaces, spaces of shared experience.

J: That seems like the opposite mood from Klara’s paintings, where people are in a community, but still feel so isolated.

M: Yeah, that mood of alienation is strong. What about Wynne’s video? Young Women Warrior Prepared for Battle. Community or alienation?

J: Way to put me on the spot! I think the video, like so much of Wynne’s work, is about finding a way through. Hopefully taking advantage of having a community, but also knowing that, ultimately, we are kind of on our own. It’s inspiring and somehow reassuring that it is kind of a mess for everybody, because that video is so messy.

M: For me, it’s also something about power, the power to quite literally paint your own world—but also how fucked-up that can be. That’s kind of the theme of Anne F.’s book too.

J: A pragmatic response to real circumstances—the title kind of says of it all.

M: We should also talk about how many other collections we could have put together in place of this one.

J: Yes. I can say with no hesitation that we could have made a collection of equal quality twenty times over. It would be ridiculously easy to assemble a similarly awesome collection of work by completely different people—not even counting other pieces by these same people. And think of all of the themes we didn’t even touch with this work. Like all that great stuff about loving the monsters we are, scorned for timber, gnarly decomposition as reclaiming that you wrote about in “Green Gothic”.

M: If anyone wants to give us another $20,000 we’re happy to assemble a different awesome collection.

J: Or maybe lots of other people will decide to make their own collections. A big theme of Deed of Gift is that there could be many more people collecting “museum quality” art right here in River City [Jennifer starts singing songs from The Music Man]. We’ve talked a lot about how some people don’t hesitate to spend $1000 on a sofa, but would feel completely decadent spending $1000 on a piece of art.

M: Yeah, why is that?

J: I think it’s something about people not trusting themselves to make good decisions about art. Maybe also because they are objects and people feel like it’s a big commitment. It seems easier to spend money on transient experiences—like dinner out or vacation, or even a concert. I think it would be awesome if more people could feel like it was okay to buy a piece of art, live with it for a few years, and then let it circulate again if they’ve moved on. Or start giving art as gifts—how fun is it to tell someone that you will buy them a piece of art that you pick out together?

M: That would be awesome. You could totally spend a few hundred bucks on something, enjoy having it, it’s not such a big deal. Not thinking “is this a good investment?” or “will I want this in 10 years?” —but more like, “this thing is speaking to me right now and I want to invite it home.”

J: Like in the Sea-Cat video?

M: Yeah! Let’s put a link to it, it’s classic. Collective art collecting!

J: I love the idea that when you buy art from a local artist you are investing in our overall quality of life. It’s kind of like a public radio fundraiser—you can listen for free, but you feel so much better when you make a donation. The tote-bag or whatever is just a bonus.

M: In making Deed of Gift we had a lot of questions about how artists are supported, and how a big part of that support is people who buy art.

J: We’ve talked about it in terms of the metaphor of an ecosystem. Especially in a city that’s changing as fast as Seattle is, you really see the potential for a whole segment of the population to go extinct.

M: I think there’s this misconception of what artists are contributing. Many people seem to have the impression that artists are small-scale business people, producers of things whose value should be judged by the market-share they attract.

J: Totally. When we got a chance to live in Rotterdam for three months last year for your residency, it was a completely different vibe. Artists still saw the importance of circulating work through a market, but there was a strong sense in society of having artists integrated in every community. It was part of a good quality of life, like really great bike paths. It also seemed something baked-in to the education system. It made everyone feel like everyone had something to say about art. It didn’t feel like it was such a precious, elitist activity.

M: One result is that the artists we lived with there seemed so much less stressed out!

J: Yeah. So definitely, getting money directly to more artists, taking award money and distributing to more artists in the community felt great. Getting work into SAM—underlining the idea that museums also have a critical role in the local art ecosystem—also super important. I think like a lot of people, I have a love/hate relationship with Seattle. This project was definitely a way to focus on the love part.