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Remembering the landmark Woman's Building

Co-founder Sheila de Bretteville recalls the center, featured in an exhibition at Otis College of Art and Design.

January 15, 2012|By Jori Finkel, Los Angeles Times
  • Gallery director Meg Linton, left, and artist Sheila Levrant de Bretteville photographed at Otis College of Art and Design, Ben Maltz Gallery. They're are posing by de Bretteville's work in the "Doin' It in Public: Feminism and Art at the Woman's Building."
Gallery director Meg Linton, left, and artist Sheila Levrant de Bretteville… (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los…)

When Sheila de Bretteville was teaching graphic design at CalArts in the early 1970s, at a time when so much education was tailored to male students, she lobbied her male dean for the chance to devote her two days of teaching each week entirely to female students.

Surprisingly, she says, he eventually relented. It fueled an admittedly utopian idea: What would it look like to start a center for feminist culture and education run by women for women where she didn't need permission from that dean? De Bretteville soon found out when she teamed with artist Judy Chicago and art historian Arlene Raven to open the Woman's Building in Los Angeles in 1973, a cultural hub that continued in one form or another (in two locations) until 1991.

Considered Los Angeles' most influential feminist institution by many scholars, it was at the time dismissed as a lesbian conspiracy or celebrated for its diverse programming, depending on whom you asked. It was, almost all could agree, subversive: a place for self-discovery where women made messy artworks and upsetting statements about such taboo topics as sexual harassment and rape.

While Chicago left the program early to focus on her epic "Dinner Party" installation, De Bretteville continued to work at the Woman's Building in one manner or another for most of its run. She designed the letterhead, brochures and other key publications, and taught graphic design there.

A professor at Yale heading its graphic design program since 1990, De Bretteville returned to Otis College of Art and Design briefly this fall, where the school gallery is featuring the exhibition "Doin' It in Public: Feminist and Art at the Woman's Building" through Feb. 26. The Times caught up with her and the school gallery director, Meg Linton, to talk about the multifaceted history of the Woman's Building.

Where did you get the name the Woman's Building?

SB: We took it from the Woman's Building at the 1893 Chicago World Fair — the word "woman's" and not "women's" was such a 19th century convention. The good part is that their building had crafts and women from all over the world. The bad part, from my perspective — and we took it on, but I should have been more resistant — is that they had a "board of lady governors." That's not quite the model I would have liked for us, because it set us apart from the collective at the heart of the women's movement and that building. And it put me in charge: We pulled straws to see who would be head of the corporation, and I drew the longest straw and became the president.

Were there any other historic models for what you were doing?

SB: We really weren't looking back — we were riding the huge wave of feminism taking place everywhere around us. The woman's movement was the real model.

ML: There was this momentum with the National Organization for Women forming, and your sisterhood bookstores. And the books that Susan Rennie and Kirsten Grimstad were putting together at the time — where they traveled 13,000 miles looking for every women-owned business, crisis center, bookstore.

Speaking of books, I understand the Woman's Building was many things to many people: along with the Feminist Studio Workshop, the main educational program that Sheila helped run, there were also feminist galleries, bookstores?

ML: The building housed a number of groups: a bookstore, galleries, a cafe, theater groups and a travel agency that specialized in women's tours. You could see an exhibition of Imogen Cunningham's work in one space and new paintings by a young artist in another. This was a place where women were coming to find their own voice, however they wanted to express themselves.

SB: The board of lady managers included representatives from every group, which is what made those meetings — let's say — discordant. My friend Jane said that at every meeting at some point I was lying down, and it wasn't because I was [physically] tired. It was just a bit much. Ultimately a tremendous amount of responsibility came with that long straw. I really cared about it, but I didn't really know how to handle it. I don't like to exclude anybody or anything, I've made an entire life's work out of that. So you can imagine how doing admissions at Yale is a big problem for me.

I also suspect it creates problems in terms of public perception. It must be hard for people to understand what the Woman's Building was, if it included so many things.

SB: I think the catalogs that Otis has published will do a great deal to demystify the Woman's Building and to give a variegated history of it, because in fact it was a creation of many people. It was a collective and collaborative activity. And it's always hard in American celebrity culture to understand anything that is a real upending of hierarchy and alternative to a patriarchal or heterosexist society.

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