For 25 years, Chicago's Woman Made Gallery ( WMG ) has been staging a revolution.
While this gallery, focused on showing, selling, and celebrating woman-made art, shouldn't be anything radical, the women of WMG emphasize that art produced by women continues to be pushed aside in favor of art produced by men. "It's not shown as much, it's not sold as much, it's not celebrated as much," explained WMG co-founder Kelly Hensen.
In March, the National Museum of Women in the Arts posted a YouTube video in which they challenged passerby on the street to name five female artists. Most people couldn't do it. WMG is working hard everyday to elevate the work of talented women artists who deserve to be known.
WMG opened by accident in 1992, when Hensen and co-founder Beate Minkovski were in search of a space to display their senior art show before they graduated from college. At the time their school was undergoing renovations and did not have a space for their showcase, so they rented a storefront, put up some lights, and displayed their work. They called it Woman Made as a play on the term 'man made' and suddenly, an institution was born.M
Deb Flagel, the executive director of WMG, said she describes the gallery as "a united voice of women's experiences." While there is nothing inherently different about woman-made art versus man-made art, Flagel said, "We are women with all different experiences, but it's all experiences from a woman's perspective so therefore when it comes together it does have a certain kind of energy"
Over the past quarter-century, WMG has shown work from 8,000 woman artists. Hensen said, "What becomes important is women who come back and say, 'I submitted something to Woman Made and I got accepted and I thought, well maybe I can do this."'
Artists who come to WMG are not only given unending support and an instant community, but they are also able to learn all the ins and outs of running a gallery. Aside from Flagel, WMG is run completely by volunteers. She discovered WMG as a volunteer, herself, over a decade ago.
"I saw women working side by side from all walks of life and all ages, no kidding," she said, "And I walked in and I looked around and I just said, 'well this doesn't happen everywhere,' and truly I was hooked from that day."
At the time Flagel had recently decided to transition from graphic design to fine arts, and she began going to a women's art group to learn how to exhibit. "I felt like I was at home somewhere," she said. Flagel likes to tell that story to women who come to the gallery. She tells them, "If you are feeling like you're in search of a place, this is the place. Come here, roll up your sleeves ,work side by side with other women…to learn all the things you can learn about running a gallery."
In conjunction with their 25th anniversary, WMG recently moved to a space located in the trendy Lacuna Lofts building in Pilsen. The first exhibition in the new space is their 20th International Open, currently showcasing artists from around the world.
The success of their opening reception has made the WMG team very optimistic about their new location. "The other night I stood over here and this place was shoulder to shoulder people," said Marcia Grubb, the president of WMG's board of directors, "And just to look into the crowd and see mostly 20 to 30 something women, just to see these young people was pretty exciting for me. … I know we're fulfilling a need, a greater need." There were also, as Hensen and Flagel pointed out, supportive men in attendance.
While the women of WMG are excited about what's happening at the gallery right now, they are also looking toward the future. What will the next 25 years at WMG bring? "The more you peel the onion, the more you realize that there is so much opportunity and so much potential that the gallery hasn't realized yet," said Hensen. To start, they want to build up their board, their social media presence, and their volunteer base. They want to continue to update their themes and remain socially relevant. The more help they have, the more opportunities they can take advantage of.
"My personal vision," said Grubb, "is that I would like the work to be sold…There is no excuse for it not to be sold." Flagel agreed, adding, "When you support women you support their families and you lift up the community. Women lift up communities, and so by giving them the opportunity to show their work that's only a small part."
WMG's next show will be called "Dreaming Bigger in Strange Times." the gallery always have a call for artists on its website, and is always looking for new members and volunteers.
And as for those who don't understand why WMG needs to exist? "I think that when you build a woman's space and you make it safe for women," said Hensen, "And you encourage women and you want to give them some power that they've never had before, I think people find that frightening. People still get confused by it, [they think] well why do you need to do that do you really think women are better than men? Well, I think they're equal."