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The Woman’s Building: L.A.’s “Feminist Mecca”

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This article has been updated November 1, 2018 to reflect the Women's Building's designation as a historic-cultural monument.

Films from "Curating the City: LGBTQ Historic Places in L.A." are produced by FORM follows FUNCTION and presented in partnership with the Los Angeles ConservancyThe Los Angeles Conservancy preserves the historic places that make Greater Los Angeles unique. They work through education and advocacy to raise awareness of our shared cultural heritage, prevent the needless destruction of significant sites and historic neighborhoods, empower people to save the places they love, and foster strong preservation laws and incentives.

A private, member-based nonprofit, the Conservancy works throughout L.A. County, spanning 88 cities as well as unincorporated areas.

The proposed demolition of the Los Angeles Central Library led to the Conservancy’s founding in 1978. What started as a handful of concerned citizens is now the largest local preservation group in the U.S., with more than 6,000 member households and hundreds of volunteers.

Founded as an act of protest, the Woman’s Building is a cornerstone in late twentieth-century lesbian and feminist culture. From 1973 to 1991, the Los Angeles-based organization and facility stood as a counterpoint to most major American museums, galleries, and arts programs, which routinely excluded female artists from their circles. Created by and for women, The Woman’s Building exemplified the impulse among feminists, including lesbians and bisexual women, to establish autonomous spaces outside of traditional, patriarchal institutions.

Three trailblazing women – artist Judy Chicago, art historian Arlene Raven, and graphic designer Sheila Levrant de Bretteville – came together in 1973 to create the first independent art school for women, the Feminist Studio Workshop (FSW). The founding of the FSW represented a crucial milestone for feminist activism within the art world, as activists increasingly targeted mainstream institutions for their broad dismissal of female artists.

The Woman's Building Founders: Arlene Raven, Judy Chicago, Sheila de Bretteville
The Woman's Building Founders: Arlene Raven, Judy Chicago, Sheila de Bretteville, photographed in 1972, Woman's Building Image Archive, ​Otis College of Art and Design Library.

The FSW was originally headquartered in a building on South Grandview Avenue, near MacArthur Park. The founders and students began to describe the educational center as the Woman’s Building, a tribute to the Sophia Hayden-designed structure at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, which exhibited work by female artists from around the globe.

In addition to the FSW, the building housed a number of like-minded feminist institutions, including the National Organization for Women (NOW) and the first Sisterhood Bookstore.

In 1975, the organization relocated to a 1914 Beaux Arts building at 1727 N. Spring St., where it remained until its closure in 1991. Like its predecessor, the nonprofit center was known as the Woman’s Building in reference to the creative achievements and autonomy of female artists.

Located in an industrial corridor north of downtown, the three-story brick building on Spring Street was originally constructed for the Standard Oil Company. Artists with the FSW were tasked with transforming its cavernous interior into studios and performance spaces upon acquisition of the building. With limited resources, the women completed the project themselves, gaining new skills in construction and building maintenance.

Artist Cheri Gaulke, who was active at the Woman’s Building from 1975 to 1991, recounts: “We soon came to realize that it was an opportunity to be empowered, that we could learn skills that we’d never learned before and, more important, that we could just create our place in the world, which is really what The Woman’s Building represented. It was a public center for women’s culture.”

The Woman's Building, North Spring Street, Los Angeles
The Woman's Building, North Spring Street, Los Angeles, photographed in 1983 by Chris Gulker, courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection – Los Angeles Public Library

Throughout its 18-year run, The Woman’s Building cultivated an experimental space for women from around the world to explore ideas in feminist theory and sexuality through art. Artists whose work may have been marginalized in other venues found a platform for expressing political goals and viewpoints. The very notion of a public space for female artists underscored the existence of a distinctive “women’s culture” in the 1970s and ’80s, one that grappled with dynamics of gender, sexuality, race, and class to varying degrees.

Two of the FSW’s most ambitious projects were the Lesbian Art Project (LAP) and the Great American Lesbian Art Project (GALAS).

Arlene Raven, one of FSW’s co-founders, spearheaded LAP with writer and performer Terry Wolverton. Composed of workshops, performance pieces, and exhibitions, LAP sought to challenge common portrayals or misconceptions of lesbian culture and to elevate the contributions of lesbians to art history. The project lasted from 1977 to 1979.

One of LAP’s most significant works was “An Oral Herstory of Lesbianism,” written and directed by Wolverton. The 13-member performance took place at The Woman’s Building in 1979 and featured a series of vignettes exploring lesbian experiences and struggles.

Promotional photos from "An Oral Herstory of Lesbianism" directed by Terry Wolverton.
Promotional photos from "An Oral Herstory of Lesbianism" directed by Terry Wolverton. Courtesy of the Woman's Building Image Archive, ​Otis College of Art and Design Library.

Under GALAS, students and staff of the FSW examined the current state of lesbian art across the United States. The group held both formal and underground exhibitions throughout the country in 1980.

GALAS stood in contrast to other projects in that its curators directly confronted issues of race and exclusion within the queer and feminist art movements. Reflecting racial and economic dynamics in the 1970s and ’80s, women of color were largely left out of institutional activities and conversations in the art world. Through alliances with other artists and nonprofits, the project exceeded its original scope by bringing greater recognition to the experiences of lesbians of color. The Women’s Building itself grappled with ongoing questions about inclusion and attempted, with varying degrees of success, to address diversity issues through its programming and leadership. 

In addition to LAP and GALAS, the Woman’s Building nurtured performance art groups such as The Waitresses, Sisters of Survival, and Feminist Art Workers. The space also housed a vibrant literary scene through its Writing Series, which featured celebrated feminist writers such as Audre Lorde, Deena Metzger, and Adrienne Rich.

The FSW ended its programming in 1981, as demand dwindled for alternative educational institutions. The Woman’s Building continued to operate as a gallery and performance space, and studios were rented out to local artists.

Following the FSW’s closure, its board founded the for-profit Women’s Graphic Center on the ground floor of the building. The business intended to help sustain the Woman’s Building’s operations and to provide new job training and services. At its peak, the center offered graphic design, typesetting, production, and printing services. It ceased operations in 1988.

The Woman’s Building officially closed its doors in 1991, at which time the Los Angeles Times referred to the space as a “feminist mecca.”

Looking back, the Woman’s Building, the institutions it housed, and the art it produced lie at the intersecting histories of second-wave feminism, postwar art, and the politics of queer feminism. For many female artists – lesbian, straight, and bisexual – the building served as a haven within the male-dominated art world, a place where women sought to develop an authentic voice.

The Woman's Building revealed a unique cultural exchange among lesbian, straight, and bisexual women in the context of second-wave feminism.

Perhaps even more significantly, it revealed a unique cultural exchange among lesbian, straight, and bisexual women in the context of second-wave feminism. The idea of a visible LGBTQ community did not yet exist, and many lesbians and bisexual women aligned themselves with the feminist movement as opposed to the male-centric gay liberation movement of the 1960s and ’70s.

Though gay and bisexual men faced broad discrimination because of their sexual identities, queer women faced additional sex and gender-based inequities in educational settings, the workplace, and the healthcare and legal systems. At the Woman’s Building, women embraced and nurtured an arena of their own to negotiate the complexities of gender and sexual identity.

The Woman’s Building gave its artists a space in which to confront pressing social and cultural issues, often with provocative results. Its founders believed that art was directly connected to activism, and the organization strove to better support working women and women of color as it expanded in the 1980s. Ultimately, it achieved international acclaim for its commitment to the creative achievements of women, and its contributions to feminist and lesbian culture continue to echo around the art world.

“I think the Woman’s Building, for its time, was really unique, and it was a symbol of the feminist art movement,” reflects Sue Maberry, who was active with the organization from 1977 to 1988. “It was a center for feminist art and creation.”

Today, the brick building at 1727 N. Spring St. houses creative office and studio space. The history of the Woman’s Building has been documented in numerous publications and exhibitions, and its longtime home was declared a historic cultural monument in June 2018.

New Spring Street location.
The Woman's Building new location on North Spring Street, 1975, courtesy of the Woman's Building Image Archive, ​Otis College of Art and Design Library.

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