Monthly Theme: Art

Left: Nicole Veillard looking at slide files at the Women Artists Slide Library in Battersea Arts Centre circa 1982, Women’s Art Library History archive, Special Collections, Goldsmiths University of London. Right: Costumes for Curating #3 – Althea Greenan, Amelia Hawk (Beavis-Harrison) 2013, photo: Julian Hughes

Dr Althea Greenan, Curator of the Women’s Art Library

Lining one of the walls of the large study space set aside for Special Collections and Archives at Goldsmiths are wooden shelf units filled with books and pamphlets demonstrating women’s engagement with the arts.

They hint at the extensive collection of print, photographic and artistic documentation stored away in the stack next door, as evidence of the lively project of the Women’s Art Library (WAL), dedicated to collecting documentation about women’s art practice. The WAL emerged from the international women’s movement of the 1970s and developed into a critical educational arts organisation and publisher, active until 2002 when it was gifted to Goldsmiths.

Since then the WAL has become a focus point for artistic research and my shift from working in the WAL as an arts organisation to the WAL as a special collection and archive has positioned me as a curator programming this kind of research. I see artistic research as a way of maintaining the WAL’s original remit to promote women’s art.

From the moment visitors take a seat at the long table made up of single desks, they are encouraged to see the SCA study space as an invitation to explore with care, respect and imagination. When I bring out boxes containing archived art projects as well as documentation, the materials encourage a collective re-imagining of how we value an individual’s art practice. Situated on the ground floor of the Library, I often introduce the WAL collection as an alternative source challenging the knowledge systems and vocabularies organising the lending library’s mass produced art publications shelved on the 2nd floor. 

There are many books and catalogues that are duplicated between the two spaces, but the WAL’s collection was shaped by feminist women artists and art historians concentrating on the need to raise the visibility of women’s art practice. They did not begin by gathering books, but by collecting and organising 35mm colour transparencies of their artwork to form the Women Artists Slide Library, and it was this initiative that developed into the diverse research resource renamed the Women’s Art Library.

Promotional poster for the Women Artists Slide Library, circa 1982, from
the Women’s Art Library, Special Collections, Goldsmiths University of London
Detail from Isik Tüzüner’s slide file in the Women’s Art Library, Special Collections, Goldsmiths University of London

As the curator of this collection, I become an instrument of exploration, facilitating time and access to components as divergent as the posters are to the unaccessioned/uncatalogued boxes of ephemera, photographs and documents in waiting. Artistic research reframes historical material by taking items into new spaces using a wide range of strategies such as facsimile – as in the case of Empowered Printworks – and online live performance – as in the case of ‘Queer to Me’.

Dr Althea Greenan
Ego Ahaiwe Sowinski and Aida Wilde, wall installation of the Women’s Art Library in the exhibition Empowered Printwork, Goldsmiths, University of London, 2015. Photo: Althea Greenan
Queer To Me, performance by Kiona Hagen Niehaus as part of launch event of Cybernetic Resistance, produced with Brenda Guesnet.
Cybernetic Resistance was a project by Guesnet and Hagen Niehaus as the recipients of the 2016 Women’s Art Library and Feminist Review ‘Living with MAKE: Art in the Archive’ Research Bursary

My own exploration of the WAL is led by the artists and researchers who are drawn to it and show me what’s so fiercely important about these hanging files and boxes and the space to unpack them.

Have a look at the Goldsmiths’ archive and textile catalogue to get an idea of the extent of the WAL holdings.

Other spaces to explore the WAL archive:

Link: Human Endeavour: a creative finding aid for the Women Colour of Index

Link: Anne Krinsky’s Virtual Archive

Link: Galit Criden, “How to be together” 2021-2022

Link: Althea Greenan, “Feminist Net-work: Digitization and performances of the Women’s Art Library slide collection”

Link: Rosamund Davie’s pilot project ArtWorkLife archived on the Wayback Machine