The Women’s Art Library at Goldsmiths

Set of two photographs showing women looking through documents filled in the Women Artists Slide Library, Battersea London circa 1982

The Women’s Art Library curator Dr Althea Greenan explains the importance of collecting documentation about women’s art practice

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

Poster of woman artist to promote joining the Women Artists Slide Library
Promotional poster for the Women Artists Slide Library, circa 1982, from the Women’s Art Library, Special Collections, Goldsmiths University of London

It developed into a critical educational arts organisation and publisher, active until 2002 when it was gifted to Goldsmiths. It has since become a focus point for artistic research. My shift from working in the WAL from an arts organisation to a special collection & 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.

Dr Althea greenan

From the moment visitors take a seat at the long table, they are encouraged to see the study space as an invitation to explore with care, respect and imagination. In addition, when I bring out boxes of archived art projects and 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 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. 

Female Turkish artist Isik Tüzüner standing by sculpture artwork at the museum of Zwolle, Netherlands 1991
Detail from Isik Tüzüner’s slide file in the Women’s Art Library, Special Collections, Goldsmiths University of London.

The WAL’s collection was shaped by feminist women artists and art historians raising the visibility of women’s art practice

There are many books and catalogues that are duplicated between the two spaces. They did not begin by gathering books. They collected and organised 35mm colour transparencies of their artwork to form the Women Artists Slide Library. It was this initiative that developed into the diverse research resource renamed the Women’s Art Library.

As the curator of this collection, I become an instrument of exploration. I facilitate time and access to components as divergent as the posters are to the uncatalogued boxes of ephemera and documents in waiting. Artistic research reframes historical material, it takes items into new spaces. It uses a wide range of strategies such as facsimile (see ‘Empowered Printworks’) and online live performance (see ‘Queer to Me’).

Dr Althea Greenan
Several multicoloured hand drawn posters for the empowerment of women pinned on a wall of the Women's Art Library
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
Video projection in darkened room of a person holding a blank piece of paper in front of their face.
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 & Hagen Niehaus, recipients of the 2016 Women’s Art Library and Feminist Review ‘Living with MAKE: Art in the Archive’ Research Bursary)
Two A4 portrait format posters side by side. Poster 1 of index paper files for aid to women artist of colour. Poster 2 of orange and red abstract screen print with black text on top.

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

Dr althea greenan

Check the Goldsmiths’ archive and textile catalogue to get an idea of the extent of the WAL holdings.

Further resources at the WAL archive

Related posts