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Women's Art Registry of Minnesota

The History of WARM

By Margot Fortunato Galt

"What was so wonderful about WARM was the sense that we had taken things into our own hands. We might have been unrepresented in galleries, but together we would change that."

- Judith Roode, early WARM Gallery Member

WARM was part of a revolution. It wasn't the first feminist art group or gallery; Artemesia, ARC, SoHo 20 in Chicago and New York already existed. But WARM emerged early from the tide of feminist protest and discovery that, in the early 1970's, flooded American culture. WARM threatened the local art establishment that was almost completely male – some male instructors forbade students to set foot in the Gallery. But it soon succeeded in becoming one of the best shows in town.

For those who didn't live through it, it's hard to revive the innocence, determination, and shock-value of WARM's early days. In 1973, Judy Chicago addressed students in the Twin Cities and stunned many women artists by proclaiming "if you're not doing round things and furry things, you've been over-influenced by your professors." Future WARM members working in Abstract Expressionist or minimalist styles didn't necessarily change stylistic direction, but they took to heart Chicago's insistence that "if it doesn't exist, you have to invent it."

Answering that challenge, women artists in the Twin Cities began to come out of isolation. "I'd never expected to be public with my art," said one. "I'd never seen a women's art shown in a gallery." Meeting first in homes and studios, future WARM artists showed slides and discussed discrimination and early feminist publications like Linda Nochlin's ground breaking article, "Why Are There No Great Women Artists?" A contingent from WARM traveled to the first national conference of women artists in Michigan, and came home with a Minnesota idea for a gallery – inclusive.

Few women artists had been encouraged to consider a career. "You've got your degree," one male professor told his female student, "now go on and get married." Marriage, however, hadn't stopped many women from art-making. "I did the housework in the mornings…then I could paint all afternoon." There were few female role models for public art careers, and the art world was often critical of those women who showed their work. "There was an idiosyncracy, a rawness or freshness to a lot of women's work. If you were working alone, and the men's stuff doesn't fit you, what you come up with is ground-breaking…no woman's land. We were nowhere."

That's why they needed a collective. WARM began semi-officially in the art department of the College of Saint Catherine, as a drawer for slides of women's work. After several shows without walls (the first on women's erotic art), WARM started looking for a space. They argued about the name: should it be WAR or WARM? Later one member would regret the choice: "By calling ourselves WARM we created a mythical mother. Thereafter not only would we have expectations for our careers, but unconscious expectations that our women's community would do for us what our mothers couldn't."

After inspecting space upstairs from a costume shop on Hennepin Avenue (rejected because "no one would walk upstairs to see art"), the members negotiated a lease in the Wyman Building on First Avenue North. The building owner thought at first they were nuts, but his wife was an artist – he felt sympathetic. Eventually he agreed to rent the garishly decorated, former wholesale showroom. Out went the orange and black walls and the floor tile, and in came the new walls painted a white mixed from hundreds of donated cans. Later the closest color to it was labeled Silver Bells.

The Gallery opened in April of 1976. "We had waited 5,000 years." Each of the forty members carried a long stem rose, 1,500 people attended, the air was unbreathable with cigarette smoke but the food was incredible. One observer commented that is was the first time she had ever seen women work "not for their husbands or children but solely for themselves and their art."

The next night, nationally known artist Miriam Schapiro sat on the floor of the new gallery and described the situation of another feminist organization, Womanhouse in Los Angeles. For some of its members, Womanhouse represented a piece of the pie of the commercial and academic art establishment. For others, it was an entirely new pie, with divergent goals. WARM members soon discovered that their attitudes covered at least that range: some were elitist and wanted WARM to accept only artists at a certain academic or artistic level. Others were populist and wanted to "construct a new Utopian art world that would be inclusive of all."

Whatever their differences (and sexual orientation, class, and economic distinctions were rarely discussed), the members were united in their belief that women should have equality in the art world and within the collective. Equality sculptured the motive of WARM, and had a major hand in forming its organization. The new gallery was run using a conscious-raising circle. Every member had her say. The meetings to form by-laws, decide exhibition procedures, work the finances (everyone paid monthly dues that began at $10 and steadily rose) – these Saturday meetings could both "drive you nuts and elevate you to the stars." The process was slow, but the excitement of taking charge and being heard "carried over to the studio."

The gallery offered two floors where members took turns showing, either individually or in groups. There were no restrictions on what you could show. Different from a commercial gallery that usually demands an identifiable "look" from an artists, WARM welcomed works in progress, works that had little commercial appeal, and installations and performance art before those styles were in common use. For many viewers, the shows became educational events, where wearable art, environmental installation, portrait ceramics, and many forms of narrative art exploded the banalities of pop-art modernism, popular at the time. In retrospect, it's clear that many post-modern styles began in the surge of feminist art that WARM represented.

By the time new members applied in the late '70s, WARM had garnered enough success to be intimidating. Applicants were scrutinized carefully, and had to pass the "feminism question," about their beliefs in equality, discrimination, and collective effort. Some did not make the grade. Others came in expecting to be told right away when they would show, only to hear about all their responsibilities as new members. The Gallery functioned so effectively that many outsiders did not realize how hard the members worked.

After five years, WARM began to assume the functions of both museum and school. In the Feminist Perspective Series, members lectured to each other about aesthetics and art history. This education soon expanded to invite women artists, art historians, and critics of national reputations to exhibit, lecture, and give studio critiques at WARM. During the heyday, such luminaries as Joan Snyder, Alice Neel, Marsha Tucker, Harmony Hammond, Lucy Lippard and Robin Morgan taught WARM members something about how east-coast and west-coast artists saw them. "Fly-over land" sometimes meant to these visitors a place to be nurtured by Midwestern earth mothers. The visitors also brought with them the competitive politics of the commercial art world. "These women often didn't have the energy to give, they weren't confident enough of their own foot in the door to offer us a hand. If they had a bone, they hugged it, hid it, didn't share it. That's what happens when there's not enough to go around."

These visits may not have benefited WARM members as directly as they expected, but they did increase their professional clout in the local community. Twin Cities art departments looking for faculty would occasionally call and ask to interview WARM members for jobs. Art directors of the Minneapolis Institute of Art and Walker Art Center began to attend WARM shows geared toward them, like, "Private Collectors and Art by Women," which won a Twin Cities Mayors' Award in 1984.

Warm evolved new programs to educate the members and the public at large. The WARM Journal gave reviewers a change to develop language to describe the new feminist art. When funders pressed for new programs, what had been a dream or joke – "rent-a-mentor" one WARM artist quipped – became an innovation, WARM's Mentor Program. Woman-to-woman mentoring was initially hard to sell to the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council, until a former art teacher on the panel spoke eloquently about the sexism that women often experienced from academic male mentors. She insisted that qualified women should be paid to take on that role. As soon as the Mentor program was funded, this advocate signed up.

By its tenth anniversary, the WARM Gallery had acquired a national reputation, paid staff, and the expertise to host a national conference on women in the arts. Larger "by megabytes than anything WARM had ever done" the conference spread over many days, had a program cast of hundreds, and drew in participants from all over the country. Successful as it was, it also left the organization with a deficit of $70,000. WARM had had cash-flow troubles before, but nothing some home-fundraising couldn't cover. A symptom of the size to which the organization had grown, the deficit resulted from a lack of communication between the artist-planners and the paid staff. WARM was too large and too diverse to function effectively with the Saturday morning consciousness-raising circle that had initially created such a strong consensus and sharing of responsibilities.

At the end of a successful term, the coordinator now resigned, and funders prevailed on WARM to create a board of directors, and also to undergo yearly long-range plans. The board represented corporate American's attempt to put its stamp on the Gallery's unorthodox manner of functioning, and it signaled the end of its era of feminist administration. The tension that developed between corporate-minded board members and the Gallery collective added another element of stress to the already overworked members. Furthermore, meetings to create long-range plans burdened the Gallery with outside facilitators who did not understand their goals or process. One could say that the demise of the Gallery began in WARM's very success, which its original organization could not realistically handle.

Several WARM artists thought at the time that the Gallery should close. After fifteen years, it apparently had accomplished what it had started out to do. It looked like a good time to have a celebration and say goodbye. Honoring the debt rather than attempting to slip out of it helped keep the WARM collective alive. Many old members left, but new ones joined. As the Gallery moved toward its end, these new members might not have the one-woman shows they had hoped, but they would steer the organization in new directions.

Before the Gallery closed, the Women of Color show presented the Gallery one last time in its role as prophet. Women of color with national reputations, like Faith Ringgold and the quilt that became her book Tar Baby, showed alongside local women artists and signaled to the arts community that there were new revolutions in attitudes and styles still to be counted.

The Gallery closed in February 1991 after a show of work donated from around the country to raise money for the deficit, "Our Hearts in Our Hands." Shortly thereafter, with a final ceremony for members and community, WARM said goodbye to the Gallery, and the organization in the words of one member, "dropped down the rabbit hole. It went from being incredibly visible to being almost invisible."

Conditions in the arts community had altered sufficiently from 1976 to 1991 to make it impossible for a group of forty to maintain a non-commercial gallery with grants and monthly dues. Some funders also argued that WARM, even without the Gallery, wasn't necessary anymore; museums, galleries, academies had opened to women's work and professionalism. Many of WARM's founding mothers had gotten more than a foot in the door, or a piece of the pie.

With difficulty getting board members to attend meetings, and reduced to a telephone in a corner of Artpaper's office, WARM sent out a survey to its huge mailing list, asking for help defining the goals and running the organization.

A new generation of women responded, not necessarily all younger than the founders, but at different points in their development, believing in the need for an alternative, feminist arts organization. Hiring a new coordinator, WARM began to look for different ways to make its presence felt.

Continuing three major programs from the Gallery days, WARM discovered the Mentor Program, with the Jerome Foundation as primary funder, still attracted far more applicants than could be accomodated, justifying the belief that women still needed to learn from women, outside regular academic programs. Furthermore, in the general decline of arts activities during the 90's, WARM's annual juried exhibitions offered women from around the region often their only venue for competing and gaining recognition. And the summer arts education workshops, coordinated through the MAX program of the Minnesota Center for Arts Education, served gaps that existed in art services for outstate communities.

Then WARM tried an experiment. It held two large shows, the Cinderella Show Show and the Herstory Show, in the public space of Calhoun Square. Each attracted a thousand viewers a day, far more of an audience than the Gallery had drawn at its most successful. This set a precedent for sponsoring shows in other community-based settings. WARM also initiated the new summer MAX workshops geared toward multicultural enrichment in the inner city.

After twenty years, WARM's values have been refined and retooled: hearing all voices now extends around the world through a scroll project, Global WARM…a message from women to the world. The scroll began as a fundraiser, with each WARM artists pledging twelve people at $10 an inch, then using that foot of space for painting. Now, coincident with WARM's multicultural initiative, the scroll has tapped into the coinage of international cooperation, as segments of the scroll travel to Mexico, Costa Rica, Russia, Japa, China, Peru, Tonga, and next to the International Women's Conference in Beijing.

Self-education still energizes WARM, in monthly public discussion groups called Fresh Art. With practical topics like preparing a portfolio or aesthetic ones like the self-portrait, Fresh Art draws artists of diverse confidence and experience for exchanges that many affirm could not take place within the commercial or academic establishment. It seems that WARM still rises to meet women artists' varied needs for expressing feminism's alternative vision and for bridging the inequality that keeps them outside the establishment.

Three things seem remarkably different, however, in the WARM of today: it works in concert with women artists who have entered other institutions. WARM's founding mothers and other like them can today join WARM in witnessing, withstanding, and watchdogging for women artists. WARM does not and cannot act alone. It has no exhibit space, and for this reason too, must join forces with academic and community centers.

Likewise, WARM's scope and scale have altered: like a computer network, the scroll links WARM globally to international women's issues and cooperation, but no more do forty local women make WARM a second family or second job. A few still volunteer considerable time, but today more WARM members work at paying jobs, or go to graduate school. Time and money are tighter all around. Thus, WARM must consider its programs carefully and count on members dropping in and out of active action.

Finally, WARM continues to function with a board of directors, many of whom are not artists. Crises still arise, cliff-hangers about meeting the coordinator's salary or paying for an already-committed program with a smaller-than-expected grant, but the organization will probably not undergo the extravagant growth and programming that supported the national conference and its deficit.

Today, when the phone rings at WARM, as it constantly does, most callers don't realize that they are talking to a phoenix that has risen from its own ashes, with the memory and expertise of contemporary feminism under its wing. Most new callers simply need to escape that still befalls many women and many artists. The danger is not that WARM can't help them, but that callers won't know what the organization has accomplished. Its survival, first of all, when many other small arts organizations in similar difficulties have expired. Its opening up the Minneapolis warehouse district to arts activities, and providing new energy for its current South Saint Anthony Park neighborhood. Its advocacy and education, which still pressure the larger community to examine visual, racial and gender prejudice.

The truth is, WARM still has public work to do. Timid and patriarchal institutions continue to sideline or misinterpret beautiful work through skewed or ignorant attitudes toward women. Institutions still need to be challenged on their sexism and racism. You can find WARM in the phone book under W, but a more public presence would be welcome. There's talk of moving to an office with a window, where at least a sign on the street can announce the WARM has kept the fires lit.

The History of WARM

By Margot Fortunato Galt


2003 Update:

In 2002, faced with departure of its Executive Director, the WARM Board of Directors polled members and found overwhelming support for keeping the organization running. WARM reinvented itself as an all-volunteer organization, with over fifty women actively working on nine committees. WARM is moving into the twenty-first century with renewed energy and enthusiasm.