George Paton Gallery
Writer: Briony Downes
Judy Chicago’s epic installation, The Dinner Table, 1974-79, is a work that celebrates and makes visible the achievements of women in history. Currently displayed as the centrepiece for Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Centre for Feminist Art, The Dinner Table features 39 place settings arranged around an open triangular table. Set up like a ceremonial banquet with reservations for women like Greek mathematician, Hypatia of Alexandria, Native American expeditioner Sacajawea, literary doyen Virginia Woolf and celebrated painter, Georgia O’Keefe, each place setting consists of a decorated plate, handmade utensils and an embroidered banner.
Using the traditionally ‘female’ crafts of weaving and embroidery, Chicago pays homage to each woman by providing her a place at a communal table. The work is inclusive and there is a sense of connection and community. In the centre of the triangle, the floor is inscribed with the names of 999 more women deserving further investigation. Chicago’s act of visually recording and consolidating the achievements of multiple women into one artwork, provides valuable historical documentation as well as a strong validation of women’s value and determination.
Like a living evolution of Chicago’s seminal work, FavourEconomy strives to collect and record women’s voices so that others can share in the exchange of ideas, advice and encouragement. Initially released to the public in mid 2015, FavourEconomy is an audio gift economy developed and co-led by Claire Field, Bronwyn Treacy and Alex Pedley, featuring women of all ages and varied artistic disciplines. Presented as an online archive of sound files published at the end of each financial year, every favour contains a personal recording spoken by each participant. Art Historian Dr Catriona Moore, digital artist Linda Dement, artist and former librarian Brigita Ozolins are amongst over 80 creative women contributing to an exchangeable currency in the form of knowledge and experience.
For me, the need for a project like FavourEconomy came in 2015. I had recently become a parent and my daughter was about 3 years old. Much of my time was spent caring for her at home while also juggling arts writing work and study. I quickly began to realise that parenting was a lot like a freelance career. There is often no clear path to follow, you are forced to make things up as you go and hope the decisions made today don’t lead to therapy tomorrow. Both can be rewarding and both can be unexpectedly isolating. Not only does FavourEconomy provide an easily accessible resource for female creative practitioners, it also offers women a place to listen to advice from others involved in arguably one of the most difficult careers to navigate long-term.
Listening to the voices of women from diverse creative practices talking candidly about how they overcame challenges, met with success and navigated disappointments can be a crucial lifeline. I drew particular inspiration from the favour of Elisabeth Cummings (Volume 2), a remarkable woman in her early 80s with a successful career as a painter spanning nearly 60 years. Currently living and working as an artist in Wedderburn, NSW, Cummings attended art school in Sydney during the 1950s before settling in Europe for close to a decade. In her favour contribution, Cummings likens being an artist to a balancing act. “Finding the balance between the life you want with your family, earning money too and doing your own work, it’s a tightrope,” she admits. “The main thing is the work itself and to keep on doing it, no matter what. It’s always elusive, that thing you’re chasing, but that’s the excitement of it.”
Another favour that continues to resonate with me is New York based artist and curator Katya Grokhovsky’s (Volume 2) discussion about rejection. The negative aspects of an arts practice are inevitable and can be a significant stumbling block for many independent creatives. Grokhovsky uses her favour to describe how she moves beyond the experience of rejection and turns it into super-charged momentum to succeed. Recently named by Huffington Post as one of the “top ten feminist artists to watch”, Grokhovsky says, “Break your own rules. Break everybody else’s rules. Do it yourself. Do it all anyway.” While it may feel uncomfortable, rejection is not to be feared. “Pitch your own tent next to the gated castle you were applying to and invite those people sitting up in that castle to your tent. Break bread with them and they will come.”
With Volume 1 (2015-2016) & 2 (2016-2017) completed and Volume 3 (2017-2018) currently in development, FavourEconomy is now branching out into the gallery space. While it remains primarily a web based project, the favours can also be included in exhibition formats as sound and text based installations. Within the gallery, chairs and headphones are provided as favours randomly play, allowing visitors to experience the scope of information provided in each volume. For one of FavourEconomy’s co-leaders Claire Field, the value of the project exists in the individual listener. “Theorist Genevieve Vaughan’s perception is that a true gift is one that satisfies a need,” Field explains. “The audio favours in FavourEconomy have value according to the listener’s current situation and need, which can flux and change over time.”
Undoubtedly, the arts in Australia are currently in a precarious position. Catastrophic funding cuts, loss of jobs and arts programs have affected many across all sectors. As women in the arts, our position is even more precarious. In the spirit of Judy Chicago’s epic banquet, it is time to make more places at our table and stand together on the paths we have chosen. As Chicago writes in her Feminist Artist Statement, “I continue to believe that we need an art that can help us see the world through other people’s eyes and thereby lead us to a future where the world will be made at least a little more whole.” By openly sharing the voices of women in the arts, FavourEconomy is part of the future Chicago speaks of. A future that strives to be more inclusive and supportive by positively helping women to feel a little less isolated and the world a little more whole.