One Woman Didn’t See Herself Represented In Art. She Set Out To Change That.

“I turned my focus on collecting just women artists, from the early 20th century into the present. It changed my life.”

A woman playing with a puzzle in a wooden veneered room

As a psychotherapist in St. Louis for forty years, Helen Kornblum says that she listened to women’s stories all the time. She then played on her interests and began collecting art by women artists and photographers, eventually assembling a major collection. “I was thinking about who is writing the art history books, who are the directors of the museums — they were all men! I turned my focus on collecting just women artists, from the early 20th century into the present. It changed my life in many ways.”

The Kornblum Collection includes 100 works of art by 76 women, including photographers Lola Álvarez Bravo and Susan Meiselas, spanning the entire 20th century. Kornblum recently donated the collection to the Museum of Modern Art, where the new additions “add significant examples of women artists’ pioneering achievements across the field,” according to a press release from MoMA.

Many of the artists are completely new to the museum (which has itself only had six directors since 1929, all men, and whose collection mostly consists of work from male artists). Throughout history, “women artists were not necessarily affiliated with an ‘ism’ but often functioned as independent agents who were unjustifiably left out of art historical discourses,” says Roxana Marcoci, the senior curator of photography at MoMA.

When Kornblum began collecting in the early 1980s, photography wasn’t taken as seriously as an art form as it is today. “Sometimes when I would go to an art or photography fair, some of the dealers would make fun — ‘Oh, here she comes, she only wants to look at photographs by women,’” said Kornblum.

She sought many of the artists out directly. “Cara Romero is foremost,” said Kornblum. “She’s bold, she’s political. I first came upon her at a panel in Santa Fe, and then I sought her out to know her work.”

Romero, a contemporary fine art photographer and an enrolled citizen of the Chemehuevi Indian Tribe who is based in New Mexico, portrays traditional Native American culture with a colorful, contemporary, and pointed spin. “It is so meaningful to be part of such a major acquisition of women in the arts and to be part of Helen’s vision to bring gender parity in such a significant way,” said Romero.

“I have heard it said that a collection is a portrait of the collector — that is definitely true for me,” said Kornblum. “I feel gratified when I can be pursuing something beyond myself. I never expected the collection to have this visibility, but that’s definitely what I wanted for women to have, and so I’m thrilled.”

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