Meg Pierce, Lotus, 36” x 36”, thread, pastel, graphite, acrylic on canvas. 

The work of the Petticoat Painters, one of the longest continually exhibiting women’s art groups in the United States, will be featured in an exhibition opening this Friday, June 29, at Ringling College of Art and Design’s Basch and Willis Smith Galleries. The opening reception will take place from 4 to 6 p.m., and the show, which features work by the 18 women currently involved in the group, will run until Thursday, Aug. 2.

Most in Sarasota haven't heard the remarkable history of the Petticoat Painters; there is no mention of the group in either public libraries or in the archives of the Historical Society of Sarasota County. The idea for the group first developed in 1953, after Marty Hartman was snubbed by the Sarasota arts community for being a woman and decided to host an exhibition for local female artists at the art gallery she and her husband owned.

“Marty was a real dynamic personality, strong, resilient and very forceful for women and women artists,” says Madelaine Ginsberg, a current Petticoat Painter and previous president of the group. “That was her cause in life—that women artists didn’t get the same money when they sold a painting, that they didn’t get the same respect.”

Hartman's commitment to supporting and promoting female artists propelled her to organize the small group of female artists she asked to participate in her exhibition into the Petticoat Painters. The group’s name was intended to be a tongue-in-cheek title for a one-time show. Sixty-five years later, the name still hasn't changed.

Today, the Petticoat Painters consist of a maximum of 20 artists at a time. New members are added by invitation only, and each is required to show with the Petticoat Painters at least once per year. Each artist has her own distinct artistic style and the group shows are intended to showcase the diversity and talent of the members. While most of the Petticoat Painters are, in fact, painters, they also work in a variety of other mediums, including printmaking, collage and mixed media.

“What we try to do is have each painter in the group be slightly different than the others,” Ginsberg says. “We want to have 20 different styles so that the public gets a view of how many different ways you can do art as an artist. You’ll see everything from very abstract, to minimalist, to traditional, to representational, to fantasy—you’ll see a whole range of styles when you go to one of our shows.”

The foundational mission of the group—to support and promote female artists in the Sarasota community—has not changed since 1953.

“In teaching young people I realized that a lot of them—both men and women—believe that the struggle’s over, that there is nothing left to talk about,” says Marcia Christ, director of the documentary Petticoat Painters: Sixty and Strong, which premiered at the 2014 Sarasota Film Festival. “When I was teaching it was amazing how many students said to me ‘What do we need courses about women art for? Why do we need to have shows for women’s art? Everything is equal.’ And a lot of the time I said to them, ‘You are so wrong! I’m sorry to say, but you’ll find out that you’re so wrong when you get out of here.’”

“We can’t ignore the fact that the Petticoat Painters are all women," says Laine Nixon, a current Petticoat Painter. "That fact is one of the main reasons why the group was banded together—to give women, female artists, a way to show and to be taken seriously as career artists. I think there’s still that need."

Around the world, women’s work still sells for less than the work of their male counterparts and represents only a small fraction of the art in museums and galleries. Women also hold fewer positions in arts organizations and institutions, and the positions they do hold tend to be of lower importance. The top three museums in the world—the British Museum, the Louvre and The Metropolitan Museum of Art—have never had female directors. 

“There’s so many wonderful women artists and they just don’t have a voice," says Judy Just, a current Petticoat Painter. "But we keep hanging in there.”

This lack of institutional support for female artists has, perhaps shockingly, not improved much since Marty Hartman first started the Petticoat Painters, and it is why groups like the Petticoat Painters remain so important today.

The Petticoat Painters exhibition runs from June 29 through Aug. 2 at Ringling College of Art and Design’s Richard and Barbara Basch and Willis Smith Galleries. The galleries will be open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday. The Willis Smith and Basch Galleries are located on the ground floor of the Academic Center building on the Ringling College campus located at 2363 Old Bradenton Road.

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