Newberry Library Exhibit Pushes Boundary Breaking Women to the Forefront

A new exhibition from the Newberry Library puts the spotlight on Chicago as a site of historic, boundary-pushing experimentation in art, literature, and dance. At the center of the exhibition are five women whose lives and careers embodied a uniquely Chicago style of avant-garde creativity in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s: Artist Gertrude Abercrombie, poet Gwendolyn Brooks, dancers Katherine Dunham and Ruth Page, and curator Katharine Kuh.

“All five women challenged social constraints—based on their gender, their race, or both—to subvert convention and find beauty and freedom in their art,” says Liesl Olson, curator of Chicago Avant-Garde and Director of Chicago Studies at the Newberry.

Unlike the more established, rarefied art worlds of New York and Paris, Chicago afforded artists the freedom to take risks.

“The five women featured in Chicago Avant-Garde created original art and boundary-crossing spaces that were particular to Chicago and that may not have been possible someplace else,” says Olson.

Many of these women’s stories are not widely known, due in part to many critics and institutions overlooking the artistic contributions of women—particularly Black women—at the time.

“When I think about this period of creativity in Chicago, I think about all the untold stories that are just now beginning to come to the surface,” says Monique Brinkman-Hill, Executive Director of the South Side Community Art Center, the oldest African American arts center in the United States. “Sharing silenced stories of the past gives people a sense of the power of who they are and what they are capable of creating.”

Visitors to the exhibition will encounter a range of artifacts and archival materials, including paintings, sketches, photographs, posters, dance costumes, and rare video footage.

Chicago Avant-Garde is open at the Newberry from September 10 – December 30, 2021. Admission is free and open to all.

The exhibition is made possible through the generous support of the Terra Foundation for American Art, the Walter E. Heller Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the History Channel.