Women & Their Work Executive Director Chris Cowden provides woman-identified artists the space to properly represent themselves in Austin’s art scene.

austin-woman-women-and-their-work-Red Dot Art Spree
Red Dot Art Spree

By Hannah Nuñez. Photos courtesy of Women & Their Work

What began as a dream in 1978 has progressed into a nationally renowned nonprofit. Found in the heart of Austin, Women & Their Work (WATW) is more than an exhibition space. It’s an opportunity for woman-identified artists to assert themselves as equals in the art world. Over the past 46 years, the organization has caught the attention of many prestigious establishments and has received recognition for its advancements in feminism. Milestones such as being the first organization in Texas to receive a grant for visual art from the National Endowment for the Arts, participation in the Warhol Initiative and features on NPR pay tribute to their decades of work.

From the beginning, WATW has exemplified its core value of giving space to those deserving yet overlooked. Up until the mid-’70s, female artists were often dismissed as illegitimate in the mainstream and were given little opportunity to present themselves as otherwise to those in control. “There were no women in museums, there were no women curators, there were no women directors,” Executive Director Chris Cowden describes. Being fed up with such dismissal pushed three women to take the leap of faith and create a production they knew couldn’t be ignored.

Rita Starpattern, Carol Taylor and Deanna Stevenson banded together to host Texas’ first statewide female art festival in the fall of 1977. Women from all walks of life joined to celebrate, ranging from Austin symphony directors to Pulitzer Prize-winning poets. These women pushed the boundaries of social norms and were able to reflect the intensity of their emotions through the beauty of art. “In that moment, the three founders were made aware just how big the appetite was in Texas for female artists,” Cowden explains. “The following year, the nonprofit was created to forever hold space for the women who needed representation.” 

austin-woman-women-and-their-work_One Bad Monkey Performance
Red Dot Art Spree

Today, the organization acts as a physical vessel for artists to transform into their own canvas. Every year there’s a statewide call for entries where artists present their pieces to WATW for consideration. “Ten images of their work, an artist statement and a CV are all we go off of,” says Cowden. “With only that, we look to see what it is you’ve done and what it is you wanna do. It’s a very big leap of faith.”

Rather than showcase previous creations, WATW challenges artists to create a new collection in time for its display, meaning applicants must exhibit a tremendous amount of trust and potential. “We support emerging artists who may have had very little exhibition experience, but we can also recognize how challenging it is for artists of any stature to have an ongoing career. Everyone has equal opportunity because we really base everything off the proposal that’s being presented and focus on if what they want to do here is going to push their career forward.” 

While selection may seem tough, being granted exhibition space comes with many rewarding accommodations. When selected artists are given free rein over the entirety of the 2,000-square-foot space to present their collection, “We provide them with a curatorial assistant to help them with conceptual or technical problems,” Cowden explains. “We commission a writer to write an essay about the show that will be included in the individual artist’s catalog. We also make a professionally produced video that allows the artist to go more in-depth explaining their work, which plays throughout the exhibition.”

The organization also works to ensure that their collections will forever be preserved. In 2020, Smithsonian Libraries invited WATW to be a part of their archives, memorializing all work from the floor and throughout the WATW website.

By going the extra mile, WATW emphasizes that art is a career that deserves to be taken seriously. “Art is a profession like a banker or a plumber; it’s not a Sunday holiday or a pastime,” Cowden says. “It’s a profession, and we’re doing everything we can to make that clear.” 

Women & Their Work focuses on educating children on the importance of art in order to combat  stigmas surrounding art and have it be seen as a legitimate career. Since 1986, the organization has opened its exhibition doors to include thousands of kids in the educational program. This program ties into the students’ curriculum while simultaneously introducing real-world issues. An emphasis on low-income schools opens up the opportunity for kids to experience art in an immersive way that’s often unavailable within their day-to-day lives.

austin-woman-women-and-their-work_Education Tour
Education Tour

“We prioritize Title I schools because those are the children who’ve had the least exposure to art,” Cowden explains. “We had a student begin to come in around the sixth grade and continue to visit us throughout his high school career. He now studies at the Art Institute of Chicago. Witnessing that we have that impact reinfects enthusiasm into our work.”

“It’s a gift to us as well, because kids are so much more open to adventure and ambition. They can relate to it because they haven’t shut down and begun to believe there’s any right or wrong to art, whereas adults have more trouble trusting themselves.”

In 2013, WATW collaborated with the Austin ISD GO Project, a program devoted to helping disabled 18- to 22-year-olds integrate into adulthood. Their involvement gives these young adults a chance at having a fulfilling and sustainable future that may have never been an option before. Opening doors of opportunity for children ensures they have access to the tools and resources needed to better our community as they grow. 

As the folks of Women & Their Work settle into their new location on East Cesar Chavez Street, they have no intention of slowing down. With support from the Heritage Preservation Grant, they plan to renovate their site into a new-and-improved home for art to better accommodate all visitors. As they exhibit artists, they’re working to produce a large-scale public installation to encourage conversations about art becoming integral in Austin residents’ lives. From holding space for female artists to educating younger generations, Women & Their Work is proving that art has the power to change a community. 

“While the repairs we’re making may seem minute, it’ll truly get us on solid ground,” Cowden says. “We were able to get historic status registered from the state and historic zoning, meaning that this building cannot be torn down and will last for generations of artists to come and enjoy.”



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