By, For, and From WOMAN: Mary Urbas and the Origins of the annual exhibit the Gallery at Lakeland Community College
When Mary Urbas was a sixteen-year-old Cleveland Heights High School student, she went out and got a job. So did her twin brother. To her dismay, she learned her brother was getting paid more than she was—something she said hadn’t occurred to her, since at home they were treated as equals.
Forty years later, Urbas is making sure women artists get their due with her annual from WOMAN show, now in its fourteenth year at the Gallery at Lakeland Community College, where she’s been gallery director for sixteen years.
The inspiration for the initial show in 2009 came from a couple of sources. One was the work of New York’s Guerrilla Girls, a collective of anonymous feminist artists, whose projects usually focus on gender inequity in the visual arts, where men dominate gallery rosters, institution boards, and museum shows.
Another was a women’s art show curated by her Cleveland Institute of Art classmate Frank Frate, who was gallery director at Ursuline College’s Wasmer Gallery from 1991 to 2012.
“He was the one who started the woman show at Ursuline, a woman’s college,” she says. “I thought it was a good idea. Every time I do it, some people say, ‘isn’t it politically incorrect?’ I say, you don’t know your art history. Woman artists had been underserved for centuries. Women were once not allowed to sign their work. They weren’t paid the same. There’s a double standard. Ever since I was sixteen, I felt like I was rolling a boulder up a hill. We’re making strides, but we have a ways to go. That’s why with this show, I just wanted to give women a shot. I wanted people to see the awesome, talented women in the region.”
Urbas moved to the Gallery at Lakeland in 2005. After settling in, she decided to launch her own version between the student, faculty and community shows that were baked into its schedule. She already had deep ties in the local visual arts community and a long list of contacts from her years running a Chagrin Falls gallery and a stint as director of the Valley Art Center. She knew many women artists she felt deserved more exposure.
The initial show in 2009 featured just eighteen artists, mostly from Northeast Ohio. The upcoming show, from WOMAN XIV…created by women, of women and about women, includes about forty artists, still with a heavy focus on Northeast Ohio, but also including artists from central Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Georgia, Texas and Oregon. Urbas estimates that over the years she’s shown the work of 400 to 600 artists, and thousands of pieces.
As if that weren’t enough to wrangle, in 2014, Urbas had a new idea: why not make from WOMAN a citywide affair? Then it could unite galleries across Northeast Ohio that are woman-owned, show the work of women artists, and put out a directory guiding viewers to the various locations.
“Quite a few of my gallery owner/director/manager friends are women,” she says. “Many show their own work and the art of other female artists. I thought it would be a wonderful idea to coordinate all of our efforts. Since I’m based in Lake County, I wanted to expose the Lakeland community to the various venues, to encourage them to travel west and south into Cuyahoga and Geauga County. I also wanted to help some lesser-known galleries gain recognition and increase their visibility. I thought if I created a directory of the participating galleries, art centers and studios, the viewing public could easily maneuver throughout the various locations, and experience the joy and excitement of discovering new artists and galleries.”
As with the from WOMAN show, the directory snowballed in the four years she did it, from sixteen participating venues to more than 85, giving art lovers the chance to celebrate women’s art throughout Women’s History Month in March.
Last March, due to the pandemic, everything shut down while the show was in mid-run. Since it couldn’t be viewed in person, Urbas posted a video walkthrough online. But something else was in the works: a super-charged version of the directory for 2021.
In 2019, Urbas went to Lakeland’s new dean of arts and sciences, Adam Cloutier, and suggested doing an expanded version of her directory.
“I told him what I wanted to do,” she says. “Being an artist, I know what the end product is, but I don’t always know how to get there. I said, there must be grants out there for publications we can apply for. I got together with the dean and a grant writer, and we submitted a grant to the NEA. I really thought we had a snowball’s chance in hell of getting a grant for a curator at a community college trying to organize galleries in the area.”
To her surprise, they did get it, learning they’d won it in late spring. Then the work began, not only putting together from Woman XIV, which runs through March 26, but also a comprehensive guide to woman-owned studios and galleries in the area that show women’s art. And she was doing so at a time when no one knew what gallery events would look like in the coming year.
The result is an impressive guide featuring more than 100 venues and more than 200 artists, with both in-person and virtual events and exhibitions taking place throughout March. Available in both virtual and print versions, the guide has sections for on-site events, for venues open for viewing with no reception or other event, and for strictly virtual events.
“There’ll be a virtual version on the Lakeland website,” says Urbas. “A QR code will take you to gallery section. We created a geospatial map; there’s a teardrop and you hit it and it tells you what’s going to be in the printed directory. We’re also printing copies, two to three per location. We’re trying to get it out to people who might not necessarily look for us. It’s like a self-guided tour.”
As for the from WOMAN exhibit, Urbas says she’ll be doing the video walkthrough again of what’s basically a virtual show, although it will hang in the gallery. “As soon as we get the exhibition up, we’ll film the walkthrough,” she says. “I’ll talk about each piece individually. I’ll talk about some background if it’s a new artist. A walkthrough is more organic than slide show.”
“I really miss the sense of community,” she says wistfully. “With everyone being so isolated, I’d like to think this will bring us back together.”
Join curator Mary Urbas and the artists of from Woman XIV…created by women, of women and about women for a virtual artist reception at 3:00 pm on March 21.