Unpacking Bureau of Feminism with Connie Butler

Hammer Museum Chief Curator Connie Butler discusses her institution's new, female-driven initiative.

Photography by Stefanie Keenan


This year, the Hammer Museum initiated a multifaceted series called “Bureau of Feminism.” Composed of lectures, happenings and exhibitions, this long-term program focuses on harnessing artist activism as it relates to feminism. Here, Chief Curator Connie Butler reflects on “Bureau of Feminism” and how it fits into the Hammer Museum’s mission and the Los Angeles art community.

What is the importance of gathering multiple organizations as you are doing with WCCW? Los Angeles is one of the most exciting cities for contemporary art right now. One of the reasons for this is the great number of small, artist run organizations that have been forming alliances with communities across the city to do activist and feminist inspired work. We wanted to ally ourselves with these organizations and with our constituency of artists, not to duplicate what they are doing but rather to, in some cases, provide a platform and bigger context for it. We can’t always move as quickly as they often do, but especially while our galleries have been closed for renovation, we have been able to be very responsive to the activities going on in the city as well as the social and political issues of the moment.

How does one put together the financing for an large-scale initiative like the Bureau of Feminism? Well, the beauty of it so far is that we’ve just refocused a lot of the programming we are already doing. And given that Bureau of Feminism is an initiative that will develop over time, the financing is actually coming from many different pots of money across our budget. It’s sort of a grass roots effort from within our organization! Bureau is an effort to capture a moment of great feminist energy, introspection, anger—and now, post-election, it is more relevant than ever.

What are your personal goals for initiative? Feminism is so deeply ingrained in my curatorial work and in my life, that I often try to backburner my own desire for this content in the interest of programmatic balance. While the Hammer’s program does many things in addition to Bureau, and we explore a wide range of issues in our exhibitions as well, making the Bureau has forced me to rethink in an active and daily way what I want from my curatorial work in terms of feminism but also where I think the Hammer can contribute in terms of focusing on certain issues through a feminist lens. If we can contribute something to contemporary feminist discourse in a new way, and through art, then Bureau is doing its job.

Did you have certain names in mind when you started planning? There are so many wonderful artists and thinkers to work with. But yes, there is a pantheon of women who are always close to my own thinking. Some of these are close friends and some are close colleagues and some are aspirational—women I would just love to be in the same room with to hear them think. One of the issues we thought about first is that of Voice and there are many interesting artists who work with this idea in various ways. Sharon Hayes is one of the most important and articulate artists on this subject. She gave a talk last year at the Hammer (which is on our website) that was incredibly powerful as is much of her work on voice. Others who I’m thinking about currently might include Beverly Semmes, Simone Leigh, Andrea Bowers, Yvonne Rainer, Cheryl Dunye…there are many others.

Who were your female mentors?  I’m not sure I’ve had so many female mentors actually, more colleagues who continue to be important to me. I grew up in the eighties which was a strange time of backlash against second wave feminism. But there have been a few (and men too): Cricket Beebe, an early art history teacher at Pomona College who directed the gallery there and encouraged me to pursue museum work; Julia Brown, the first chief curator of MOCA who I worked for and taught me to stay close to artists; my high school dance teacher Michelle Manzella who taught me about having a personal vision for my then choreographic work. Now it’s my strong woman colleagues and artists who inspire me.

The Hammer Museum has a palpable interest in young artists, does the same go for young curators? We definitely try to keep a youthful profile. It extends not only to our pursuit of young artists and an interest in what they are thinking about, but also to the vision of younger generation of curators and how they are defining the field. Aram Moshayedi, our curator who joined the Hammer at the same time I did, represents a younger generation who is close to artists and has very fresh ideas about technology, the function of the studio, and the relationship of art to commerce as well as to curatorial practice itself. Jamillah James, who came on board to work with us on the Art +Practice partnership with Mark Bradford, is one of the most interesting, young perspectives I can think of in Los Angeles. She’s deeply embedded (as they say) with the artists community here.


Lara Schnitger’s Suffragette City. Courtesy of Hammer Museum.

How do you see the Hammer’s collection relating to L.A.’s other institutions? We collect internationally but with Los Angeles and its histories at the core. Los Angeles is such an international and even global art scene that we can think of the city as a nexus for networks of artists who have some base here, or pass through Los Angeles, but think of it as part of a diaspora. We are not interested in being comprehensive, nor can we be, as one might think of a collection like MoMA’s in New York or even LACMA’s much more encyclopedic collection here in Los Angeles. MOCA collects internationally and perhaps most closely parallels our own collecting, but there are important distinctions. We have several important focuses: emerging artists, often making acquisitions from our own Hammer Projects; works on paper, with a long history and expertise among our curatorial staff and director; and Los Angeles histories. We are also aggressively collecting video as any good contemporary museum must do.

What do you hope Simone Leigh’s visit will add to the conversation? Simone Leigh is an incredible and very political artist. Her collaboration with Black Lives Matter and the women associated with that movement has been so effective in thinking about the question of what a black audience might want and imagine from its culture and its institutions. She makes images of beauty and empowerment and she herself is a very compelling figure. When she speaks it’s with wisdom. She hasn’t spent much time in LA so I’m looking forward to seeing how she responds to the local audience and how they respond to her work. Her performance is really about speech and love, two things we all must seriously keep at the forefront of our thinking in the years to come.

Sometimes all female group shows seem to do more damage than good. How does one celebrate female artists without siloing them? I’m not against the all woman group show. Gender is a category just like anything else and it’s a way of seeing art and seeing the world. I’m not particularly interested in organizing an all woman show myself at the moment, but if there is a historical reason, then changing and revising history can be a gesture of great agency. There are all male group shows all the time.