Behind the Scenes in Mary Beth Edelson’s Studio: My Experience Working for Google Arts & Culture
by Erica Galluscio
During the summer of 2018 I worked with a small nonprofit startup called The Feminist Institute to digitize and make publicly available feminist archival holdings across the nation’s universities, libraries, and private collections. We were presented with an incredible opportunity to work with Google Arts & Culture to preserve the art and archives of several pioneering feminist artists and produce educational materials on these women for their platform. I produced the front end of these GA&C projects, working with icons such as Cindy Sherman and Mary Beth Edelson and several leading feminist scholars to help educate the public on these artists’ legacies. I learned a lot about hands-on archival work and had so many irreplaceable experiences working on such critical projects.
Mary Beth Edelson is a renowned early figure in feminist art history who revolutionized the genres of printmaking, bookmaking, photography, collage, sculpture and performance art. She strongly believed in the powers of collectivity and collaboration, and she was a central figure in art groups such as A.I.R. and Heresies throughout the 70s. Her art features strong feminist themes and motifs, such as Goddess worship, female spirituality, bodily autonomy, and justice for female artists. Her style is instantly recognizable, and you’ve probably seen her most famous work “Some Living American Women Artists,” a collage parody of the Last Supper.
Her studio, located in the heart of SoHo where many of her contemporaries also lived and worked, was set to be dismantled by her family when we received the opportunity to photograph and memorialize it for Google. Time was of the essence, and we had to work quickly and smartly. We had a photographer visit the studio and take as many pictures of the space as he could, making sure to capture details like the dozens of plastic rats she hid all around the loft and notes she left to herself to organize her work and materials. Google’s camera crew also visited the space to take 3D and 360-degree images of each room so online viewers could fully immerse themselves in the beauty and chaos of the crowded art space. If you visit Google Arts & Culture today, you can walk through it yourself!
I met with Google Arts & Culture programmers to discuss the capabilities and limitations of the platform to get a better idea of what kind of writing would best fit the project. These kinds of digital exhibitions work best with small bursts of engaging and informational text. I then met with our Mary Beth Edelson scholar, Doctor Kathy Wentrack Ph.D, who has known Edelson for many years, to talk about goals and expectations of the writing she would be providing. We looked over the photographs and images that had been taken of the space and developed a storyline that her brief essay would follow, one that guided the reader through Edelson’s life work from her earliest series to her most recent retrospectives. We wanted the reader to leave this project with a fuller knowledge of Edelson’s artistic portfolio and political history.
I waited for Dr. Wentrack to send me her photo selections and the order in which she wanted them to appear. The back end of Google Arts & Culture is pretty straightforward and I picked it up fairly easily! I put the images in order and arranged them in the sections that Dr. Wentrack and I designated, such as “Heresies” and “Woman Rising Series.” For each image that I uploaded, I had to manually enter all of its metadata including its date, medium, location, etc. It was time-consuming but a great exercise in what day-to-day archiving looks like. It’s all about data. I had to email many of the the rights-holders and gallery owners to clarify that the information I had was absolutely correct. Then I waited for Dr. Wentrack to send over her essay bit by bit as she finished it, and I separated the text in ways that looked the best and made the most sense in terms of the general flow of the project. This was also very time consuming, but I love working on front-end projects and making sure viewers get the best visual and informational experience they can! I sent drafts back and forth very frequently for feedback and approval and we had several phone calls together in which we discussed alterations until it was done.
The most rewarding part of this entire experience was being able to visit Mary Beth Edelson herself in her assisted living home and show her all the work we had put in to preserve her studio and legacy. Some months after the completion of the project, I was part of the team that accepted her 2019 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Women’s Caucus for Art on her behalf. We were able to bring the award and the Google Arts & Culture exhibit to her residence and tell her about all the recognition we made sure she’d have forever. There were lots of tears; it was an emotional day. But it was proof that the work we’d been doing was important, and we must continue to bring recognition to important feminist artists who may one day be at risk of fading into obscurity.
Finishing the project took months of constant communication and collaboration. To say it was a collaborative feminist work in and of itself isn’t really that far of a stretch! It’s a real honor to have been a part of this effort to bring more awareness to Mary Beth Edelson’s impact on art history. I enjoyed every single visit to her studio; it felt like stepping back in time to a moment of criticality. Edelson’s walls are covered in bits and pieces of her most famous collages. Her file cabinets are full to the brim with letters from her dearest friends, like Ana Mendieta, and important archival documents like flyers and meeting notes from her A.I.R. days. Her work tables are covered in priceless half-finished pieces and even her garbage can is infused with her quippy sense of humor. I got to meet the managers of her foundation and some of her closest friends. I got to visit the Google offices! I’m so grateful for this experience, and I’m so happy to have something as meaningful as this Google Arts & Culture exhibit to remember all of my hard work.
You can visit the Google Arts & Culture exhibit on Mary Beth Edelson’s studio, and please browse The Feminist Institute’s other projects to learn more about iconic feminist artists of the late twentieth century.