Women and Their Work is a multidisciplinary arts service organization dedicated to supporting and publicizing work by women artists. It is based in Austin but serves artists throughout the state. In the fall of 1977 Rita Starpattern, a painter; Deanna Stevenson, a singer and poet; and Carol Taylor, a video artist, staged a six-week smorgasbord of women's imaginative work sponsored by Laguna Gloria Art Museum. The festival featured twenty-two music, dance, and interdisciplinary performances, exhibitions, symposia, and literary readings, which occurred in venues throughout Austin. Encouraged by the success of the festival, which drew 20,000 people, the organizers decided to establish a group that would provide support for women artists, especially to help them find places to perform or display their work. Women and Their Work was incorporated as a nonprofit organization in 1978 and began operating in a tiny space at 2330 Guadalupe. Codirectors Starpattern and Stevenson determined that their new organization would promote an appreciation of women's cultural contributions, provide financial and technical support for women artists, and present innovative programs that reflect the ethnic and cultural diversity of the Southwest. Throughout its history Women and Their Work has met the first objective by organizing an array of programs, such as the touring exhibition Women-in-Sight: New Art in Texas (1978), the first statewide juried exhibition of women artists ever held in Texas. The organization has sponsored literary readings and workshops, performances by women's theater and dance groups, and international festivals highlighting the accomplishments of women filmmakers. Noted composers and performers such as Holly Near, Lydia Mendoza, Tina Marsh, and the vocal ensembles Sweet Honey in the Rock and Women of the Calabash have performed in Austin under the auspices of Women and Their Work. The organization has also provided invaluable support to performance art, by nature a non-commercial medium, by sponsoring performances by Deborah Hay, Jo Harvey Allen, Heloise Gold, Eleanor Antin, Laurie Anderson, and many others. In addition to publicizing women's creative accomplishments, Women and Their Work has provided support for artists by offering information and referral services, assisting women artists in grant writing, and hiring them to perform, display their work, or direct projects. Women and Their Work has further emphasized the professional status of women artists by sponsoring a series of symposia that address issues encountered by women in the arts. Throughout its history Women and Their Work has maintained its commitment to cultural diversity, organizing a number of programs that feature the cultural contributions of women of color. In 1981 Women and Their Work cofounded and sponsored Black Arts Alliance, with which it continues to work closely.
Critics of Women and Their Work suggest that their approach ghettoizes women's art and leaves it vulnerable to evaluation on issues of gender rather than quality. The organization has countered charges of sexism by emphasizing the inequities faced by women artists. Traditionally, the work of women artists has been devalued or ignored, as shown by the total exclusion of women from the standard art history textbook, H. W. Janson's History of Art, until 1985. Statistics also indicate that women artists earn less than half of the earnings of male artists, a fact that may explain the why women artists are not shown in many commercial galleries. Women and Their Work has also provided a forum for issues of particular concern to women, presenting exhibitions and panels addressing issues such as rape and returning to school at an older age. Men have been included in a number of performances sponsored by Women and Their Work, and even featured in some programs. The value of Women and Their Work's services is suggested by the growth of its budget, from $3,200 in 1978 to $301,000 in 1992. In 1981 Women and Their Work received the first National Endowment of the Arts grant in visual arts awarded in Texas, and in 1989 it received the prestigious advancement grant from the NEA. The organization also receives support from its membership, the Texas Commission on the Arts, the City of Austin, and various corporations and private foundations. Under the leadership of Chris Cowden, the director since 1986, Women and Their Work obtained its own gallery space at 1501 West Fifth Street in 1987, thus achieving a more concrete identity within the community. In 1990 the center moved to more spacious quarters at 1137 West Sixth Street. The organization continues to use satellite spaces all over Austin and has had as many as three exhibitions running simultaneously. In 1985 Women and Their Work and Black Arts Alliance joined with Dance Umbrella to become a member of National Performance Network, which fosters touring among experimental, non-traditional dance and performing arts groups. The three organizations copresent many programs, share expertise, and raise funds together. Their informal alliance has contributed to a lively interaction between artistic disciplines in Austin and throughout the state.