It was Charlotte Robinson's moment.
The president, the wife of the vice president, and four of Charlotte Robinson's distinguished elder colleagues stood in line beside her in the White House Oval Office. The president did the talking. He said the moment was "historic," that America's women artists "had for too long been ignored."
Charlotte Robinson smiled. Things had gone just as she'd planned.
She is a painter, a mother of three, and a suburban Fairfax County housewife. She has no salary, no title, and she credits her accomplishments to other and to luck. But her modesty misleads. Robinson -- who works for women in the arts -- is an organizer, a worker-in-the-trenches, an advocate, a teacher and a master politician.
She is not alone. The Washington Women's Art Center, 1821 Q St. NW, which Robinson helped organize, has nearly 700 members. The Coalition of Women's Art Organizations, which met here on Monday, claims to represent more than 60,000. And the Women's Caucus for Art, which is meeting here this week, has the clout to have its own awards -- for "Outstanding Achievement in the Visual Arts" -- read out by the president in the Oval Office.
The recipients were Alice Neel, who paints startling portraits; Isabel Bishop, whose painting style might be called "lyrical social realism," Louise Nevelson, who assembles "walls" and boxes, and sculptor Selma Burke, who did the profile of FDR that appears on the dime. They were present in the White House because they were being honored. (Georgia O'Keeffe, now 92, was honored in absentia.) Robinson was present because the awards were her idea.
She is rarely in the foreground. "Women's Caucus for Art Honors Bishop, Burke, Neel, Nevelson, O'Keeffe" -- a show Robinson suggested -- opened last night at Middendorf/ Lane, 2014 P St. NW. The Gallery's catalogue includes a full page of acknowledgements. More than 20 names are listed. Robinson's is last.
While certain movement women -- Steinem, Friedan, Abzug -- have attracted much celebrity, there are thousands more -- the Charlotte Robinsons among them -- who, instead, have taken quiet, background roles. Their lack of fame should not suggest that they've been ineffective. At least in the world of art the opposite is true.
In Washington this week some 70 commercial galleries are showing work by women. (One of them, Gallery Four in Alexandria, is showing Charlotte Robinson.) Sophisticated politicians, representatives and senators, the mayor and the president, have felt it in their interest to meet with women artists. In no zone of our society has feminism -- women working for women -- accomplished more, more quickly, than in the realm of art.
There are reasons for that progress. Because artists are notoriously difficult to organize, there is, at least in art, no gathering of males too powerful to fight. Because women, traditionally, have worked as artists and art teachers, they had a power base to build on. And conviction spurred their efforts. They felt, and with good reason, that they had been neglected, and that their cause was right.
"Look at the art history books," says Robinson. "H. W. Janson, who wrote the standard college text, does not begin to mention a single woman artist. And look at the museums. When the East Building opened full of pictures, it included only one painting by a woman, a little Mary Cassatt.The women's movement in the Washington art world got off the ground in 1971 when Mary Beth Edelson objected to the fact that Walter Hopps had excluded women from his Corcoran biennial. Another Corcoran biennial will open here next month.Will there be women in it? No, there will be none."
And many politicians -- among them the vice premier of China who announced on national TV that the Boston Symphony will be allowed to visit China -- have gratefully discovered that support for the arts, while offering high visibility, entails hardly any risk.
"We've done Jimmy Carter a favor, and we know it," said Ellouise Schoettler of the Women's Coalition. "We allowed him to follow the firing of Bella Abzug -- an insult to all women -- with an action wholly safe. A pat on the back for women artists, particularly elderly ones, lets him appear gracious, loving, sensitive -- and a little patronizing, too."
"Things work that way in Washington," observes Charlotte Robinson. "He lends us the White House and national attention. Perhaps we help him, too."
She moved to this area in 1965 when her husband, Floyd, retired from the Air Force. She was a painter without fame, a gallery or contacts. "Try walking into a gallery and asking for a show as 'a suburban house-wife.' There is something crushing in that phrase."
But Robinson found an outlet. She saw an ad for something called the Northern Virginia Art League. And then she went to work.
"They needed people to teach painting. I volunteered. They needed someone to organize talks and demonstrations. Again, I volunteered. I called curators and critics and many well-known local artists -- people were most helpful -- and the school began to thrive. I was still active in the Art League when it moved to the Torpedo Factory. Then, in 1972, I attended the Women's Conference which Mary Beth Edelson had organized at the Corcoran. A door I'd never thought of opened. I got up and walked through."
Soon Robinson was working, arranging shows, painting walls, attending meetings, teaching, at the Q Street Women's Center. When the Caucus was organized -- its first members were the women in the College Art Association -- Robinson joined up. When the Coalition grew out of the Caucus, Robinson, again, was on hand to help.
A meeting held in conjunction with the International Women's Year had been scheduled for Houston. The new art Coalition would be represented. Robinson volunteered. "It was perfect for me. I'd been raised in Texas. I called up old friends from Austin, Waco, San Antonio. By now I had begun to see what the women's movement could accomplish for women in the arts.
"First of all," she continued, "it teaches them to take themselves seriously. It gives them people to talk to. How do you get a gallery? How do you get the government to change the tax laws to give artists a fair break? An old-girl network helps. Also," said Robinson, "I had a lot of fun. I met hundreds of women from all over the country. I made phone calls, I wrote letters, I attended meetings. And every day I learned."
Robinson teaches a course on the workings of the art world at the Women's Center. When the Caucus scheduled their 1979 meeting here, a program director was required. As she had done so often in the past, Robinson volunteered.
She made arrangements with hotels. She spoke to art historians, dealers, poster designers, writers, to the bus company, the press and to the White House, too.
"You have to understand," she says, "I'm not in this alone. I'm just one of many women working for women in the arts. The white House presentation is just one step on the road. But for me it is a swan song. I've been in the trenches long enough. There are paintings that I have to paint. I've got to get to work."