Association of Women Artists

1980 – 1998

Association of Women Artists

1980 – 1998

Theme: Arts and crafts

This essay written by Anne Else was first published in Women Together: a History of Women's Organisations in New Zealand in 1993. It was updated by Anne Else in 2019.

1980 – 1993

By the early 1990s, a high proportion of women artists living and working in Auckland had had some contact with the Association of Women Artists (AWA); in 1991, 115 individuals and twelve institutions were members. AWA was supported by Outreach, Auckland's cultural centre for the visual and performing arts. It defined its policy as supportive, providing a safe structure for women working in the visual arts and related areas to gain confidence in developing their work; and as educative, promoting an informed, non-sexist climate for women's art, and ensuring it was recorded.

In 1980 Auckland artist Carole Shepheard and Don Soloman, education curator at Outreach, met American artist Connie Fleres, who had exhibited at the Washington Women's Art Centre and had experience with collectives. The outcome of their discussions was a multi-media exhibition, 'Women in the Arts' (23 June–14 July 1980). Shepheard invited contributions from all the women artists she could locate, from beginners and 'unknowns' to regular exhibitors. Wellington artists Barbara Strathdee and Vivian Lynn and gallery director Janne Land selected the work of 38 women.

Organising this exhibition 'made visible a community of well over a hundred women artists at various stages of career development', [1] and while it ran, an evening was held where the artists could meet.

It was apparent that most of the women in the show had not had any communication at all and were eager to see who the others were, how they worked, what difficulties there were (if any) … All wanted to see some sort of ongoing group established and at this point the Association was formed. [2]

AWA became much more active in 1981, when a working group began to arrange meetings, slide talks and exhibitions. According to Shepheard, 'having a stable, recognisable, supportive base' at Outreach was crucial; it gave the group visibility and served as a contact point for the public. [3] The support of established artists such as Lois Mclvor and Merylyn Tweedie was also important.

Any interested woman could join. Through a newsletter, members learnt of relevant publications, exhibitions and courses. Local and overseas speakers discussed topics such as how to apply for grants, the latest developments in women's art here and overseas, and types of work, such as Pacific tapa cloth, which had received little attention from mainstream artists.

Funds came from subscriptions and a low (10 percent) commission on exhibition sales. From 1982 there were two members' exhibitions a year. One was unselected, giving 'an opportunity for those who have not exhibited widely to take part'; [4] to keep the size manageable, from 1985 it was restricted to one medium. The other was based on a relevant theme, such as relationships between women, or women and culture. (However, the controversial Outreach show 'Images of Men', 1981, was not organised by AWA.) These extremely diverse exhibitions included a wide range of styles and media, for example fabric and fibre art, visual diaries and artists' books, performance, photography, film and video. Working collaboratively also featured, and workshops encouraged women artists to try new directions.

In the early 1990s the association was continuing to attract enthusiastic, energetic new members. Perhaps its most important feature was the way in which its exhibitions and other activities 'stressed that art is ... a social construct and that the power relationships within society largely determine not only what is "good" or "bad" art, but even what art is in the first place'. [5]

Anne Else

1994 – 2018

To commemorate the 1993 centenary of women’s suffrage, AWA began a project, ‘Envoys’, calling for local and international women artists to contribute original art in the form of postcards. Hundreds of women from a wide range of countries responded. [6] In April/May 1996 the postcards were exhibited at Lopdell House in Titirangi. The catalogue essay by Claudia Bell stated:

‘Envoys’ takes a wilfully resistant position against the instant, impersonal and mass-audience modes of newest contemporary communication systems…

The process of making small individual art works then sending them out to unknown women from diverse cultures is an active process of seeking international relationships and celebrating cultural difference. Like the attaching of photographs, flowers and personal objects to the fences at Greenham Common, the postcards are physical manifestations of women’s insistence that the personal is political…

The organisers of the project also see the cards as messages over time, to future generations of women, especially their own grand-daughters…with future nostalgia integral to their construction. [7]

AWA collated a limited edition of ten sets of cards in commemorative boxes. Through the project, significant international links were made, for example with the Women’s Art Library in London, to which AWA sent slides of work by New Zealand women artists for its collection.

However, despite the success of ‘Envoys’, from July/August 1996 AWA newsletters showed how difficult it was proving to keep the organisation going. The workshops run by individual artists were popular, but the regular meetings with visiting speakers were sparsely attended. Organising exhibitions required a great deal of work. Finances were also precarious, with income not covering costs. Some members decided to join the Artists’ Alliance instead; established in 1991, it provided ‘resources, career advice, networks and advocacy for the visual arts sector’. [8]

As more of the dedicated women responsible for tasks such as the newsletter, meetings, workshops and finances moved away or withdrew, they proved hard to replace. Twelve committee members were needed, but by June/July 1997 the remaining four were ‘ready to move on’. [9] The last issue of the newsletter appeared later that year, and AWA effectively ceased to function as an organisation in 1998.

Postscript: 2018–19

In 2014, Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery opened in what was formerly Lopdell House in Titirangi. To celebrate the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage in 2018, it mounted ‘Envoys Onwards’, reshowing the original Envoys postcards and inviting a new generation of women artists to create new ones.

Gallery image

Beth Serjeant

Envoys Onwards exhibition, Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery, 2018.

The gallery’s publicity stated:

The aims of the project from 1993–96 remain unchanged: to strengthen the voice of women's common concerns, to acknowledge the universality of their gender, and to generate images from the present that will touch future generations. By acknowledging the common concerns of women, this project honours past endeavours and supports future generations. [10]

The invitation to participate stated that the 2018 exhibition would constitute the formal winding up of the Association of Women Artists, and this was announced at the exhibition opening. In 2019, all the postcards and the supporting information from both the 1996 and 2018 exhibitions were in the process of being collated, and discussions about archiving them were to be held with both the Auckland City Art Gallery and the National Library in Wellington.

Anne Else


[1] Gill, 1989.

[2] Carole Shepheard, correspondence, 23 December 1991.

[3] Carole Shepheard, correspondence, 23 December 1991.

[4] AWA newsletters, 1982.

[5] Gill, 1989.

[6] The artists involved were listed in AWA newsletter, March/April/May 1997.

[7] Bell, Claudia, ‘Envoys’, catalogue essay, reprinted in AWA newsletter, May/June 1996.

[8] The Artists’ Alliance closed in late 2018, due to lack of sufficient funding.

[9] AWA newsletter, June/July 1997.

[10] Te Uru quarterly newsletter, Spring 2018, available at:

Unpublished sources

Association of Women Artists, 'Cover to Cover', photocopied AWA newsletters and exhibition catalogues, reviews, news items and articles relating to AWA, 1980–90, compiled by Claudia Pond Eyley and Beth Serjeant, ATL

AWA newsletters, 1993–1997, held by Cathy Kenkel, Auckland

Batten, Juliet, interviewed by Anne Else, 1991

Kenkel, Cathy, personal communication

Pond Eyley, Claudia, interviewed by Anne Else, 1991, 2019

Serjeant, Beth, interviewed by Anne Else, 2019

Published sources

Baskett, Pat, 'Beliefs are as strong as ever'. New Zealand Herald, 12 October 1989

Gill, Linda, 'Eight Years On: The Auckland Association of Women Artists', Art New Zealand, Autumn 1989, pp. 86–89

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