In the early 1970s, painter Faith Ringgold created her work titled "For the Women's House," which featured women in roles they were not traditionally seen in — from being President of the United States to playing for the New York Knicks.
The eight-foot square mural was created specifically for the incarcerated women in the Rikers Island system — in fact, the feminist artwork was informed by interviews Ringgold conducted with inmates, who it was dedicated to in 1972. The painting has been there since, but over the years it's been moved around, and currently hangs in an area that's less accessible to those it was meant to inspire.
This presentation is no longer aligned with what Ringgold had originally envisioned, and now, with the city committing to shutting down Rikers, the artist has been lobbying for the painting to go on long-term loan to the Brooklyn Museum. The potential move was first announced by former First Lady Chirlane McCray in December 2021.
Michele Wallace, Ringgold's daughter, offered some insight into the loan, noting it would be seen by more people this way. In an interview Tuesday evening with WNYC/Gothamist she said, "Brooklyn Museum is located in the Black community, and who goes to that museum? People of color, Black people, probably a lot of people who’ve been in prison or who have people in prison. I used to live a few blocks from there—if there’s a People’s Museum in the city, that’s it.”
Wallace added that it would be housed in the Center for Feminist Art, "which is where Judy Chicago's 'Dinner Party' is. Finally, there would be some feminist representation for Black women."
However, some public art activists, such as Todd Fine, are pushing back on the relocation.
"This was something that was supposed to serve these people in that difficult situation, and to put it in an elite museum just dramatizes their priorities," he told WNYC/Gothamist on Tuesday, after the museum presented its case for the long-term loan during a Public Design Commission meeting.
Art historian Michele H. Bogart told the NY Times, "It troubles me that the city is embarking on this kind of enterprise again. I just keep wondering whether they are doing a disservice to the people who are still in Rikers."
No vote was taken at Tuesday's meeting, but members signaled they would approve the relocation and voiced strong support. Following the meeting, the Commission's Amaris Cockfield told WNYC/Gothamist, "Commissioners only expressed support for the loan of the artwork to the Brooklyn Museum, and we anticipate the project to be calendared for a vote at the February 14th meeting. After PDC approval, the artwork can be relocated."
The museum's argument relied heavily on the current presentation of the artwork on Rikers. During the meeting on Tuesday, Catherine Morris, feminist art curator at the Brooklyn Museum, noted that within the Rose M. Singer Center on Rikers, "The painting is located in a corridor that can only be accessed by staff and people in custody being escorted through that corridor." Morris added that it can only be seen in passing, as they cannot stand in the corridor to observe it.
Additionally, for those who do walk by it, the glare from the overhead lights onto the plexiglass over the painting, which is necessary to protect the work, prevents a meaningful view. Public Design Commission president Signe Nielsen said that the artwork "has obviously been subject to a certain amount of abuse and it's not being well-maintained at this point." During one incident, which took place when men moved into the facility in 1988, the painting was whitewashed when male inmates had objected to the work. At the time, a correction guard had saved it.
Fine believes that a better solution would be to install the painting somewhere on Rikers where it could be viewed more easily. He also commented on the replacement mural that is being planned to fill the void.
"They're conceding by doing a new mural that there's a need to have [art]. They're basically saying, 'Not this piece [of art], because this piece is too important,'" he said.
Wallace noted that, decades on, the piece belongs in front of more people—"It's 50 years of history. 50 years of New York history. 50 years of New York Prison History. It's reflective of so many changes in the prison system."
The Public Design Commission will make the final call on February 14th. Should it be approved, it will first go to the New Museum's Faith Ringgold retrospective, which opens February 17th.