File Under Female is a collaborative project created by award winning Chesterfield artist Bella Milroy, Artist in Residence at the Women's Art Library, Goldsmiths (WAL), University of London. The project, supported by the Women’s Art Library and sponsored by Arts Council England (ACE), evolved during 2017 into an exhibition, publication and creative exchange event produced from her residency at the Women’s Art Library.
It explores and celebrates the inspiring qualities of women artists’ archives made compelling by additional hand written texts and drawings found on top of, next to and along side archived materials. Milroy’s artwork reveals how discovering such unseen elements brings fresh insight into the careers and lives of those women artists and opens new ways of thinking about her own.
By collaborating with WAL, Derbyshire Library Service and Libraries Week the project seeks to innovate the level of engagement and breadth of the audience reached through a creative partnership between artists and libraries.
The link between libraries and my artwork
I started work at WAL in June 2017, approaching the archive very speculatively, not wanting to pin myself down to any particular way of thinking. The archive is like a universe; each box containing a world that you may or may not know about. Making art when working with a publically accessible special collection in an academic library prompted an obvious path to think about the possibilities of working with other libraries, and as my project emerged and evolved and we thought about my exhibition during October, so the link with Libraries Week came into focus.
What I found particularly fascinating at WAL was the additional pieces of scrawled texts and drawings that are found embedded in the formal documentation of the archive. One of these was a piece of hand written text by the artist Symrath Patti, and “File Under Female” comes from this particular piece of text. It is due to Symrath’s generosity that I have been able to work with her archival piece in this way, adding to the richness of engagement that WAL provides. As I worked on my bid for ACE funding for the project, the obvious cultural relevance and potential reach of the work by collaborating with libraries really crystallised.
My artworks and collaborative publication with art duo The White Pube explore and respond to the unique archived documentation and diverse work of female artists from around the world held by WAL. The project celebrates the importance of preserving unique cultural history, and extends appreciation of the cultural value derived from the way we conserve, display and promote women’s art today. The longer I worked on the project the stronger the link with libraries became.
Seeing Libraries as spaces with important creative audiences
Art needs to engage with local people and communities, and it needs to stimulate reflections and conversations about the world as it is and it can be. In a world where most artists have some kind of online platform, I want to celebrate the importance of physical spaces that hold pieces of unique cultural experience and history. I want to create a collaborative engagement that responds to the continuing challenges women artists face; gender biases, often compounded by ethnicity, religion, sexuality, class and disability. I want to reflect on our progress, the distance we still have to travel to gain recognition for our work and the unique contribution that archived women’s art can make to this journey. Working with libraries provides a major platform and opportunity for a wide public facing access to the project with a broader, and perhaps less considered, creative audience.
Partnering with Derbyshire Library Service – what we’re doing
My initial work with Chartered Institute of Library & Information Professionals (CILIP) prompted me to approach Derbyshire Library Service (DLS) and these two relationships have been really powerful drivers for the innovation and extension of the project. Catherine Mills, Derbyshire Library Service Development Manager has been an inspiration in her support! Our discussions elevated the collaboration with libraries to new levels, and DLS quickly signed up as formal project partners to support the ACE application. Our conversations have opened up exciting new possibilities for a longer-term collaboration, bringing in new partners, which we hope will generate new initiatives.
The partnership with DLS has extended the project to include a creative engagement event at Chesterfield Library lecture theatre, Friday 27th October. This brings together the artists, Gabrielle De La Puente and Zarina Muhammad of The White Pube and myself, along with Althea Greenan, Curator Women’s Art Library and Claire Collison an artist contributing to the WAL archive, to share the inspiring experience of women’s archived artwork and explore emerging issues.
We are really excited by the Chesterfield event, seeing it as an important element of the whole project, and a way of acknowledging important regional creative work. We can see new possibilities to enhance support for local creative work, including the development of a local women’s art archive with a relationship to WAL that might come from continuing the project. So you can see, the libraries are a distinctive thread for an expanding piece of creative work that has the potential to stimulate something more long-term.
What’s happening during Libraries Week
My original artworks along with the publications co-produced with The White Pube and graphic designer Keir Mucklestone Barnet, will be an exhibition at the Kingsway Corridor, Goldsmith’s University of London 12th October – 3rd November 2017 (private view Saturday 14th October 2-5 p.m.). The accompanying printed publications will be exhibited in all 45 public libraries in Derbyshire and available to take away. The publication will also be accessible to all libraries across the country to download during Libraries Week 9th October – 14th October 2017.
Working with different artists and with the support of libraries through CILIP, DLS and WAL has created an inspiring collaborative cross regional cultural project, working across multiple platforms. I would love to think that this could this be a model for future creative projects. A way to enrich broad public access to a wide range of art and artists, further enhancing public libraries as the go to space for diverse cultural experiences and knowledge in our local communities, something I feel passionately about in opening up new avenues of art engagement.
File Under Female is a project created by Bella Milroy and supported by Arts Council England Lottery Funded Grants For the Arts, Women’s Art Library Goldsmiths University of London, Derbyshire Library Service, Chartered Institute of Library Professionals (CILIP) via national Libraries Week, Shape Arts, West Studios Chesterfield College, Brampton Picture Framing (Chesterfield) and Whittington Moor Printing Works (Chesterfield).