The Canadian Art Database


The Winnipeg Effect: Should I Stay Or Should I Go?

The Winnipeg Art Gallery, November 3-5, 2016




Liv Valmestad:
Diane Whitehouse and the founding of MAWA (Mentoring Artists for Women's Art)

Is this as good as it gets for women?

Diane Whitehouse asked herself this in the late seventies, when she was pondering the fact that upon graduating from art school, women just seemed to disappear into the ether. Little did she know how important that question was to be in the formation of MAWA and the vital role it still plays today for women artists…

After moving from Edmonton to Winnipeg in 1977, fresh blood was detected and Diane was soon on the board of Plug In–Inc. and just two years later was made president. At this time, there was a great deal of discussion on the board, the art community and amongst sessional instructors (most of whom were women) about the lack of opportunities for women artists — in terms of exhibiting and achieving tenured positions at the School of Art. This history and the formation of MAWA is well documented in an interview between Diane Whitehouse and Sigrid Dahle in MAWA: Culture of Community, 1984.

Drawing upon her working–class Birmingham roots, Diane understood the importance of unions and how working collectively could make a difference. At the School of Art, she met fellow sessional Joanne Jackson Johnson, who introduced her to Joyce Lyons, one of the founding members of WARM (Women's Artist Registry of Minnesota). WARM which began in 1976, was a Minneapolis–based women's art collective and ran an all–women mentorship program. It was after meeting Joyce, that Diane entertained the possibility of running a similar program in Winnipeg, through Plug In. Further discussions were had with teaching colleague and friend Sheila Butler, who shared a similar working–class, pro–union background as Diane. Together they both faced the frustrating issues of gender inequality with a sense of humor and with a belief that they could affect change.

MAWA emerged during a time when a number of factors came together: federal granting institutions and the Manitoba Arts Council were funding "women's initiatives," the right mix of people were on the ground, and Feminism provided political momentum and a wider critical context. In 1983, Plug In–Art's Director Jon Tupper was able to secure funding to hire the staff (Andrea Philp) and organize the Women's Committee, a new Plug–In initiative designed to assist women artists in achieving their career aspirations. It presented programming that would eventually become Manitoba Artists for Women's Art or MAWA in April 10, 1984. ledger

MAWA became an independent organization in September of 1990, and was re–named Mentoring Artists for Women's Art, because of its focus on fostering art in the community through mentorship. This peer–based system of learning, where experience and confidence is passed down from one generation of women artists to another, is the heart of MAWA.

The Foundation Advisory Program, whose goal in the formative years, was to find enough senior women artists who were willing to serve as mentors grew and grew. This program has now mentored in the neighborhood of 200 mentees, with award–winning Mentors of extremely high caliber; including Diane, who has been a mentor over a dozen times, (including to me) and here we see her sharing her knowledge of the practice of painting at a First Friday talk.

In addition to First Friday, MAWA's programming has provided invaluable opportunities for professional development and local and international networking with artist and curator talks, lectures, artist workshops, critical discussion and studio visits. Here is just a sampling of topics covered… Then there is MAWA's rural outreach programming, which as you can imagine, has been very important for the rural female artists of Manitoba. Here is Diane in the Interlake region participating in the Rural Arts Mentorship Program, in partnership with Manitoba Arts Network, where she mentored along with Linda Fairfield in 2013.

In hindsight, Diane had no idea how long MAWA would last, having celebrated its 20th and now 30th anniversary — in realizing her goal to provide opportunities for women to achieve equal representation in the visual arts. Here we see Diane Whitehouse and Sheila Butler being awarded Lifetime achievement awards from MAWA in 2011.

"Working collectively with people, has always been a real source of pleasure for me and central to my politics."

Diane Whitehouse, the Mother of All Winnipeg Artists…