By Melonie Magruder
In 1968, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a public institution, requested proposals from southland artists for an upcoming show, “Art and Technology.” Santa Monica artist Bruria Finkel noted that in all of LACMA’s huge permanent collection (and in visiting shows) the only woman artist represented was in one image by 20th-century Depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange.
Aghast that a major art institution could so totally ignore the global artistic contributions of women, Finkel along with other young women artists founded the Los Angeles Council of Women Artists and started lobbying LACMA to discuss the blatant gender discrimination, in hopes that female-produced work would appear in the show.
In an era when “women’s lib” was only beginning to join the cultural lexicon, Finkel took her case to Sacramento, demanding to know why taxpayer dollars were going to support an institution that failed to acknowledge 50 percent of the population.
“We were beginning to wake up, as artists and mothers, to the fact that the higher institutions in L.A. didn’t respect women,” she says. “L.A. was sort of a cultural backwater then. You could not even find women represented in the galleries on La Cienega because most galleries were all owned by men.”
Today, Finkel’s work is found not only in galleries, museums and private collections across the world (including the Smithsonian), she is in large part to thank for the establishment of a lively public art movement in Santa Monica, having championed the installation of several landmarks around the city.
She was a founding member of the Santa Monica Arts Commission and is currently a board member for Downtown Santa Monica. She was instrumental in seeing the beloved dinosaur topiaries graze in the Third Street Promenade and getting works placed in the city’s Natural Elements Sculpture Park. She established the Twilight Dance Series on the Pier; she arranged for public showers for homeless people and helped secure a $19 million grant from the Annenberg Foundation to build a permanent facility on Fifth Street to help the chronically homeless. She is fierce on the subject of supporting our nation’s artists.
“The condition of artists in this country is dreadful,” she says. “There is no independent support. Here, you must compete. I was lucky enough to get two different public grants for projects, but artists are on their own in this country.”
We met with Finkel at her compact studio covered with passion fruit blossoms in her Santa Monica back yard where she keeps more than a few of her works and exhibit catalogues going back to an era when male artists dominated. Back when she took on LACMA, her hopes weren’t high.
Finkel said that when she was asked by a woman board member in Sacramento, “Do you really think the time is right for women to be a part of that,” she feared she had lost not just the battle, but also the war. However, Kenneth Donahue, then-director of LACMA, was intrigued. He met with Finkel and her band of female artists and agreed it was time to right a wrong. “Women Artists: 1550-1950” opened at LACMA in 1976 and was, Finkel said with quiet satisfaction, “a huge hit.”
Meanwhile, Finkel and friends had founded Womanspace, the first local alternative gallery that would feature feminist women’s art in the early 70s. Ironically, it was located in an old laundromat. Here, artists like master printmaker June Wayne, modern dance choreographer Bella Lewitzky and author Anais Nin would speak. A continuous exhibit of women’s art was offered. A groundbreaking women’s art magazine, Crysalis, was first published.
“It was extremely exciting,” Finkel reminisced. “We even had an open wall and invited any woman artist to sign up for a two-week exhibit. This went well until one artist hung up dead animal parts that started to smell. I had to ask her to remove it.”
Womanspace grew out of the laundromat and moved to the Chenard College of Art and Design, and then to the Women’s Building in downtown L.A. It represented a groundswell of recognition for the contribution of female artists, both from California and beyond, and propped up the careers of then-budding artists like, Bettye Saar, Eleanor Antin, Judy Chicago and Nancy Spero.
Finkel herself came to her role of champion for women artists circuitously. She was born in Jerusalem and attended Ayanot Agriculture School to study animal husbandry because, she said, “I wanted to build Israel.” and Seminar Hakibutzim in Tel Aviv to receive a teaching degree. She married a musician and came to the U.S. in 1953; two children were born in NYC
They divorced and she eventually met David Finkel now a retired Superior Court judge and civil rights lawyer (and former Santa Monica City Councilman). They’ve been married more than 50 years; they have four children who are themselves artists.
Her first forays into art were with pottery, before moving into sculpture, porcelain, painting and handmade paper. Represented in the early years by the Jacqueline Anhalt Gallery, Finkel was being shown in galleries and museums across California, then internationally. The titles of her shows were a window into the direction her art was taking: “Mysticism in Art,” “Across Time, Space and The Ages,” “On Xenophobia and Walls.”
In the mid-80s, Finkel began a masterwork, “The Divine Chariot,” inspired by a pamphlet she translated from Hebrew, originally written by a 13th-century Spanish rabbi.
“Abulafia wrote ‘The Book of the Letter’ and it affected my work deeply,” Finkel said. “He created a system that connected thoughts and ideas and was instrumental in the establishment of Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism. It has to do with how the Divine Feminine pushes the wheel of destiny and talked about Shekinah, the feminine representation of God.”
The resulting bronze installation was originally designed for the Skirball Center in Los Angeles and then was slated to go to Israel for permanent installation. Geopolitics intruded and the piece resides in Finkel’s studio, an artwork that is as much about the solid image as it is of the shadows its separate elements throw.
Finkel went on to curate a number of important shows in Los Angeles featuring artists like John Baldessari and Frank Gehry. Her 2012 exhibition “Breaking in Two” at the Arena 1 Gallery in Santa Monica highlighted the work of some 36 female artists and the concept that motherhood can be a time of explosive creativity borne of conflict, love and elemental instinct.
In the 80s, Finkel worked with a small group of passionate art advocates to establish the Santa Monica Arts Commission and to develop many of the programs that still exist to support the arts in the city today. In 2013, the Santa Monica Arts Foundation established the Bruria Finkel “Artist in the Community” Award to recognize her legacy of activism, engagement and volunteerism in support of the arts.
“Bruria is a force of nature,” city Cultural Affairs Manager Jessica Cusick said. “She is a remarkable artist, a genuine human being and an amazing community activist.”
Four years ago, Finkel was involved in a serious car accident. The resulting injury immobilized her for several months and forced her into a different sort of expression. She trolled city sidewalks, photographing images on her iPad and iPhone. The resulting series were showcased in an exhibit at the Arena One Gallery this year, titled “The Past Four Years.” It featured pears slowly decomposing, the bark of a tree as wrinkled limbs, the skin of her husband’s hand as highway to senescence. While the images are sobering, she is enthusiastic about the medium.
“I can do anything on my iPhone,” she exclaimed.
While Finkel is proud of her role in the recognition of women artists in the southland, she doesn’t believe a lot has changed.
“Back when I was first working here, you didn’t dare tell a gallery owner that you were an artist and a mother,” she said. “They would never take you seriously. Today, there are a lot more recognized women artists. But if you look at what hangs on the walls in most of the big museums today, no more than three and a half percent of the work is by women.”