JAMESTOWN, R.I. — In 1974, a group of South County women artists looking to increase exposure and awareness of art within the community, bounded together and formed the Hera Gallery, a women’s co-operative art gallery where they could share their work and ideas with the community. While other women’s co-operative galleries existed, they were located in major metropolitan areas such as New York and Los Angeles and it was rare for such a gallery to be centered in a village like Wakefield.
Today, while other similar galleries have come and gone, the Hera Gallery remains, still going strong more than 45 years later, which is the theme of their latest exhibit, “5th Decade: Hera Gallery” being held at the Jamestown Arts Center from Thursday through Feb. 22 during regular gallery hours. A closing ceremony talk titled “TALK: Artist Cooperatives, Activism + Social Justice” will also be held on Feb. 21 at 7 p.m. with The Womxn Project, a statewide community-based feminist organization that grew out of discussions sponsored by the Hera Gallery following the 2016 election. The talk will focus on the importance of social justice activism through art, and feature an official presentation of The Womxn Project records and Community Petition Quilt to the Pembroke Center Archives at Brown University.
The Hera Gallery usually holds an anniversary exhibit every five years. While their 45th anniversary was in 2019, the earliest available gallery space at the Jamestown Arts Center was this month, according to Hera Gallery member artist and University of Rhode Island art professor Barbara Pagh.
“January was the first opportunity that they gave us to exhibit, so that’s why we decided we would call the show the Fifth Decade since we’re now in the middle of the fifth decade of the gallery,” Pagh said.
For Pagh, who’s been a member of Hera Gallery since 1985, the show is about honoring the gallery’s history while celebrating the current artist members and their works.
“We decided for this show that we would focus on the current members of the gallery,” Pagh said. “At the moment we have 21 members, men and women and artists of different generations, so we’re excited that our current memberships consists of people of all ages in different parts of their careers. We have two founding members of the gallery, people who’ve been members since 1974, and we have some fairly recent members of the gallery, people that have just joined in the last year or so.”
Artist members will mainly be displaying some of their older works from previous exhibits, but Pagh says there are also many new pieces made specifically for this exhibit, including some that take advantage of the larger space at JAC.
“It’s a very tall space, so there are some artists who have made work specifically for the space,” Pagh said.
In addition to featuring works by the current artists, a section of the exhibit will be dedicated entirely on the Hera Gallery’s past 45 years, featuring a selection of postcards, catalogs and posters spanning the past five decades, something which can give a glimpse into both the artists and the world at the times they were produced.
“One of our founding members has always said that Hera seems like an institution, but it’s actually a reflection of the membership,” Pagh said. “If you look at some of the special exhibitions at different time periods, they reflect the concerns of gallery members, whether it’s an exhibition that has to do with formal aspects of art or whether it has to do with some kind of social thing that’s happening in the country.”
Pagh admits she’s amazed the gallery has been able to last as long as it has, something she attributes to the dedication of the artist members to carry on the ideals of their founders and provide the South County community with a wealth of art and exhibits that may not see elsewhere.
“As I said, the artist members have felt that it’s important for the gallery to stay open, that we provide an important part of the community to have art in the local community and to have both exhibiting work that maybe they wouldn’t normally see in a local gallery and also to have them participate in exhibitions,” Pagh said.
One of those ways Hera Gallery reaches out to the community is through holding exhibits for local children and young adults, allowing students from kindergarten through their senior year of high school a chance to have their works shown in a professional gallery. They also partner with URI art majors, particularly seniors, to bring their art off campus and into the South County community.
In addition to community members, the Hera Gallery also counts on the support of several organizations such as the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts and The Champlin Foundation.
“Those things have all been crucial to keeping the gallery going,” Pagh said.
The closing ceremony talk, titled “TALK: Artist Cooperatives, Activism + Social Justice,” will be held on Feb. 21 and feature discussions with The Womxn Project related to the importance of social justice activism through art.
“We’re going to sort of divide it into three sections, the importance of artist-run galleries and women’s galleries in particular, the importance historically, and then we’re going to highlight some of the exhibitions that we’ve had over the years, ‘American Democracy Under Siege,’ ‘Homes/Homelessness,’ and more recently ‘Voices, Action,’” Pagh said.
A portion of The Womxn Project’s Community Petition Quilt, which has its roots in the Hera Gallery’s Creating Together lecture series, will be displayed during the exhibit before being turned over to the Pembroke Center Archives at Brown University during the ceremony. The quilt was first made in 2017 as a petition in support of the Reproductive Health Care Act in Rhode Island, which was signed into law in June by Governor Gina Raimondo. The quilt consists of felt squares with messages of support for the measure and access to abortion.
Members of The Womxn Project took the quilt to the State House, where Raimondo herself signed and added a square to the quilt in April, and across the state in support of the measure before traveling with members of The Womxn Project in May to Washington, D.C. where it was unfurled in front of the Supreme Court.
The Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women is Brown University’s research center on gender and sexuality studies with its archives dedicated to the preservation to feminist history at the university and throughout the state. A representative from the archives will speak at the talk on the importance of social justice activism through art before accepting the quilt and other records from The Womxn Project.
For Pagh, now in her 35th year with the Hera Gallery, its importance to her as a center of community for artists couldn’t be understated.
“I was encouraged (to join) in 1985 when I had just moved to Rhode Island (by) a member of the gallery,” Pagh said. “I was uncertain at first whether I wanted to be part of a co-operative gallery, but it’s been a really important part of my career and I’ve made good friends there. I’ve been able to experiment with my own work and show my own work regularly, free of commercial restraints, and I’ve also helped with running the gallery and that has been a learning experience as well and a growth experience.”
The Jamestown Arts Center is located at 18 Valley St. in Jamestown. After an opening ceremony Thursday from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., the exhibit will be open to the public during normal gallery hours Wednesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. through Feb. 22.