Summer Wheat (American, 1977–). Foragers, 2020, colored vinyl on mylar, 805.5 x 738.5 inches. T0263.1a-qqqq. Photo credit: Chris Edwards

Summer Wheat’s monumental Foragers underscores the Mint’s ongoing commitment to women artists, perspectives historically underrepresented in museums

By Michael J. Solender

Uptown visitors meet with a fresh sensory experience this fall as Mint Museum Uptown reopens its doors following the Covid-mandated lockdown. As guests enter the towering glass-paneled Robert Haywood Morrison Atrium, they’re enveloped in warm jewel-toned light bathing the space of the new 96-panel “stained glass” installation Foragers by contemporary American artist Summer Wheat.

And while the quiet beauty of hand-drawn, collaged and placed colored vinyl panels encourage many to slow their pace and reflect in the grandeur, the imagery of strong, powerful women, taking on traditional male roles of hunters and providers, makes a clear and confident statement—women are represented on their own terms, making vital contributions.

The messaging is not accidental. Wheat’s work is deliberate in pushing back on gender objectification and unidimensional portrayal often depicted in museum collections. “Histories we tell, and the histories told to us are never really true,” Wheat says, her slight Oklahoma drawl elongating her cadence. “They’re only telling one side of the story, and there’s a lot that’s left out.”

Wheat, a mid-career artist whose work has been displayed in museums only within the past few years, is bucking a trend unfavorable to women. Just 11 percent of all acquisitions and 14 percent of exhibitions at 26 prominent American museums over the past decade were of work by female artists, according to a recent study by art market information company Artnet.

Recognizing this historical underrepresentation of women’s voices on public display, the Mint is leading the way to better balance the scales. “We have a strong community partner and advocate in Wells Fargo whose values align so closely with the museum on this important social and cultural issue,” says Todd Herman, Mint Museum President & CEO, “Something  we really admire and treasure in the relationship we’ve had with Wells Fargo is they collaborate with us and push us further in ways that make the community better. Their Women Artist Fund and their support of our Foragers installation is a wonderful example of that.”

Charlotte knows Wells Fargo as a significant community partner and stalwart investor in our region’s diversity and success. Their foundation focuses on projects and innovation at the community level such as awareness and social change, increasing housing affordability, and access to capital for businesses. Last year, they contributed more than $14 million in support of projects and programing in the Charlotte region. In addition to programmatic work with quantitative measure, like the number of low-income individuals placed into safe and affordable housing, a component of the foundation’s work focuses on bringing perspectives and understanding to social issues through the arts.

“As company, we’re one of the largest small business lenders to women owned businesses,” says Jay Everette, Wells Fargo’s senior vice president of philanthropy and corporate social responsibility. “With the arts and culture sector of our [philanthropic] work, we realize putting a focus on female artists helps elevate and escalate women’s voices through promoting their artwork. Not only is Foragers a significant work by an important female artist, it’s also public art that anybody can come in and access without having to pay a fee.”

It was the Mint Museum’s 80th anniversary celebration and the 2016 Women of Abstract Expressionism exhibition that served as a catalyst for the formation of the Wells Fargo Foundation Women Artist Fund according to Everette. “We were beginning to formulate some of the strategies on this and through the exhibition discovered there were a group of other women artists leading the way in the movement.  But they did not have gallery representation. They were not being picked up by museums after the abstract expressionist movement.”

Inspired, the Wells Fargo Foundation set about to address and help reconcile the imbalance of female representation in museum collections. “The Women Artist Fund was established three years ago, and we’ve been successful in helping to place and acquire seminal pieces of art in permanent museum collections across North Carolina,” says Everette. Other museums benefiting from the program include the Cameron Museum of Art in Wilmington, The Weatherspoon Museum of Art in Greensboro, and The Blowing Rock Art Museum in Blowing Rock.

Admirers of Summer Wheat’s Foragers, on display through September 6, 2022, will be pleased to note that through the generosity of The Wells Fargo Foundation Women Artist Fund, the artist’s work With Side, With Shoulder, a large painting where Wheat’s technique extrudes paint through wire mesh, has been acquired for the Mint’s permanent collection.

Mary Myers Dwelle, one of the Mint’s female founders would undoubtedly be pleased.

Foragers is part of the exhibition In Vivid Color: Pushing the Boundaries of Perception in Contemporary Art that opens Oct. 16 at Mint Museum Uptown.

Michael J. Solender is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, American City Business Journals, Metropolis Magazine, Business North Carolina, the Charlotte Observer, and others. He develops custom content and communications for businesses and organizations.