Meet the Women Who Founded the First Co-Ed Art Club in America

The stodgy-looking Providence Art Club is probably the last place you’d look for a bunch of badass, cigar-smoking, cocktail-toting ladies. But that’s pretty much who founded the joint.

The Art Club’s College Hill home is hard to miss: it’s housed, in part, in the famously ornate, half-timbered Fleur-de-Lys building on Thomas Street, just across from the First Baptist Church. But the club is much more than it seems from the outside: it actually sprawls across several historic buildings and additions and includes (newly renovated) galleries, studios, classrooms, a restaurant, and event space. Other than the restaurant, which is for members and their guests only, it’s all open to the public.

And March is a great time to check it out if you haven’t been there before, or even if you have, because it’s the official opening of “Making Her Mark,” an exhibition and symposium celebrating the lives and work of the pioneering women who helped found the Providence Art Club in the 1880s. At a time when women’s place was most definitely seen as in the home, six female artists in Providence were among the 16 club founders, making it the first in the U.S. to admit both men and women.

The exhibit includes the history along with the works of artists like Emma Swan and Helen Watson Phelps. If you haven’t heard of them, it’s in part because most never married or had children to carry on their legacies — these women literally sacrificed a big part of their lives for their art thanks to the social mores of the day. It’s an amazing story that’s too-often overlooked — much like the Art Club itself. Check the website for gallery and exhibition hours.

 

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