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Steven Bennett and Elaine Melotti Schmidt
What they support:
Femme Touch at The Warhol
Why it matters:
“Their stories need to be told. They deserve to be told.”
– Steven Bennett on the captivating figures highlighted in the exhibition
When Steven Bennett and Elaine Melotti Schmidt learned that a new museum-wide exhibition at The Andy Warhol Museum would shine a light on a groundbreaking group of eight women and femmes long in the shadow of Andy Warhol, they were intrigued. Who were these collaborators, confidantes, and muses who were often left out of the retelling of the Pop artist’s story, they wondered?
For many of the figures, including actress and transgender pioneer Candy Darling and influential filmmaker and performance artist Barbara Rubin, their many accomplishments faded with time.
“They are a fascinating group of personalities,” says Steven. “Many of them left us too soon. Their stories need to be told. They deserve to be told. With a trailblazer like Candy Darling, for example, you just wonder what would have happened. What would have happened if Candy made it to Hollywood?”
Supporting women and those who identify as women is at the core of the pair’s philanthropy. Following fulfilling careers in law and early childhood education, Steven and Elaine retired to a new and meaningful use of their time, skills, and resources: providing opportunities to women.
“Part of our goal is to make this world a better, kinder place,” says Elaine. Adds Steven: “If you look at women across the centuries, they’ve really gotten the short end of the stick. Historically, they’ve been forced into roles of domesticity. Other skills and abilities have gone far into the background. We want to give them an opportunity to nurture their artistic and professional capabilities as well.”
To provide educational opportunities, the couple became involved with a nonprofit in Kenya that supplies a community of support for girls who have been orphaned due to the AIDS epidemic. And as art lovers and collectors with an affinity for figurative realist paintings of women by women, they soon discovered that the art world is even more stacked against female artists than they realized. Museums and galleries present far fewer exhibitions by women and include fewer works by women in their collections.
So, in 2016, the pair, who live near San Antonio, Texas, teamed up with The Pittsburgh Foundation, where they worked closely with Yvonne Maher, now vice president of advancement and community engagement at Carnegie Museums, to administer The Bennett Prize in support of early and mid-career artists. Awarded biennially, it provides $50,000 to an artist who identifies as female to create a solo traveling exhibition of figurative realist paintings. The hope, they say, is to propel the careers of women painters who have not yet realized full professional recognition, empowering both new artists and those who have painted for many years.
They’ve been serious collectors for a decade, having amassed more than 200 paintings by women working in figurative realism. “The art makes me happy,” says Elaine. Part of the enjoyment, she says, is reaching out and getting to know the artists behind the work. “We try to make contact with an artist and find out her narrative and ideas behind a painting. A lot of times, it’s led to ongoing correspondence and friendships.”
Even though many of the figures featured in Femme Touch are no longer living, it was their stories that attracted the couple to the exhibition and led them to a new relationship with The Warhol. Patrick Moore, the museum’s director, serves as a judge for this year’s Bennett Prize.
“We dug in and came away with a sense of these towering personalities and were amazed at the quality of their work,” says Steven. “Because of their association with Warhol, the women and femmes were often described as what they did to help Warhol become a megastar. They were people with a lot of love and a lot of talent in their own right. Their stories were not fully appreciated. In the show, they get out of the shadow of Warhol and stand on their own.”
It’s also not lost on the couple that their support comes at a critical juncture for The Warhol, Carnegie Museums, and all museums as they navigate the pandemic. “We feel a responsibility to preserve cultural institutions, especially in this moment,” says Steven. “Good citizens require the knowledge and education museums provide.”
To learn more about giving opportunities at Carnegie Museums, contact Beth Brown at email@example.com or 412.622.8859.
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