Kaleta Doolin: Lifelong Artist and Arts Advocate
Meadows alumna is committed to bringing equity to the art world for women and underrepresented artists
Kaleta Doolin is an artist with a mission: Create equal representation for women in the arts through museum acquisitions and public programs.
Doolin has been working diligently to achieve this goal ever since she was an art student at SMU Meadows School of the Arts, where she earned her B.F.A. in art in 1983 and her M.F.A. in 1987. At that time, she noticed that most of the works selected for museum collections and featured in art history books were created by men. One book in particular caught her attention: H.W. Janson’s The History of Art, considered an authoritative book ever since it was first published in 1962.
“I was taking a class on ‘Women’s Perspectives and Images’ with Professor Ann Early, who gave me an assignment to do a presentation about women artists,” says Doolin. “In my research, I saw that Janson defended the fact that there are no women artists in his book by saying if there were any women worth including, he would have included them.”
That discovery led Doolin to transform her copy of The History of Art into a work of art of her own. She created an unmistakably feminine template and cut a vulva-shaped hole through every page the book, and retitled it Improved Janson: A Woman on Every Page. From that point onward, Doolin has championed not only women artists but also other underrepresented groups.
“Underrepresentation has long been a focus for me,” says Doolin. “I am constantly amazed at the preponderance of one-person shows by male artists in museums and galleries. We need more solo shows for women. We must broaden the public dialogue. Most people don’t understand how male-dominated the art world is, and how art history has been written with a male bias.”
While she was a student she also became inspired by the Guerrilla Girls, a group of feminist activist artists who organize to fight discrimination and uphold human rights. They act anonymously, often wearing gorilla masks during demonstrations they hold all over the world. “I am a “’Wannabe Guerrilla Girl,’” says Doolin.
Ever since her encounter with the H.W. Janson book, Doolin has been actively working to broaden the public dialogue about equity in the arts. She has been creating her own art, with works represented in numerous private and public collections. She also has been teaching, serving on boards and public art committees, funding artists, museums and initiatives, and forming her own arts nonprofit organizations.
In 1991 she started Contemporary Culture, dedicated to the advancement of culturally diverse visual, performing, installation and book arts. Primarily an educational organization, Contemporary Culture collaborated with the Dallas Museum of Art and with multiple museums and art centers in New York, Buffalo, Winston-Salem, N.C. and other cities nationwide.
In 1995, Doolin and husband Alan Govenar (also a longtime arts advocate who founded the nonprofit Documentary Arts, located in Dallas) noticed that museums and galleries had a distinct lack of photographs by African American artists. To address that need, they founded the Texas African American Photography Archive and built a collection of 60,000 prints and negatives over the years, which they gifted to the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York.
“The African American Photography collection was in Dallas for quite a long time, but it was underutilized,” says Doolin. “Now it is more widely accessible and getting international attention via the ICP.”
She created The Kaleta A. Doolin Foundation in 1998 to support organizations serving women and girls and select institutions to promote women artists. The foundation has a board of directors and many advisors who are actively engaged in her mission. “Our funding,” she says, “is by invitation to organizations that we have vetted.”
With a generous seed gift from her foundation, she established the Kaleta A. Doolin Acquisitions Fund for Women Artists at Dallas’s Nasher Sculpture Center in 2015. The fund provided an initial $750,000 gift, helping substantially grow both the Nasher Sculpture Center’s collection of work by women artists and its contemporary art holdings, including an important sculpture by British artist Phyllida Barlow, untitled:hangingmonument 2015, and a work by Cuban-born Ana Mendieta in 2016. Two additional acquisitions are expected to be announced by the Nasher in late summer 2017. In announcing the Barlow gift, Nasher Director Jeremy Strick said, “To be able to expand and enrich the collection’s holdings of work made by women artists is of paramount importance, helping round out the permanent collection and highlight the tremendous contributions that women have made, and continue to make, to sculpture.”
Doolin is also collaborating with the Dallas Museum of Art. A 2016 Rebecca Warren sculpture, Pas de Deux, was commissioned by the museum for its Eagle Family Plaza; its acquisition was made possible in part by a gift from the Kaleta A. Doolin Foundation. Additional support was provided by TWO x TWO for Aids and Art, an annual fundraising event that jointly benefits, amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research and the Dallas Museum of Art, and the Contemporary Art Initiative.
In addition to supporting the Nasher, DMA, Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, Anderson Ranch in Snowmass, Colo., and ICP in New York, Doolin serves on the MoMA Women’s Fund Committee, which helps select and acquire the work of women artists. She and Govenar are also supporters of New York’s South Street Seaport Museum, to which they donated their Gus Wagner (1872-1941) Tattoo Collection. A resulting exhibition, The Original Gus Wagner: The Maritime Roots of Modern Tattoo, was on display at the museum in spring 2017.
Meadows alumna Kaleta Doolin (B.F.A. Studio Art '83; M.F.A. '87) is an artist, arts advocate, author and philanthropist with a mission to increase the number of women-created artworks in museums and public spaces.
Doolin, the daughter of Mary Kathryn and C.E. Doolin, grew up in Dallas. Her upbringing provided her with a close-up view of both charitable giving and business acumen. Her mother, known as “Kitty” by her friends, was an active member of the Zonta Club of Dallas, a longstanding women’s service club; Doolin also has been active with Zonta for several years. Her father, an inventor and businessman, was co-founder of Frito-Lay, Inc. He died when Kaleta was only nine years old. “I used to spend time with him in his workshop,” recalls Doolin. “He had patented much of the machinery he made. I loved that he was an inventor, and I wanted to be one. I played with scraps of wood and found objects that were on the floor in the shop, and made inventions. I didn’t discover until later that what I was doing was making sculpture.”
Doolin wrote about some of her local roots in her 2011 book Fritos Pie, which features a large collection of vintage and modern recipes – some of which were developed by herself with chef Jennifer McKinney, her dad and her grandmother – as well as anecdotes about her family and the rise of Frito-Lay. A copy of Fritos Pie is held in SMU’s DeGolyer Library and libraries nationwide. Doolin worked with the Smithsonian Institution in the development of the exhibition “Food: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000,” and spearheaded the gift of her family collection to the National Museum of American History.
Versatility and equity in the art world
When asked what advice she would give to young female art students, Doolin says versatility is a virtue.
“I have found it very advantageous to do more than one thing,” she says. “I built an art center, started a nonprofit, learned how to write grants, learned how to write a book, learned how to cook. These are all media – I love all of it, and I consider all of it to be part of my art practice. I call them all artist media, even creative cooking.”
When asked how to improve the local art culture in Dallas, Doolin says, “There is an ongoing need to actively support women artists. I hope I have copycats in cities around the country and that people will think about equity and fairness, and entertain the idea of a balanced representation. I hope to be an example for others by limiting my collection to works by women artists.”
Read more about Kaleta Doolin and SMU Meadows Division of Art.