Chris Cowden has served as the Executive Director of Women & Their Work since the mid 1980s and has overseen the work of more than 1,500 visual and performing artists. She directs all programming and is responsible for planning, implementation, and evaluation. She has served on numerous panels and boards including the National Endowment for the Arts, Texas Commission on the Arts, Rydell Visual Arts Fellowship, and National Performance Network.
Before coming to Women & Their Work, she served as a Corporate Loan Officer for three years at Chemical Bank-New York (now JPMorgan Chase) where she was responsible for companies based in New York City with sales over $100 million.
Cowden has a BA (and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa, the oldest honor society for the liberal arts and sciences in the US) and MA in English Literature and completed all course work for a PhD at The University of Texas at Austin.
Thao Votang: We’re always passing each other at openings and unfortunately haven’t ever gotten to really talk — I suppose we both keep busy! Did you grow up in Austin? What keeps you here?
Chris Cowden: I was born and raised in Springfield, Missouri, which has lots of trees and rivers and lakes: a lot like the college town Austin of old but without the organic vegetables, recycling, or ban on smoking. I married a Texan and as most non-natives discover, it’s hard to move a Texan out of Texas. We originally came to Austin so I could teach and work on a PhD at UT Austin.
TV: What were you doing before Women & Their Work and how did you get involved in the visual arts community?
CC: I had planned on being an English professor but there were virtually no jobs available. I joined a Careers in Business Program at UT that had been recently developed at Harvard to train PhD’s in the humanities to work in the business world; we were from philosophy, psychology, French, Italian, history, art history, and English — all the great subjects — and there were no jobs in academics for any of us.
We went all day to the business school for three months studying graduate level accounting, finance, and marketing. Then big corporations swooped down and hired all of us because we could write, analyze, and had newly minted business skills. I went to New York and by day, worked as a corporate loan officer in what is now JPMorgan Chase. By night, I went to art galleries, dance, and theater performances. I had a minor in art history and went to an art event almost every night. For 3 years at work I felt like a cultural anthropologist amidst Wall Street bankers; there were also flashes of the Battle of Antietam with everyone in blue and gray suits lined up on different sides of conference tables. But I learned a whole lot about numbers and that has been surprisingly useful.
I was also able to immerse myself in the cultural life of the city. This time in New York greatly affected me as I saw that art in all its forms was highly valued and significant there. I internalized that—and New York to this day feels like my spiritual home.
TV: When did you start working at W&TW?
CC: I came here in the mid 1980’s after a chance encounter with a board member of Women & Their Work in New York.
TV: I think it’s incredibly valuable that you have been in Austin and have stayed with one organization for so long. And I say that because I think one of many (many!) factors that keep our art community from growing more quickly is a dependence on too few people tasked with carrying the community into the future. Do you think the visual arts here have been improving over the years? What do you think are the biggest challenges now?
CC: There is a great article in an old New Yorker that Calvin Tomkins wrote about the legendary Walter Hopps who had an enormous impact on contemporary art, particularly on the development of the art scene in LA. Tomkins notes that for a city to function as a contemporary art center, five specific elements are required: artists, galleries, collectors, critics, and at least one active museum.
You can look at that list and see where the huge gaps have been/are and realize what the visual arts in Austin are up against. Austin is certainly improving — but for so long, we didn’t have much of what we needed to thrive. Austin has always had a lot of really strong artists (and out of that list, I think they would be the hardest element to develop if they were lacking) but many of them have felt like they have to move away to have a career.
Our challenge is to develop an ecosystem that supports artists up and down from emerging to mid-career to established. I see Women & Their Work as part of a larger food chain that is slowly evolving. Strong museums will lead to a more educated and art appreciating public that will lead to confident collectors who don’t feel like they have to go to Houston, or Santa Fe, or New York to buy art. And studio tours like EAST help demystify artists and the work that they do in approachable settings.
Austin isn’t firing on all cylinders yet—but the car is moving and in the right direction, I think.
TV: Sometimes, I think Austin is finally finishing a sturdy foundation for the visual arts. But then sometimes, I find myself waiting for the bottom to fall out again — which is natural, sure — but frustrating. How do you keep motivated in what you do?
CC: The visual arts in Austin do have an unfortunate history of taking one step forward and then a quick two steps back. However, I do think there are more pieces of the puzzle in place than ever before. I worry about the affordability of space — for artists, first and foremost, but also for art galleries and smaller non-profits that are crucial to the artistic infrastructure of Austin. However, one positive result of our massive growth is that there are a lot more people from other places for whom contemporary visual art is very important so in some ways we need to respond to the demand rather than struggle to create it.
Luckily, motivation has not been an issue for me. I went to a Catholic elementary school and public middle and high schools and there were no sports for girls. I didn’t recognize this about myself for a long time, but I think I have a very competitive streak that has served me well at W&TW. I love being on national panels and in other national forums where I can stand for women artists in general and Texas artists in particular. It is quite a challenge because there was — and still is — a reticence to give women artists the same respect that male artists receive and that is compounded by the national befuddlement and dismay about what the hell seems to always be going on in Texas.
When I’m back in the gallery in Austin, I often think of Ingmar Bergman who said that when he was making a film of Mozart’s Magic Flute, one couldn’t imagine the joy he felt working in the studio and having it filled with Mozart every day. I so understand what he meant as the art I work with every day often fills me with unexpected emotion. Because I don’t have a printer in my office, I walk back and forth through the gallery multiple times a day to get documents from the back office and I find myself stopping again and again to just stand amidst the work. I have such respect — even awe — for artists, who despite being so often dismissed and misunderstood, undervalued, even ridiculed by the culture at large, get up every morning and put everything on the line. It’s that perseverance that inspires me.
I am surprised, too, that so much time has passed since I first came to the one room office of Women & Their Work over the Revco Drug Store on the Drag.
The days are long but the years are short.
TV: When you’re not at W&TW, what do you enjoy doing?
CC: Wow — I don’t want to tempt the fates but in addition to an inspiring job, I have a really terrific family. My husband is a lawyer who is super smart with a great sense of humor who can also make/fix anything. We have two girls who are out changing the world. One works in global health and just got back from Zambia where she helped analyze strategies to bring down the 50% mortality rate in the neo-natal unit at the largest hospital in the capital. The other works in an urban school in Brooklyn teaching math to 7th graders. Her kids got the highest score on the state math test out of all the classes in 4 schools. We are so proud of them!
When not at art events, I love to read. (Once an English major, always an English major.) My Brilliant Friend, Fates and Furies, and Let the Great World Spin are recent favorites. I want to read Sally Mann’s memoir, which has gotten such great reviews and also re-visit Susan Sontag’s On Photography, which always makes me think.
I have a wild golden retriever who walks me several times a day and makes me laugh all the time.