Dona Ann McAdams: Performative Acts
Catamount Arts will present “Dona Ann McAdams: Performative Acts,” a retrospective exhibition of work by acclaimed photographer Dona Ann McAdams, on view in the Fried Family Gallery from February 5-April 3, 2020.
On Wednesday, February 5, a wine and cheese reception will be held for the artist at Catamount Arts from 4-5 p.m., which will be followed by a 7 p.m. conversation between the artist and exhibition curator John Killacky at the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum as part of the Vermont Humanities Council’s First Wednesday’s Lecture Series. Both events are free and open to the public. All are welcome to attend.
“Performative Acts” explores the career of an internationally recognized artist whose work focuses on political activism, performance art and much more. As a student at the San Francisco Art Institute, McAdams considered herself lucky to have worked with Hank Wessel, Dennis Herne and Gary Winogrand who taught her how to make art, but it was Harvey Milk who taught her how to use art to make social change. “Ever since those days in San Francisco, the artistic and the political have been inseparable for me,” she observes.
Curator John Killacky first encountered McAdams in the 1980s, when she was the house photographer at P.S. 122 (now Performance Space New York). Killacky and McAdams became personally acquainted when he was a curator at the Walker Center for the Arts in Minneapolis and they both became embroiled in the controversy surrounding Senator Jessie Helms and his challenge of National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) funding. Both McAdams and Killacky later ended up in Vermont—McAdams on a goat farm and Killacky at the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts. After stepping down as executive director in 2018, Killacky approached McAdams about an exhibition that will tour multiple venues in Vermont before moving on to New York.
“Performative Acts” includes images of P.S. 122 performances, as well as McAdams’ photos of anti-nuclear, pro-choice, anti-war, feminist, queer liberation, and AIDS activism protests over the years. In the book “We Are Everywhere: Protest, Power, and Pride in the History of Queer Liberation,” Matthew Riemer and Leighton Brown wrote, “There have always been photographers who capture the work of those involved in organized resistance, but there are very few activists who use photography to record the struggle. Dona’s photography exudes a familiarity—a brief respite from the pressures of life, a hand over a heart, a subtle grin in the middle of a warzone—because Dona is among, of, and with those she photographs.”
Also included in “Performative Acts” are McAdams’ photographs of nuns from St. Mary’s Convent; backstretch workers at a Saratoga Springs race track; portraits of people with mental illness who participated in an art workshop that McAdams ran for 14 years on Coney Island; and finally working farm animals. These include Lou and Bill, a pair of oxen at Green Mountain College whose planned euthanasia became a national news story in 2012.
McAdams also adroitly captured the queer liberation and AIDS activism of that time, documenting the urgency of ACT UP actions and LGBT military members marching in solidarity against “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” directives. This agitprop sensibility continued throughout her storied career as she documented anti-nuclear, pro-choice, war protest, and feminist rallies. More recently she photographed an anti-Trump protest in Washington D.C. and transgender Vermont gubernatorial candidate Christine Hallquist marching in a Pride parade.
“Performative Acts” opened at the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center in June 2019 before traveling to Castleton University, Catamount Arts, the Helen Day Art Center, and the Flynn Center for the Arts. In 2021 it will travel to Howl! Gallery in NYC. This exhibition was made possible by a generous gift from Molly Davies and the James E. Robinson Foundation and the accompanying 60-page exhibition catalogue was supported in part by the Vermont Humanities Council.
Artist Dona Ann McAdams has been making photographs for over forty years, her work exhibited at venues such as the Museum of Modern Art, The Whitney Museum of American Art, The International Center for Photography, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, among other places. She is the recipient of a Dorothea Lange/Paul Taylor Prize from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, an Obie and Bessie Award for her performance photography, and grants from the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Since 1983, she has been committed to bringing cameras and photography into small, underserved communities, setting up community darkrooms and teaching people how to shoot, process, and develop their own film and document their own lives. She has worked in places as diverse as adult homes for people living with mental illness, homeless shelters, small mountain communities in Appalachia, dairy farms in New England, and on the backstretch of thoroughbred racetracks.
Her work has appeared in numerous publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The London Times, Art Forum, Doubletake, and Aperture. Her monograph of performance work, Caught in the Act, was published by Aperture in 1996. She has taught and lectured at Rutgers University, New York University, The International Center for Photography, The American Center in Barcelona, Spain, and Hostos Community College, New York City, among other places. Originally based in New York City, McAdams and her husband, the writer Brad Kessler, now live on a goat farm in southwestern Vermont.
Exhibition curator John R. Killacky, former executive director of the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts, now serves as a state legislator in the Vermont House of Representatives for South Burlington. Killacky moved to Vermont in 2010 to run the Flynn Center after a multi-faceted career as a nonprofit arts administrator in New York, Philadelphia, Minneapolis and San Francisco. As executive director of the Flynn until his retirement in 2018, access and inclusion initiatives were central while presenting acclaimed artistic, educational, and community engagement programs. Recognitions include Vermont Autism Task Force Appreciation Award and Vermont Arts Council Kannenstine Award for Arts Advocacy. His commentaries have aired on VPR and have been published in VTDigger and Burlington Free Press. His films and videos have screened internationally, and seen locally in Burlington, Bennington, Stowe, St Johnsbury, and on Vermont PBS. He is married to Lawrence Connolly, Lecturer at UVM.
For more information about the artist and her work, see https://donaannmcadams.com. For more information about John Killacky, visit www.johnkillacky.com. To learn more about “Dona Ann McAdams: Performative Acts,” showing at Catamount Arts, February 5th through April 3rd, visit www.catamountarts.org. To learn more about First Wednesdays at St. Johnsbury Athenaeum, visit www.vermonthumanties.org/first-wednesdays.