Julia Szabo: Vision and visibility

In Dialogue
A person standing next to an older person in a wheelchair

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Journalist and author Julia Szabo is resolved to establish the world’s first museum to be built by women for women artists. MSeum is going to be a museum with a focus on overlooked artists (Know Unknowns), providing art storage space to creative women and their heirs and offering the most enriching museum experience for blind and low-vision visitors anywhere in the world, with a variety of tactile artworks and architectural features inviting touch, because loss of sight does not mean loss of vision.

Tell us a bit more about yourself and about your museum project

I have a lifelong love of art that’s in my DNA, thanks to my parents, artist Martha Szabo and art historian-curator George Szabo. After my dad passed away in 2016, it was time to care for my mom and the hundreds of paintings she made over a period of six incredibly productive decades. She was beginning to lose her eyesight to glaucoma and macular degeneration, so I took on the dual responsibilities of caregiver and archivist. This got me thinking intensely about women artists throughout history and all the obstacles they have had to overcome, as well as the challenges of storage and other legacy issues faced by their heirs—all issues I was facing, compounded by my mom’s rapid vision loss. Then, I learned a startling statistic: women experience blindness 40 percent more than men.

Then, at the end of 2019, I sustained a hemorrhagic stroke near my brain stem, leaving me temporarily paralyzed on my right side. The paralysis resolved with help from my stability assistance dogs, but doctors warned me about the high probability of a second stroke: “If it happens again, it’s coma and death.” So now the pressure was on to get Martha’s work seen because I stayed awake all night worrying: What if I pre-decease her and all her paintings wind up in a dumpster?! I’m so grateful that my efforts to get Martha recognized were ultimately successful. But then I thought, what about all the women artists who weren’t so lucky to find a champion like the David Richard Gallery?

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Tell us about your mother’s paintings—ideas, and process.

Martha’s paintings are an illustrated guide to her extraordinary life. To understand Martha’s work, it’s important to look at her early beginnings in Hungary, which wartime circumstances made extremely challenging for the young artist. From the age of eight, Marta Weisz was happiest drawing and crafting; she would make portraits of her parents, sisters, and schoolmates and create handmade gifts (such as festive anniversary baskets for her parents). Then the Nazi persecution of Jews began, and Marta was relocated with her family to a ghetto and shortly thereafter imprisoned in an Austrian labor camp; she was 16 and had already decided on pursuing an art career, planning to study in Paris like her hero, Picasso, with whom she shares a birthday. Suddenly, this talented teen was performing forced labor: cleaning up debris after air raids and carrying heavy bricks, stones, and mortar. For one long year, there was no opportunity to do the work she was born to do: honing her artistic talents. At the end of the war, that particular camp was liberated by the Soviets. Although she didn’t make it to Paris, Martha diligently pursued her artistic dreams, earning her MFA at the University of the Fine Arts, Budapest. There, she perfected what would become her lifelong practice of painting in oils, mastering an impressive range of artistic styles from classical portraiture to avant-garde abstraction. Still, she experienced further repression, horrified to witness the Soviet destruction of treasured cultural monuments during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Together with her husband, my father George, she immigrated to the United States in 1957.

Please guide us through Martha’s current show at David Richard Gallery.

The title of her solo retrospective at Chelsea’s David Richard Gallery, Up On The Roof: Liberation, Transformation, Celebration, aptly describes Martha’s trajectory in life and art. It’s an intimate gathering of 20 paintings, spanning 1958 to 1988, expertly curated by David Eichholtz, who also oversaw their restoration and framing. In this small yet compelling selection of work, we feel the artist’s eternal love of her new home city, New York. Arriving here as a refugee, Martha finally felt fully at home; her creativity was set free. New York—particularly its architecture and energetic construction activity—never ceased to fire her imagination, and she produced dozens of paintings in tribute to the city’s streets and structures. She was delighted to see buildings constantly going up instead of crashing down and adored the modernity of structures like the Seagram Building, the Guggenheim Museum, and the Queensboro Bridge. Urban architecture, in all its diversity, became a source of endless inspiration to her—and looking at these paintings, that inspiration is palpable and contagious. It’s been so gratifying to watch visitors to the gallery sitting and meditating on Martha’s visions of New York City. New eyes are finding different things to love and relate to in these paintings that I was so lucky to grow up with.

Can you elaborate on your vision for MSeum?

Vision and visibility, seeing and being seen, are the core of MSeum. Once Martha took her rightful place in art history, with a great gallery to champion her work, maybe now I could take some “me time,” right? Wrong: I began worrying about all the other women artists who didn’t have someone tenacious in their corner… about the heirs of women artists faced with substantial bodies of work and nowhere to put them. I thought back to the slings and arrows I fielded on my mother’s behalf: the museums whose storage facilities were at capacity, preventing them from accepting donations of artwork… the galleries that claimed they couldn’t open an unfamiliar website “because they might contract a computer virus.” I studied the sad statistics that prove how women artists are still woefully under-represented at museums around the world. And all that information made me want to do something. So, one day in 2022, I vowed to establish the world’s first museum to be built by women, exclusively for women artists, at the property I own in upstate New York.

Frankly, I was—and still am—mortified that such a museum doesn’t already exist: a place entirely, deliberately dedicated to female artistic achievement. I reached out to the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC), and they came on board immediately—women in the construction trade encounter many of the same sexist roadblocks that women artists face. A few days later, I came up with the museum’s name, MSeum, merging the feminist honorific Ms. with the word museum. And I knew that this was my life’s mission and the reason I was brought back from that stroke: to secure recognition for all under- and unappreciated women artists—whom MSeum proudly and lovingly calls Unknowns. Now comes the hard part: fundraising to build a dynamic campus with eight-foot bronze statues of great women artists and a gorgeous building designed by a contemporary woman architect. I hope your readers will have a look at the website, www.MSeum.space, and join our movement to right the wrongs of art history.

Photo Copyright © 2022 David Richard Gallery, LLC. All rights reserved. 

MARTHA SZABO At David Richard Gallery
Up On The Roof: Liberation, Transformation, Celebration
October 17 – November 17, 2023