Museum  November 13, 2023  Kathleen Cullen

After a $70 Million Renovation, the National Museum of Women in the Arts Reopens

The Museum Makes a Case for Preserving the Legacies of Women Artists
Photo by Jennifer Hughes. Courtesy of NMWA

 Collection galleries at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Since its founding in the 1980s, the collection of the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) has been one of the best kept secrets in Washington, D.C. As legend has it, the museum’s founder Wilhelmina Cole Holladay began collecting women artists in the 1970s after an auspicious visit to the Prado Museum. Traveling with her husband, Wallace F. Holladay, the couple came across works by Clara Peeters, an artist with whom they were not familiar. Arriving home, Wilhelmina ran to H.W. Janson’s History of Art to look up her discovery but couldn’t find Peeters—or any other woman artist—listed in that revered tome. 

This led Holladay to search through backroom storages to find examples by women artists who had been relegated to the dustbins of history. Having realized that artwork by women was underrepresented on the walls of U.S. museums and undervalued in the international art market, Holladay began collecting. 

Holladay’s thinking was guided by her curiosity and questions: Was there such a thing as women’s art? Why were there no women artists in the popular art textbooks of her day? What led to women’s exclusion or erasure from art history?

© Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Image by Google

Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky, 1937; Oil on Masonite, 30 x 24 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of the Honorable Clare Boothe Luce.

NMWA’s building at 1250 New York Avenue, NW was originally constructed in 1908 as a Masonic temple (where women were not allowed entry) and the structure went through several iterations before the Holladays purchased it in 1985 and transformed it into the first museum in the world dedicated to women’s creative accomplishments.  

It was also about this same time that activists began to scrutinize the collecting activities of work by women and marginalized artists in museums. Director Susan Fisher Sterling, who had started out as the museum’s curator, would approach galleries with the same question: “Do you have any women artists?” 

Initially, the Holladays donated a trove of 500 art objects that formed the foundation of NMWA’s collection, and rallied others to their cause. The recent renovation restored the building’s historical beauty while transforming its capabilities for the future—with expanded galleries and public spaces, improved educational facilities. The supporters of the collection include individuals, families, foundations, and the impassioned members of NMWA’s outreach committees—advocacy groups working around the world to promote the museum’s mission of artistic enfranchisement. Many works also have been donated by artists themselves, signifying their confidence in the museum as a steward of their legacies. 

Holladay’s vision for the museum was elegantly embodied in the Great Hall. Now restored by the Baltimore architectural firm Sandra Vicchio & Associates, the building’s neoclassical proportions still speaks to the Georgetown establishment to which Holladay belonged. Visitors are greeted by the Murano glass chandelier that is a mixed-media assemblage by Joana Vasconcelos at the museum’s entry. Reclaiming the legacy of handwork among women makers, Vasconcelos’ chandelier with stuffed tube tentacles and crocheted puffs with beads and LED lights proclaims the centuries old legacy of handwork amongst women.

© Atelier Joana Vasconcelos; Photo by Francesco Allegretto

Joana Vasconcelos, Rubra, 2016; Murano glass, hand-crocheted wool, ornaments, LED lighting, polyester, and iron, 69 1/4 x 43 in. diameter; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Christine Suppes.

The museum has undergone a two-year renovation that cost $70 million and has resulted in the creation of 2,500 square feet of exhibition space with newly expanded galleries. The museum’s sole Frida Kahlo painting holds pride of place in the mezzanine, accessible by the grandiose twin marble staircases. There are many standouts in the permanent collection. A gorgeous Mildred Thompson and a fantastic Alma Thomas. Also nicely represented are two works by Judy Chicago: a large Purple Atmosphere photo and a wonderful lozenge painting. There are also works by Sonya Clark, Amy Sherald, and Cindy Sherman. Niki de Saint Phalle’s Pregnant Nana, 1993, well displayed against a purple walled backdrop, greets visitors to these newly refurbished galleries.

The eclectic survey The Sky’s the Limit, an inaugural exhibition of large-scale contemporary sculpture on the second floor that runs through February 25, 2024, brings together an exciting array of 33 artworks some suspended from the ceiling and others large freestanding pieces. Art & Object was fortunate to have Kathryn Wat, Deputy Director for Art, Programs, and Public Engagement/Chief Curator at the NMWA answer our questions about this exhibition.

Collection galleries at the National Museum of Women in the Arts; Photo by Jennifer Hughes, courtesy of NMWA
Photo by Jennifer Hughes. Courtesy of NMWA

Collection galleries at the National Museum of Women in the Arts; 

 

Collection galleries at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.
Photo by Jennifer Hughes. Courtesy of NMWA

Collection galleries at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Collection galleries at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.
Photo by Jennifer Hughes. Courtesy of NMWA

Collection galleries at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Collection galleries at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.
Photo by Jennifer Hughes. Courtesy of NMWA

Collection galleries at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Art & Object: What was your goal with this new sculpture exhibition, “The Sky’s the Limit”?

Kathryn Wat: This inaugural exhibition offers an opportunity to engage audiences with powerful, large-scale works. Presented in our transformed space, the artworks convey an energy and dynamism that dovetails with the urgency of the museum’s mission to oppose historic and contemporary gender inequality.

A&O: I assume that your final section was made with consideration of a number of factors—the chief aim being to create as varied a representation of artists as possible from different parts of the world. What is the highlight of the show for you?

KW: Amidst so many strong showstoppers, it is hard to select one highlight. Each artist revels in materiality, and nothing is off limits. They work with an array of found objects, including silver-plated vessels, t-shirts, wooden spools, hair combs, faux flowers, ostrich eggs, shells, a wooden chair, glass bottles, parasols and a wooden rhinoceros. Other works on view are composed from a mix of organic and industrial materials—such as wool, paper, wire, resin, cedar wood, aluminum, wax and blown glass. In a world that continues to confront women with so many limitations, these artists are in control of their mediums and work fearlessly. They approach their practice with a fullness of expression that demands attention.

 

© Rina Banerjee; Image courtesy of the artist and Perrotin; Photo by Guillaume Ziccarelli

Rina Banerjee, Lady of Commerce, 2012; Hand-painted, leaded glass chandelier, wood figurine, vintage glass bottles, chandelier ornaments, birdcage, steel, wood pedestal, lace, cowry shells, taxidermy deer paws, Indian marriage jewelry, ostrich eggshells, porcelain doll hands, silver leaf, gold leaf, wire, linen cord, and marble baby doll hands, 120 x 48 in. diameter; Courtesy of the artist.

A&O: How do you want viewers to approach the exhibition?

KW: The physicality of large-scale artworks that insert themselves into the gallery space changes the experience for visitors walking through the exhibition. These artists are intent on inviting visitors to an experience. They don’t want you to stand still and look. They want you to move around, to physically engage with the works and see new perspectives and—short of touching anything—to directly understand their impact. 

A&O: What message about women artists were you looking to impart with this exhibition?

KW: The conventional notion that certain artists are unsuited to sculpture because it requires muscularity and an unwavering commitment to physical processes is a gendered belief. The artists featured in the museum’s reopening exhibition demonstrate that there are no limits to their artistic expression. Each maker assumes boldness, ingenuity and openness to create sculptures that have everything to do with everything, and therefore reshape the way we understand our evolving world. These works challenge the intractable misperceptions that many people—astoundingly, frustratingly—still have about how women artists work. Yes, we also love the graceful, domestically scaled works of artists such as Mary Cassatt, but that is not the only “type” of woman artist. Two of the featured artists must wear hazmat suits to make their works. Many works by Joana Vasconcelos would not fit through the passageways of our historic building.

Cornelia Parker, Thirty Pieces of Silver (exhaled) Sugar Bowl, 2003; Thirty silver-plated items, including spoons, forks, trays, and various serving ware, are flattened and hang suspended from the ceiling with thin, nearly invisible wire. The pieces are arranged in a circle several inches above the floor.
© Cornelia Parker; Image courtesy of Compton Verney; Photo by Jamie Woodley

Cornelia Parker, Thirty Pieces of Silver (exhaled) Sugar Bowl, 2003; Thirty silver-plated items crushed by 250-ton industrial press, and metal wire, dimensions variable; Gift of the UK Friends of NMWA.

Petah Coyne, Untitled #1458 (Marguerite Duras), 2019-20.
Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Lelong & Co., New York; © Petah Coyne; Photo by Christopher Burke Studio

Petah Coyne, Untitled #1458 (Marguerite Duras), 2019-20; Glass globes, acrylic polymer, paint, chicken-wire fencing, wire, steel, cable, cable nuts, quick-link shackles, jaw-to-jaw swivel, 3/8 in. grade 30-proof coil chain, silk/rayon velvet, Velcro, thread, and plastic, 93 1/2 x 32 x 31 1/2 in.

Installation view of a work by Beatriz Milhazes in The Sky's the Limit at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.
Photo by Jennifer Hughes. Courtesy of NMWA

Installation view of a work by Beatriz Milhazes in The Sky's the Limit at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Installation view of Alison Saar's Undone (2012), featured in The Sky's the Limit at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.
Photo by Jennifer Hughes. Courtesy of NMWA

Installation view of Alison Saar's Undone (2012), featured in The Sky's the Limit at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Sonya Clark, Curls, 2005; Plastic combs, 96 x 36 x 36 in.; Museum purchase: Members’ Acquisition Fund and Belinda de Gaudemar Acquisition Fund.
© Sonya Clark. Photo by Taylor Dabney

Sonya Clark, Curls, 2005; Plastic combs, 96 x 36 x 36 in.; Museum purchase: Members’ Acquisition Fund and Belinda de Gaudemar Acquisition Fund.

A&O: What is the future of the National Museum of Women in the Arts?

KW: As a feminist institution, we fight against a maelstrom of pressures and continued gender inequality. The art world needs spaces for constructive and inclusive conversations. I want visitors to leave the museum feeling motivated and inspired, not just pleasant or passive. I want to excite people into seeing the world in new ways.

About the Author

Kathleen Cullen

Kathleen Cullen is a former gallerist, independent curator, and writer for CultureCatch.com. She was also the former head of sales for Art & Object. Cullen’s role as a director-curator permits her to maintain an independent spirit, presenting new artists “on the edge” by feeling the “pulse” of the emerging art market. It is this inalienable eye that posits her as a harbinger of new artistic expression.

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