It’s a sobering thought, but work by female artists makes up only three to five percent of major permanent collections in the U.S. and Europe. And that’s not all: of the 100 most expensive artworks by living artists worldwide sold at auction between 2012 and 2016, only two were by women.
“Most art museums are men’s museums,” said Susan Fisher Sterling, director of the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) in Washington D.C., when we caught up with her over the phone. Such inequality was a reflection of gender bias in society in general, she said.
One of the only major museums in the world solely dedicated to recognizing women’s creative contributions, NMWA is striving to redress the balance. “We’re not waiting for the day when we achieve gender parity across the board,” said Susan, “we’re working for it through the arts.”
The institution was founded in 1987 by Wilhelmina Cole Holladay who had assembled a vast private collection of women’s art with her husband, Wallace. Her hope was to reinsert women into art history, where they’ve been noticeably absent.
The museum boasts more than 5,000 works by women from the 16th century to the present. There are paintings by Elisabetta Sirani, Berthe Morisot and Suzanne Valadon, sculpture by Sarah Bernhardt, Dorothy Dehner and Barbara Hepworth, photographs by Gertrude Käsebier, Louise Dahl-Wolfe and Nan Goldin and videos by Dara Birnbaum, Pipilotti Rist and Ingrid Mwangi (Mwangi Hutter).
The special collections include 17th-century botanical prints by Maria Sibylla Merian, who revolutionized both botany and zoology, works by British and Irish women silversmiths from the 17th–19th centuries and 500 artists’ books from 1970 onwards.
“There’s real excellence in the arts when it comes to women, particularly in modern and contemporary,” said Susan.
As well as supporting the careers of strong women artists, the museum highlights gender equality issues through public talks and its award-winning social media campaign #5WomenArtists. Exhibitions to celebrate its 30th anniversary this year include Wonder Women!, which features work by the Guerrilla Girls, feminist activist artists who expose gender and ethnic bias – as well as corruption – in politics, art, film and pop culture.
What Susan most wants is parity for women artists. “I hope for the day when you don’t have to go into a museum and count the women. That would be a nice day. I would like to have some institutions, which I’m starting to see now, becoming more likeminded. And that’s a big change.”
Susan, who has devoted her working life to the museum, gets her inner strength from her work. “I’ve got this incredible purpose in life that I found almost 30 years ago. Obviously, there’s something about the place that makes a difference to my life.”
And to those of many others.
Image: Dakota Fine for National Museum of Women in the Arts
Tom Field for National Museum of Women in the Arts
Gallery images in order:
Doris Lee, Cherries in the Sun (Siesta), ca. 1941; Oil on canvas, 27 x 36 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of the Honorable Clare Boothe Luce; © Estate of Doris Lee; Suzanne Valadon, The Abandoned Doll, 1921; Oil on canvas, 51 x 32 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; Amy Sherald, They call me Redbone but I’d rather be Strawberry Shortcake, 2009; Oil on canvas, 54 x 43 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in honor of the artist and the 25th Anniversary of NMWA; © Amy Sherald; Guerrilla Girls, Horror on the National Mall!, 2007; Color photolithograph on paper, 23 x 13 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Susan Fisher Sterling in honor of Steven Scott; © Guerrilla Girls, Courtesy www.guerrillagirls.com; Betty Blayton, Idea Waiting to Be Heard, 1984; monoprint, 30 x 22 in.; Courtesy of the Betty Blayton Trust, Boston, Massachusetts; © Betty Blayton Trust. Photo: E. G. Schempf; Lalla Essaydi, Bullets Revisited #20, 2014; Chromogenic print mounted on aluminum, 30 x 40 in.; Courtesy Miller Yezerski Gallery © Lalla; Alice Bailly, Self-Portrait, 1917; Oil on canvas, 32 x 23 1/2 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; Beverly Semmes, Blue Gowns, 1993; Chiffon and crushed velvet, Approx. 30 x 31 ½ x 30 ft.; Rubell Family Collection, Miami; Courtesy of Rubell Family Collection, Miami; Mickalene Thomas, A-E-I-O-U and Sometimes Y, 2009; Plastic rhinestones, acrylic, and enamel on panel, 24 x 20 x 1 1/2 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Deborah Carstens; © Mickalene Thomas, Courtesy of the Artist and Lehmann Maupin
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