A Museum of Her Own

The National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., represents traditional and modern women artists from around the world, while catalyzing social change.

There is no shortage of opportunity to view world-renowned art in Washington, D.C. A visit to the National Gallery of Art, all on its own, can provide a survey of magnificent paintings and sculptures. But, what if you’re looking for a zoomed-in perspective on a unique segment of the art world?

One option would be to explore the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA), located on New York Avenue, in the heart of the capital city. It is the only major museum in the world solely dedicated to championing women through the arts. It features art created solely by women, with the goals of advocating “for better representation of women artists” and addressing “the gender imbalance in the presentation of art by bringing to light important women artists of the past while promoting great women artists working today,” says Stacy Meteer, the museum’s communications and marketing manager.

The museum’s collections offer paintings, sculptures, photographs and videos by artists like Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Mary Stevenson Cassatt, Louise Bourgeois, Shirin Neshat, Faith Ringgold and Pipilotti Rist. The museum also holds the city’s only Frida Kahlo painting, “Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky,” a work Meteer suggests all visitors take some time to view.


Collection of connections
The National Museum of Women in the Arts installs all of its collections thematically, rather than chronologically, emphasizing the connections between historical and contemporary art, says Meteer. In that vein, the exhibition “Women House,” on display from March 9 to May 28, 2018, explores different ideas about a woman’s “place” and the house as a feminine space. Organized across several themes, including “Desperate Housewives,” “Dollhouse” and “Mobile Homes,” the exhibition features more than 30 global artists who represent home not as a space solely for cultivating comfort and stability, but instead as a place for demonstration and liberation. The artworks include photographs, videos, sculptures and room-like installations made of materials like felt and rubber bands.

From June 28 to September 16, 2018, the exhibition “Heavy Metal—Women to Watch 2018” will showcase contemporary women artists working in metal. It will be the fifth installment of this series the museum presents every three years. Metal work is unique in that its applications range from sculpture to jewelry to conceptual work, bridging fine art, design and craft—categories whose traditional definitions are rooted in gender discrimination.


Campaigns of change
The focus on women’s roles at home, as artists, and in society forms the foundation of its role not only as an art museum, but also as a center for thought leadership, community engagement and social change, says Meteer. “We have many things to offer. In addition to our collection and rotating exhibitions, we also engage audiences online and through our dynamic public programs,” she says.

One such program is the museum’s #5WomenArtists campaign, now in its third year. The campaign challenges people to name five women artists and post them to their social media accounts. “It calls attention to the inequities women artists face, inspires conversation and community, and brings awareness to a much larger audience than can ever visit the brick-and-mortar museum,” says Meteer. In 2017, more than 10,000 individuals and 520 cultural institutions from 30 countries on all seven continents participated in the campaign, according to Meteer.

The museum’s Women, Arts and Social Change initiative provides another platform for discussing women and the arts as catalysts for social change. FRESH TALK, the signature program of the initiative, expands the dialogue on what it means to be champions of women through the arts. It features curated conversations with leading innovators and thought leaders from diverse disciplines to discuss cause-driven topics.

The program has included installations like Mexican artist and activist Mónica Mayer’s “El Tendedero/The Clothesline Project, D.C.,” which ran from November 2017 to January 2018 and asked visitors to answer questions like, “As a woman, where do you feel safe? Why?” and “Have you ever experienced violence or harassment? What happened?” Participants wrote their responses on pink cards, which they then hung on a clothesline—a traditionally feminine object that Mayer transformed into a tool for dialogue on the treatment of women.

On March 18, the Women, Arts and Social Change initiative will host its third annual “Fresh Talk: Righting the Balance” event, a discussion on the possibility of gender parity in museums.


Creating core
The National Museum of Women in the Arts was incorporated in 1981 as a private, nonprofit museum, and opened the doors of its permanent location in 1987. It began as a private collection of works by women artists, the owners of which, Wilhelmina Cole Holladay and her husband Wallace F. Holladay, began collecting art in the 1960’s. Around this time, scholars and art historians were beginning to discuss the underrepresentation of women, and various racial and ethnic groups, in museums and art exhibitions. By 1980, Mrs. Holladay began working toward her goal of creating a museum to showcase women artists. The Holladay Collection became the core of the institution’s permanent collection.

The National Museum of Women in the Arts is open Monday through Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. Admission is $10 (Rs. 640 approximately) for adults, and $8 (Rs. 500 approximately) for students and visitors over age 65. Entry is free for museum members and youth aged 18 or less. Free Community Day is on the first Sunday of every month.


Carrie Loewenthal Massey is a New York City-based freelance writer.