No, really—this isn’t a gimmicky, attention-grabbing question; I encourage you to take a minute to come up with a few names.
I don’t intend to make anyone feel ignorant or sexist, but instead to point out the impact that lack of gender diversity in the art world has on all of us. Starting locally, only 11 percent of the artists in the National Gallery of Art’s collection are women. For women of color, the statistics are even worse. According to the 2022 Burns Halperin Report, which surveyed 31 U.S. museums including the Met and the Art Institute of Chicago, art by Black women comprised only 0.5 percent of their acquisitions. While museums are working towards including more diverse artists—42 percent of the recently reopened modern and contemporary galleries at Smithsonian American Art Museum now are of art by women—it is still routine to primarily see works by white, male artists in most art museums.
These discouraging numbers reveal the strong need for museums to champion and highlight women and gender nonconforming people’s contributions to art, which is exactly what the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) aims to do. The NMWA first opened in 1987 and, after a two-year, nearly $70 million renovation, reopened on October 21, 2023. The renovation expanded their exhibition space by 15% and addressed practical issues like improving lighting, climate control, and art storage in the building. Current exhibitions include “The Sky’s the Limit” which showcases contemporary hanging sculptures, along with ones that focus on specific artists like “Impressive: Antoinette Bouzonnet-Stella” and “Hung Liu: Making History.”
But it’s at “Remix: The Collection,” which draws on pieces from the permanent collection, where you can find some highlights from the history of women’s art with stunning pieces by artists like Lee Krasner, Berthe Morisot, Faith Ringgold, and Lavinia Fontana. The curators chose to eschew the typical chronological ordering of the pieces in favor of thematic groups, since organizing pieces by date tends to place artists of color at the very end—leaving visitors to first see them when they are already tired.
While it was interesting to see works from different centuries placed next to each other, many, though not all, of the thematic groupings fall flat in their broadness and seem to understate the political history behind women’s exclusion from the art world. Two of the themes—“Seeing Red” and “No Shrinking Violet”—were centered on color. While I enjoyed seeing works like T.B. Harlem by Alice Neel and La Petite Modèle by Gwen John together, to first present these works through the lens of color does a disservice to the more meaningful connections that exist across generations of female artists. The two themes based on medium also felt like a less meaningful way of grouping the pieces on display. There are photographs throughout most of the themes, but there is also a dedicated “Photo Credit” gallery. Rather than finding similarities between the photos in this theme, the photographs just feel like leftovers that did not neatly fit into one of the other categories. The curation of “Remix: The Collection” somehow saps works that are political and challenging of some of their punch, creating an exhibit that feels surprisingly tame considering the difficult history that many of the artists confront. Grouping works by theme does, however, create room for interesting discussions and comparisons. I greatly enjoyed the themes “Objectified” and “Elemental” and look forward to how the galleries shift as they continue drawing on works from their incredible collection.
While the NMWA showcases artists with a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds along with exploring art across a wide range of time, the museum can improve its inclusion and highlighting of queer artists. One standout example is the lack of
Photo Credit: NMWA
information about Rosa Bonheur that accompanies her stunning painting Highland Raid. While you can appreciate the work without the additional context, at a museum that’s mission should be more explicitly educational than other art museums’, most visitors would likely appreciate learning that Bonheur, the most famous woman artist of 19th-century France, wore men’s clothing and lived with her female partner. Even more contemporary artists like Harmony Hammond and Mildred Thompson’s sexualities are similarly not mentioned, making it appear that the museum has forgotten to include queer artists. The lack of trans artists on display is also something I hope to see rectified. The museum is committed to making people more aware of women’s contributions to art, but the curation of the permanent collection, information on wall texts, and lack of emphasis on certain groups means there’s still space for the museum to improve in fulfilling their mission.
Despite certain shortcomings, the NMWA does a great job at showcasing a balance between better- and lesser-known artists, which also allows visitors to celebrate artists who are still alive and creating. The range of mediums on display also allowed me to gain a deeper appreciation for hanging sculpture and engravings. Many female artists bristle against being categorized as such, but as long as people struggle to name a handful of women artists while easily rattling off the names of men, the need for a museum like this will remain necessary. Regardless of your knowledge and appreciation for female artists, the NMWA is worth the visit.
The NMWA is located at 1250 New York Ave NW, Washington, DC and is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 am to 5 pm. Tickets are free for visitors under 21 and $16 for visitors over 21.
Ceci Mestre is a sophomore in the College majoring in American Studies. She is the Suggests Editor for the INDY.