Making History: The National Museum of Women in the Arts

Women have often been written out of art history, or never included in the first place. The National Museum of Women in the Arts is on a mission to change that, director Susan Fisher Sterling explains how.

The mission of the museum is to recognise and promote women’s creative contribution to society. We educate and inform through our collections, exhibitions, education efforts, public programmes, library and research centre and website, as well as through our national and international outreach committees.

When you look at it there are really two sides to this: firstly, we recognise women in history who have forged new territory, almost as exceptions to the rule; secondly, we work with contemporary artists to make sure their talents are recognised – we’re about both ancestry and first opportunities.

In terms of reinserting women into the history of art, for example, we recently exhibited paintings by women artists in the French revolution era, and we displayed a collection of pieces by female silversmiths from the 17th and 18th centuries. We showcase how women from these times were all part of the art scene.

On the contemporary side we have always displayed important artists like Paula Rego and Remedios Varo. In recent years this has been through our biennial Women to Watch series, which features emerging and unrec­ognised talents working today.

To help us select these artists we have 22 committees across the US, Europe and South America, and they advocate for women in the arts in their region through education programmes, exhibitions, prizes, hon­oured artists luncheons. The list of activities is rather long, and each year we reach some 35,000 people worldwide. We have also partnered with around 40 curators at major museums, putting women artists at the fore­front of their thinking.

This model is very different from a lot of institutions, which tend to use groups like these for fundraising. Our groups are about raising recognition for women artists and allowing people to see that women reach the same high bar as men in the arts.

Women in the arts receive more recognition than they used to, but you only have to look at the winter auctions in London to see that we’ve got a long way to go: none of top 100 prices were for pieces by women artists. Unfortunately when you’re dealing with issues that are very entrenched, like those to do with power and money, it takes a long time to see a significant change.

About 52 per cent of the people coming out of art school are women, yet the greater value over time is prescribed to the male artists. Until we change the social landscape that allows this inequitable system to happen, until you have teachers that recognise they are contributing to the disparity via how they select artists, then we won’t see greater fairness.

An example of this is Rose Wiley. We selected her for our Women to Watch Series, which created a groundswell of interest and suddenly she got a show at the Tate – but she was in her 70s before that happened. It is the same old pattern we saw in the 1980s with artists like Lee Krasner and Joan Mitchell. We want to break that pattern.

Our next initiative is called Women, Arts and Social Change, which will take a look at the art of social practice and the art of change as it pertains to women. The problem is that when people come together to talk about the art of social change they often exclude women. And when women and change are discussed art is often left out of the picture. So, we want to highlight women in the arts as catalysts for change: arts are the key to a creative society, and creativity is how we are most human. Women must be at the centre of this.

It is important to realise that art has a lot to say on political issues. Naturally, we choose work based on its quality, but we also consider the issues art can raise – issues that are key to being a free and open society. We don’t choose to be confrontational, but we don’t shy away from the debate either. It is a positive engagement.

The most important thing is to have open and straightforward dialogue. The notion we can understand one another better, and make the world a better and more equitable place, is the basis for what we do here.