National Museum of Women in the Arts
Founded more than twenty-five years ago to redefine traditional histories of art, the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA), located in Washington, DC, is the only major museum in the world solely dedicated to celebrating the achievements of women in the visual, performing and literary arts. The museum honors women artists of the past, promotes the accomplishments of women artists of the present and assures the place of women artists in the future.
While traveling abroad, Wilhelmina Cole Holladay and her husband, Wallace F. Holladay, admired a 17th-century still-life by Flemish painter Clara Peeters. Upon their return to the U.S., the Holladays sought information on Peeters, but found that the definitive art history text (H.W. Janson’s History of Art) made no reference to her, or any other female artist. The Holladays began amassing works by women artists in the 1960s, establishing what would become the core of NMWA’s collection. Mrs. Holladay incorporated NMWA in 1981 as a private, non-profit museum, and it opened its doors to the public in 1987 with its first exhibition of American Women Artists, 1830–1930. To underscore its commitment to increasing the attention given to women in all disciplines, NMWA commissioned Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Ellen Taaffe Zwilich to write Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, inspired by five paintings in the permanent collection, for an inaugural concert. Since then, more than 250 exhibitions of art created by women have been presented.
Initially drafted by architect Waddy Wood to serve as a Masonic temple, the 78,810 square-foot main building was completed in 1908 and the original structure is on the D.C. Inventory List of Historic Sites as well as the National Register of Historic Places. The exterior façade in Renaissance Revival style incorporates both Tuscan and Mediterranean design elements, in addition to Masonic symbolism. In 1983, the museum purchased the building to house its collection and, after extensive renovation, it opened on April 7, 1987. The project received several awards, including the American Institute of Architects’ Prize for Excellence in Preservation of Historic Buildings. In 1993, the museum purchased 5,300 square feet of adjacent property and, after further renovation, the Elisabeth A. Kasser Wing opened in 1997 making the entire facility 84,110 square feet. Not surprisingly, the building has become a Washington landmark.
NMWA’s collection features more than 4,500 works from the 16th-century to the present created by more than 1,000 artists. Special collections include 17th-century botanical prints by Maria Sibylla Merian; works by British and Irish women silversmiths from the 17th–19th centuries; and 500 artists’ books from 1970 to the present. The collection spans many mediums and features paintings by Elisabetta Sirani, Berthe Morisot, Suzanne Valadon and Alma Thomas; sculpture by Sarah Bernhardt, Dorothy Dehner, Barbara Hepworth, Louise Nevelson, Magdalena Abakanowicz and Chakaia Booker; drawings and works on paper by Elisabeth-Louise Vigée-Lebrun, Mary Cassatt, Käthe Kollwitz and Elizabeth Catlett; photographs by Gertrude Käsebier, Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Nan Goldin and Justine Kurland; and videos by Dara Birnbaum, Pipilotti Rist and Mwangi Hutter. Other artists represented include: Louise Bourgeois, Lola Alvarez Bravo, Rosalba Carriera, Louisa Courtauld, Petah Coyne, Elaine de Kooning, Rineke Dijkstra, Lesley Dill, Helen Frankenthaler, Marguerite Gérard, Nancy Graves, Grace Hartigan, Frida Kahlo, Angelica Kauffman, Lee Krasner, Marie Laurencin, Judith Leyster, Hung Liu, Maria Martinez, Joan Mitchell, Gabriele Münter, Alice Neel, Sarah Miriam Peale, Lilla Cabot Perry, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Rachel Ruysch, Joan Snyder and Lilly Martin Spencer.
To fulfill its mission of educating the public about the artistic accomplishments of women, the museum presents education and public programs for all age groups. NMWA’s signature Art, Books, and Creativity (ABC) initiative is a model for integrating the visual arts into the core curriculum while maintaining a specific focus on the contributions of women artists to our shared cultural history. ABC reaches local and national school audiences through annual Summer Teacher Institutes and free curriculum and resources delivered via the web (http://artbookscreativity.org/). Intergenerational programs for youths and families emphasize active learning. For adults, NMWA offers Shenson Chamber Music Concerts, film screenings and discussions, art history lectures, literary readings and drop-in gallery talks. In partnership with area universities NMWA presents occasional symposia and panel discussions related to women artists and art. NMWA’s Tour Program serves the learning needs of youth and adult visitors. For visitors who prefer to explore on their own, we offer See For Yourself packets, which contain information related to works of art in the collection and special exhibitions. We also offer Guide By Cell audio guides for selected exhibitions and plan to extend this offering to include collection highlights.
Library and Research Center
The Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center collects material, provides access to information, assists research and creates new avenues for exploring the topic of women artists from all time periods and nationalities. The library is open to the public, and library staff members provide research and reference services in person, over the phone and through email. The library has a foundational collection of nearly 16,000 books on women artists, an Archives of Women Artists with artist files and artists’ personal papers, and an institutional archive dedicated to preserving the museum’s history. Archival collections include correspondence from Frida Kahlo, drawings by Doris Lee and the palette and brush of Eulabee Dix. The library creates rotating exhibitions which make the library a destination for museum visitors. These exhibitions showcase the library’s special collections material and provide visitors the opportunity to discover and interpret primary source research material. In order to strengthen the amount of quality research on women artists, the library also manages the $50,000 Mellor Prize. The Mellor Prize is given annually to the best proposal that disseminates the highest quality of groundbreaking research on women artists from any time period and country of origin.
The museum presents exhibitions that feature works from museums and collections around the world. Highlights include: The Magic of Remedios Varo (2000), The Imperial Collection: Women Artists from the State Hermitage Museum (2003), Nordic Cool: Hot Women Designers (2004), Berthe Morisot: An Impressionist and Her Circle (2005), Dreaming Their Way: Australian Aboriginal Women Painters (2006), Italian Women Artists from Renaissance to Baroque (2007), Role Models: Feminine Identity in Contemporary American Photography (2008), Mary Cassatt Friends and Family (2008), Fashion Forward: Photographs by Louise Dahl-Wolfe (2009), Mary McFadden: Goddesses (2009), A Dream … But not Yours: Contemporary Art from Turkey (2010), New York Avenue Sculpture Project: Niki de Saint Phalle (2010), Chakaia Booker (2012) and Magdalena Abakanowicz (2014), Royalists to Romantics: Women Artists from the Louvre, Versailles, and Other French National Collections (2012), Women Who Rock: Vision, Passion, Power (2012), American People, Black Light: Faith Ringgold’s Paintings of the 1960s (2013), “Workt by Hand”: Hidden Labor and Historical Quilts (2014) and Total Art: Contemporary Video (2014).
National and International Programs
In 1984, the museum created its network of national and international committees. NMWA currently has 18 outreach committees with more than 2,000 dedicated members throughout the United States and around the world and continues to expand its network to include new groups. The committees host regional programs and serve as ambassadors for the museum.
Women, Arts, and Social Change
Women, Arts, and Social Change (WASC) is a bold new platform at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, composed of programs highlighting the power of women and the arts as catalysts for change. Programs feature convenings of women from a range of disciplines—people whose socially-conscious ideas are reshaping lives and economies, engaging communities, and empowering women.
The initiative’s signature program series, FRESH TALK, assembles prominent women in the arts with individuals outside their fields for creative conversations on art, gender, equity, the environment, identity, education, health, social and economic opportunity, and more. FRESH TALK champions women through the arts, a core value at the heart of the museum’s mission, and progressively advocates for social change. WASC also features Cultural Capital sessions—a platform for building community connections through collaborations with area organizations.
Funding and Membership
NMWA is a private, not-for-profit organization that is funded through memberships, individual contributions, foundation grants, corporate sponsorships, government grants, facility rentals and retail sales. NMWA members, 16,000 strong, come from all over the United States and 22 other countries. Membership pulls the largest number of members from California, Virginia, Maryland, New York, the District of Columbia, Florida, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Texas, Illinois and New Jersey.
Location, Hours, and Admission
NMWA is located at 1250 New York Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C., in a landmark building near the White House. It is open Monday–Saturday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. and Sunday, noon–5 p.m. For information, call 202-783-5000 or visit nmwa.org. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for visitors 65 and over and students, and free for NMWA members and youths 18 and under. Free Community Days take place on the first Sunday of each month.