NMWA’s collecting practices have significantly diversified the art world since 1987
June 22, 2020
Words: Cara Ober
It’s much easier to have discerning taste after an artist has achieved global recognition than it is to discover new talent. Although the historic role of museums is to collect and preserve the best artwork of their time for future generations, the process for acquiring new artwork is secretive, insular, and in most cases, risk-averse. This is why 85.4 percent of the works in collections of major museums are by white artists and 87.4 percent are by men, according to a 2019 study produced by Williams College and UCLA.
Recognizing new talent and elevating the careers of diverse artists has not been a priority for museum acquisition committees, who tend to select the same globally vetted artists as other museums. This was one reason that I was intrigued when the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) acquired a portrait by Amy Sherald in 2012. Her painting, “They Call Me Redbone but I’d Rather Be Strawberry Shortcake” (2009) was donated to the museum by Baltimore-based gallerist and collector Steven Scott. Scott is a longtime NMWA supporter who has donated 145 works and earmarked another 113 to give to the museum in the years ahead. For over thirty years, Scott has worked closely with NMWA curators to identify the pieces that will elevate and strengthen its holdings.
If you are familiar with the DC-based museum, it is not surprising that it was the first to publicly collect Sherald’s paintings, along with works by so many others like Carrie Mae Weems, Chakaia Booker, and Judy Chicago, and often long before they became globally renowned artists. An artist’s first museum acquisition is always the most difficult to achieve, and NMWA has been radical and revolutionary in its willingness to collect the work of undervalued and underappreciated artists by its very design, exclusively collecting art made by women since 1987.
After Sherald’s 2012 announcement, I made a point to visit the museum for the first time. Located near the White House in Washington, DC, NMWA is relatively new at just over thirty years old. It is the world’s only major museum solely devoted to women artists and has historically been well ahead of the art market in making new discoveries than more established museums because, quite simply, it had less money for acquisitions. Instead, NMWA had to create a global network of donors and volunteer-based outreach committees, collaborative supporters who all wanted to anchor the careers of women artists. As such, NMWA has been innovative and instrumental in building the careers of relatively unknown female artists into worldwide names.
Founded in 1981 and opened in 1987, NMWA now has a permanent collection of more than 5,500 objects, dating from the 16th century to the present, created by more than 1,000 artists. The total number is significantly smaller than most major encyclopedic museums—the BMA reports 95,000 objects with 7 percent by women; the National Gallery of Art reports 150,000 objects, and Artnet News reports that around 11 percent of 26 major US museums’ acquisitions over the last decade were artworks by women, so you can do the math. But NMWA’s percentage of women artists is 100 percent, so their total number of objects by women is relative to those of much larger institutions.
In addition to works by contemporary artists, NMWA owns special collections of 18th-century botanical prints, works by British and Irish women silversmiths from the 17th–19th centuries, and more than 1,000 artist books. Compared to more established DC- and Baltimore-based museums, NMWA has a relatively small budget for acquisitions, requiring it to be more cutting edge and more open to emerging artists than others.
“This museum has always done things in a different way,” says NMWA Director Susan Fisher Sterling, who began working as a contemporary curator at the museum the first year it opened. “You can be nimble, you can be creative, and our collecting can be more relationship-based rather than financially based. There is a freedom in that as well.”
Rather than a detriment, what you see in NMWA’s collection are insightful finds and ahead-of-the-curve discoveries, and a strong commitment to racial, gender, and LGBTQI diversity long before other museums took up this mantle. As a result, ingenious and revolutionary collecting practices have allowed NMWA to stay ahead of the art market and to participate in actively establishing the careers of women artists who wouldn’t normally be included in a museum’s collection.
For an artist like Sherald, inclusion in NMWA’s collection was a promise that her painting would appreciate in value because it would reside permanently alongside established artists like Joan Mitchell, Frida Kahlo, and Alma Thomas. Although Sherald was then relatively unknown outside of Baltimore, NMWA’s collection placed her firmly on the radar of other DC-based curators and museums, a turning point in her career and arguably paving the way for her 2016 win at the National Portrait Gallery’s Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, leading to her iconic 2018 official portrait of Michelle Obama.
More than any exhibition or platform, a museum acquisition is a perpetual guarantee that an artwork retains its value, a public certification for collectors to purchase with confidence. There is no more effective validation of one’s work, and no better way to demand that galleries, serious collectors, and other museums pay close attention to an artist’s output and career. (This is also why deaccessioning, or selling off collected works, is seen by many as a serious breach of ethics.)
Oftentimes museum acquisition committees are made up of donors and trustees who want their own private collections to elevate in price, as well as museum curators who select works based on their own ambitions, taste, and research. Rather than discovering new talent, or undervalued gems specific to their place and time, committees tend to focus on obvious purchases, artists already established as a global brand, despite the potential for their actions to elevate an undervalued artist’s career, or even the art of a region or community.
Rather than discovering new talent, or undervalued gems specific to their place and time, committees tend to focus on obvious purchases, artists already established as a global brand, despite the potential for their actions to elevate an undervalued artist’s career, or even the art of a region or community.
NMWA was founded by Wilhelmina Cole Holladay and her husband Wallace F. Holladay, a Georgetown-based couple who began collecting art by women in the 1970s, long before art historians started a dialogue around underrepresented groups in museum collections and major art exhibitions, and around the time of Linda Nochlin’s “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” essay from 1971.
After discovering Clara Peters, a 17th-century Flemish still life painter, in a museum in Vienna and then the Prado, the Holladays looked for her work but could not find it in American museums or art history texts. The couple decided to collect the work of women artists for the next twenty years and by 1980, they realized that their collection could fill a huge void in the art world. Wilhelmina Cole Holladay focused her energy and resources on founding a new museum, raising the necessary funding to showcase women artists, with her collection at its core.
According to NMWA, for its first five years, the museum functioned out of temporary offices and offered tours of the collection at the Holladay residence. In 1983, the museum purchased a 78,810-square-foot former Masonic Temple building near the White House and began renovation. In the spring of 1987, the museum opened the doors of its permanent location with the inaugural exhibition, American Women Artists, 1830–1930, a survey curated by feminist art historian Dr. Eleanor Tufts.
You would assume that this museum would open to great fanfare, given the abysmal numbers of women artists represented in permanent museum collections and major gallery shows, but this was not the case. Many feminists derided the museum’s existence, arguing that establishing a separate museum for women gave it a lesser “separate but equal” status and “ghettoized” female artists instead of being treated the same as male artists. And male art critics, conservatives, and misogynists claimed that the museum was frivolous and weak, offering artwork that was not equal to the work of male artists, and that it was overall unnecessary because a few contemporary women artists were finally achieving financial success in the art market.
“The National Museum of Women in the Arts is a virtuous bore. Until ten years ago, with a few resolute exceptions like Georgia O’Keeffe, Mary Cassatt and Louise Nevelson, women artists were shabbily treated by American museums and either omitted from their collections or treated as token presences,” wrote art critic Robert Hughes in Time magazine in 2001. “The idea that art by women was necessarily second rate lingered discreetly in some quarters through the ’70s. Today it is gone, at least in America. Did any American couple ever assemble a worse collection than the Holladays? Perhaps, but none that got their own museum.”
“There was so much controversy that it put the museum on the map,” says Sterling. “Mrs. Holladay wasn’t looking to be thrust into the limelight, but it’s what happened. And then the support started coming in, from people who cared about women and believed women artists were important and wanted to improve their stature in the art world.”
“I don't want to overuse the word radical. I don't think it's necessarily the most appropriate word for museums to use given the history and tradition of museums. At the same time, however, I do think within that context it is radical for museums like ours to choose to do it differently, even in the ways we are funding, collecting, preserving, and disseminating art made by women.
Susan Fisher Sterling, NMWA Director
While Hughes and others suggested the irrelevance of NMWA, the museum attracted a substantive core of women supporters—collectors, patrons, donors, and artists—who saw the need for such an institution and pledged their ongoing support to this museum. “We have many people who are engaged advocates of all different ages, men and women, some may not see themselves as feminists but believe in the ideals that helped make this museum happen.”
In thirty years, NMWA has continued to grow its collection, to offer ten major exhibitions each year, dynamic programming, and robust online content. One would assume that Wilhelmina Cole Holladay’s original question—where are all the women artists?—would have now become irrelevant, but current statistics do not reflect this. NMWA continues to advocate for better representation of women artists, addressing the gender imbalance by identifying talent early on in an artist’s career and exhibiting these works alongside significant women artists of the past few hundred years, acting as a catalyst for change within the larger context of museums but also within individual artists’ careers.
In 2020, a year when many other museums are showing support to women artists by collecting their work, NMWA has added more than 200 new works to its collection. “Additions to the museum’s collection over the past few months reflect NMWA’s commitment to sharing the fullest story of women and art as well as our supporters’ critical role in that effort,” reports Deputy Director of Arts, Programs and Public Engagement/Chief Curator Kathryn Wat. “There are so many examples of NMWA patrons who embrace our mission and step up to help us build our collection in exciting ways.”
Also in 2020, members of a collecting group called the Photography Buyers Syndicate donated 166 photographs by renowned photojournalist Mary Ellen Mark, an artist that NMWA has exhibited a number of times. “The story of women and photography is one we especially love to share at NMWA since women were among the pioneers of the medium in the 19th century. The supporters who donated these photographs to our collection are our partners in telling that story,” says Wat.
Another group of museum patrons reached out to say they wanted to purchase three large-scale photographs by Rania Matar, part of their Live Dangerously exhibition in 2019-20, and the museum also acquired one of Delita Martin’s stunning large-scale portraits that mix printing, drawing, collage, and stitching, from her recent museum solo exhibition after one museum patron established a fund to support the museum’s work with emerging contemporary artists.
Another 2020 acquisition came about after a museum patron fell in love with a six-foot-long chandelier made of crocheted wool and Murano glass by Joana Vasconcelos while visiting Venice for the Biennale. The patron was aware that NMWA’s collection already includes a work by Vasconcelos and that the museum has exhibited her work several times, and the patron purchased it on the spot. “She knew that Vasconcelos’s unabashedly flamboyant work aligns with NMWA’s aim—to champion the inclusion of women in the art establishment, and to celebrate their experiences in a multitude of diverse manifestations,” says Wat.
It shouldn’t be considered radical or visionary for a museum to exclusively collect the art by women, but given the current abysmal statistics around collecting practices, it is worth celebrating. “I don’t want to overuse the word radical,” cautions Sterling. “I don’t think it’s necessarily the most appropriate word for museums to use given the history and tradition of museums. At the same time, however, I do think within that context it is radical for museums like ours to choose to do it differently, even in the ways we are funding, collecting, preserving, and disseminating art made by women.”
Although 2020 is turning out to be an incredibly difficult year for artists and museums, NMWA continues to collect art and disseminate information via a robust network of digital platforms developed over the past decade as well as successful social media campaigns including #5womenartists on Instagram, for which the museum just won a Webby Award, and a series of online programs called Art Chats @ Five, which feature small group discussions about a few works of art, similar to the weekly gallery talks they usually offered at the museum.
What does the future of collecting hold for NMWA? “I feel that there are more women artists in history than we know about, and so we are always looking for new artists who should be a part of the historical record,” Sterling says. “We will continue to stay ahead of the curve, and not just to stay ahead of the curve, but because it’s still needed.”
“Going forward, our mission is not just about reinserting women into the history of art, but championing women in and through the arts,” Sterling continues. “This idea influences and impacts what we will choose to collect, who and what we decide to exhibit, and, perhaps most important for the future, how we can make it increasingly available to broader audiences. Our work at NMWA is very collaborative, and it’s all doable.”