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A Unique Art Museum That Shows Only Work by Women

It may be the only museum of its kind in the world. The National Museum of Women in the Arts was established 25 years ago to show the work of women artists from across the centuries and around the globe. While its original collection was primarily European and American painting, increasingly, it’s showcasing the work of non-Western artists. And its leaders say that women artists still face barriers today that give the Museum continuing relevance.

Wilhelmina Holladay, the wife of a Washington, D.C. builder, was traveling in Europe with her husband in the 1960s when they first saw the work of a 17th century painter named Clara Peeters. Although the Holladays were both schooled in art history, neither had ever heard of Peeters.

“And when we came home, we took out all of our sourcebooks, and we discovered there wasn't one woman in any of our sourcebooks,” Mrs. Holladay said in an interview at her home in Washington. “I'd worked at the National Gallery of Art when I was young, so I went down and found a little bit of information, but not much. So we decided that there was this gap in the history of art, because we knew there had been women painting successfully in their day, there had to be. So, that's how we decided to collect work by women."

The Holladays' collection grew to include work by many recognized masters, such as French painters Rosa Bonheur and Berthe Morisot, and Americans Mary Cassatt and Georgia O'Keefe. Yet even by the late 1970s, major museums and galleries still rarely showed work by women. And so an idea that had seemed like a joke at first, Mrs. Holladay says, became increasingly serious: to use the collection to found a National Museum of Women in the Arts. Established in 1981, the museum opened its doors in this imposing building in downtown Washington six years later.

“When I first came to work for the National Museum of Women in the Arts, I actually thought the museum might be able to cease to exist in 10 or 15 years,” says chief curator and deputy director Susan Fisher Sterling. “I thought that maybe women artists would become recognized in such a way that you would no longer need a museum of this type. But it's almost 20 years now, and times haven't changed that much."

Fisher Sterling says that women artists today still are undervalued and under-exhibited -- which makes the museum a revelation to many of its visitors. “When someone comes into the museum and takes a look at the work we have here, the first impression we have is not, 'Wow, these are paintings by women, I can tell based on the way they look'," she says. “Instead, it's, ‘Gosh, I never knew there were so many women artists, how come I never heard about these people before?'"

Painters like Judith Leyster, Elisabetta Sirani and Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun had been important in Europe in the 1500s through the 1700s, working for kings, queens and Roman popes. But when they died, they were soon forgotten. “It's only in the last, say, 40 years that women artists have become important enough as a subject for study that we've been able to resurrect their reputations,” says Susan Fisher Sterling. “And that's one of the main purposes of the museum at its inception, to rediscover women artists and put their works on the walls."

Alice Neel's Women, a recent show at the Museum, featured a painter whose 60-year career exemplifies the struggle of women artists in the last century. For many years, Alice Neel's work was little-appreciated, says Susan Fisher Sterling, in part because she was a figurative painter at a time when abstract expressionism held sway. Neel painted New York artists and intellectuals, and members of her own family, always with a penetrating but understanding eye. As critic Charlotte Willard wrote, “Even fully clothed, Neel's sitters appear naked before us in their vulnerability, their bewilderment, their self-concern, their resignation."

The National Museum of Women in the Arts has previously featured work by Latin American and Arab artists, and upcoming shows will bring Korean and aboriginal Australian women's art to the capital. Founder Wilhelmina Holladay says she hopes such shows will increase international understanding, and help the careers of female artists around the world. “I think probably an equal amount of creative talent is born in both men and women,” she says. “Opportunities to develop that talent have differed – greatly.”