This Museum Director Is Working to Make the Art World More Equitable For Women

The world's first museum dedicated solely to female-identifying artists shines a light on often-ignored work.

This story is part of Women of Impact, a National Geographic project centered around women breaking barriers in their fields, changing their communities, and inspiring action. Join the conversation in our Facebook group.

Over thirty years ago, there wasn’t one museum in the world focused solely on women artists. In the spring of 1987, when the National Museum of Women in the Arts opened its doors in Washington, D.C., that changed. From its start, the museum showcased the work of women artists from around the globe—and it remains committed to celebrating women in the visual, performing, and literary arts.

Museum director Susan Fisher Sterling has been working at the organization for three decades and helped expand its mission to include grassroots exhibitions and community outreach.

We sat down with Fisher Sterling in her office in the downtown Washington, where she talked about what it’s like to lead a ground-breaking artistic institution and what the future looks like for women in the arts.

How did you get here—what’s your origin story?

I'm an art historian by training, and I guess my founding mythology is that when I was in graduate school, I didn't have any courses on women artists. Not only did I not have any courses on women artists, but there were very few [female] artists who were featured in any of my classes.

I remember one time when I was with my professor in my field, which was modern and contemporary art, I suggested to him, “Couldn't we look at some of the women artists of abstract expressionism?” He said to me, “Oh, that would be good. We can add them in as comparative material.”

That's it?

That's it. “Comparative material.” So, my joke now, when I'm here at the women's museum, is occasionally we have men artists in our exhibitions and I usually call the men “comparative material.”

I know that at some basic level, I realized there was systemic discrimination related to women in the arts and, specifically for me, visual arts. It was only while I was working on my dissertation, which was on a male artist, that this museum opened. I realized that perhaps this was a place where things could be different.

Tell me about the museum's founding and mission.

Originally, the mission of the museum, according to our founder, [Wilhelmina Cole] Holladay, [was] reinserting women into the history of art. At the time that she founded the museum, there were so few women artists on the wall. You could count them on one hand. Something she would say, which would put everybody on notice: “Can they name three women artists?” As a little time went on and the museum became more established, she moved it up to “Can you name five women artists?” Our major social media campaign for Women's History Month was #5womenartists.

Over the museum’s 30-year history, has its mission changed?

About five or six years ago, we were working on an exhibition called “Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea” about the image of the Virgin Mary. When we were working on that show, there was this realization that there were men artists in the exhibition. Lots of them. There was also a sense that things were changing in terms of how we should look at the museum itself.

We went back to Mrs. Holladay's core principles of women and the arts—and the social action the museum took, which was to champion these women. We came up with a wider mission: to champion women through the arts.

What are some of the challenges you see facing the museum and women in the art world?

We know women artists make up somewhere between 2 and 7 percent of the art on the walls of most major museums. Now, we know that's partly due to history. The fact is, when you think about women artists historically, if they became a great artist, they were an exception to the rule, to their sex.

Frankly, you couldn't become an artist unless you came from an artistic family that understood it was okay for you to do this work. Women weren't allowed to study from the nude, so they couldn't work at the highest levels. It was a very long time until they could attend academies of art. Anyone who succeeded in a system that really wasn't for them was obviously an exception. We understand that historical and encyclopedic museums can't reach gender parity in that context.

What about challenges facing contemporary museums?

You’ll find there is a big gap. We like to [say] “oh, well you know, 25 percent of all the shows in major museums in New York recently were of women's work,” and that seems like a great gain from 4 percent or zero percent. That still means 75 percent of shows are art by men.

Fifty-one percent of artists are women. We recognize there are strides we've made, but there's still a long way to go.

Does this gap extend into the art market?

The art market is probably the hardest place to break into in a major way. Of the top 100 artists with sales last year, I believe only two were women—[Yayoi] Kusama and [Louise] Bourgeois. That tells you that the art market still does not value women artists the way it values men.

I wonder what those figures would be if there wasn't a National Museum of Women in the Arts?

We wonder that, too. I don't know if there will always be other women's museums around the country or around the world, but even if we're the only women's museum ever, we'll always have lots of contemporary women artists to show. And we will always have an illustrious history because, along with many others who work in this field, we helped to create that history.

You have to reclaim and create your own history. It's one of the things we know. Otherwise, no matter where you come from, it will be forgotten.

What does the future hold for the museum?

As we move forward, we are trying to concentrate on having a collection that's more representative of women of color. The statistics of women of color are even harder to find, and the statistics are dismal. Other museums are starting to think about that, too, but I think we can make a difference in that arena as we did originally showing women in the arts.

Not only does the museum recognize those underrepresented voices, in terms of race and gender, but it is also proactive in giving them a platform to be seen and heard.

Right. And I should be very specific about this: We’re talking about women artists and those who identify as women. That’s a difference, probably, that’s much more contemporary. If you self-identify, then that works for us.

What advice would you give to an aspiring woman artist?

Be very clear about your priorities. Whether you are an artist who goes through the educational system or you’re a self-taught artist who just feels that need to create, understand that the medium you choose is part of your soul. As one of my artist friends says, “Be workmanlike in your attitude.” Work all the time, or as much you feel you can and still maintain a life for yourself. Get networked to the greatest extent you possibly can. Understand that, like in any career, it takes times to build. Don’t become disappointed.

Also, try very hard to create a community around yourself so you are nested. You’re a solitary worker for the most part. It’s important to be alone with your art, but you don’t want to be alone all the time, so build that community. You have to have the sense that you are a part of something bigger than yourself.

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