In April 1987 the National Museum of Women in the Arts opened to fanfare and corresponding controversy. Its founder, Wilhelmina Cole Holladay, had a spartan, though burdensome, mission: to reinsert women into the history of art—even if “she never had the intention to create a museum,” as director Susan Fisher Sterling explains. Wedged between New York Avenue and 13th Street, two blocks from the White House, the 93,400-square-foot landmark building was originally a Masonic Temple, a space from which women were largely excluded and a fitting location for Holladay’s bold vision. “Our potential is very exciting,” she said at the time. “There’s a subconscious view on the part of the masses that all good works were done by men. But the museum will show to a wide public the many women artists who made great contributions, beyond the well-known names of Georgia O’Keeffe and Mary Cassatt.”
Yet from the moment the museum opened its doors, Holladay grappled with criticism from all sides. As Sterling says, “A new idea is always scary.” On the right, she was accused of politicizing art. Among feminists, she was indicted for isolating women from the broader art world. Others dismissed the effort as unserious. A New York Times article pegged to the opening quotes artist Miriam Schapiro: “Frankly, I’m ambivalent. I support such a museum because we need one to repair the historical omission of women’s place in cultural history. But in this there doesn’t seem to be a concise acquisition position and exhibition program. Also, it needs a staff of the highest quality and an active, rotating board of professional advisors. It seems to me the code word here is Junior League.”
Holladay cast the criticisms as wholly premature. “I’m a little angry that people have to come down on a side while the jury’s still out.”
Thirty-six years later, the museum’s objective has morphed in audacity, encompassing exposure plus equity. “We’re both a museum and a megaphone,” Sterling says. “If women are left out of the arts, what does that say about us in the larger social landscape?” A $67.5 million reimagining of the space, designed by Baltimore-based architectural firm Sandra Vicchio & Associates, will showcase the museum’s expanding ambitions.
“The renovation is transformative in that it will give us the building that we require,” Sterling says. “Every, every generation needs to see themselves in the art and the exhibitions of their time. And each generation sees it through different eyes, through different means, through different circumstances. If we are going to continue to be able to break down—and this is the intellectual part of this—the sort of the hierarchies of worth and value that are traditional, then we have got to be able to meet our audience where they are.”
Despite the building’s fixed footprint, Sandra Vicchio says she undertook the project intent that the museum’s mission would no longer “be bound by or constrained by a building.” With 15 percent more gallery space, it strikes a balance between long vistas, a spacious rotunda, and intimate alcoves. There’s also a new Learning Commons for hands-on workshops and an enhanced research library and performance hall. The renovation reflects the evolution of society and art, from expanding accessibility to embracing digital tools like QR codes to provide a more in-depth, educational experience for museum visitors. Chief curator Kathryn Wat says the two-year, top-to-bottom renovation “opens up every possibility” to exhibit the “infinite capacity” of women creators to make works across mediums and materials, varying approaches and techniques.
When the museum reopens on October 21, its inaugural exhibitions will exemplify the mission. Chief among them is “The Sky’s the Limit,” which will feature sculptures, large-scale works, and immersive installations created by 13 living women artists within the last two decades, while in “Antoinette Bouzonnet-Stella” 25 prints made by the eponymous artist in 1675 will be displayed for the first time in nearly 15 years. And, bridging the gap between past and present, “Hung Liu: Making History” will feature nine works by the late Chinese-born American artist, who drew inspiration from the four years she spent as a field laborer during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. An exhibition of artists’ books and a series of short films on artists at work will also be on view.
“What we were looking for from the renovation on the curatorial side was taking away a lot of limitations,” Wat says. “Artists work in such amazingly inventive ways. We wanted to be prepared to showcase all of that.” One way in which the museum will differ from typical permanent-collection curation is an emphasis on theme rather than temporality: Newer works will live alongside historical pieces. “We didn’t have to be bound by that trajectory or chronology of art,” Sterling explains, noting that women and people of color often see themselves left out. “This was a disservice to, as I like to call it, history moving forward.” Grouping work across time and space, she adds, “gives you relevance.”
Wat’s ultimate goal: that every visitor might “turn a corner and see something that they just never expected and really have their thinking about creative women expanded exponentially.”