NMWA Redux

I escaped my cares for two days in Washington, D.C., to attend the semi-annual National Advisory Board Meetings at The National Museum of Women in the Arts.

I traveled down by train, arriving in Washington’s magnificent Union Station. (To be honest, I was happy to be on a train going anywhere else.) Union Station is a cathedral of transportation if there ever was one.

The early November weather was spectacular, and I had the chance to walk around the city, enjoying the bright autumn light. St. John’s Episcopal Church in Lafayette Square looked particularly splendid, its buttery yellow stucco warmed by the afternoon sun.

The Occupy D.C. Protesters were camped out in McPherson Square, their raggedly tents forming a bright patchwork of color under the fall trees. One group of men gathered at the base of McPherson’s equestrian statue to play an impromptu drum concert.

Back at the National Museum of Women in the Arts all was activity as usual. The NMWA is a powerhouse among museums, as ‘the only museum in the world dedicated exclusively to recognizing the contributions of women artists’. The NMWA impresses by its commitment to furthering its mission by any and all avenues of ongoing outreach, not least through its multi-tiered involvement with other museums, artists, curators, collectors, and academics near and far. The NMWA is approaching its celebratory 25th Anniversary year, and there are many wonderful projects in the works. More on that.

As for the formal description of the unique mission of the NMWA: “To fulfill its mission, the museum cares for and displays a permanent collection, presents special exhibitions, conducts education programs, maintains a Library and Research Center, publishes a quarterly magazine and books on women artists, and supports a network of state and international committees. NMWA also serves as a center for the performing and literary arts and other creative disciplines.” The NMWA also has an enormous and loyal membership base, from all around the country, and all around the world. This is a particularly strong endorsement of the NMWA’s mission, for a museum of its relatively small size and 25 year track record.

Recent additions to the world famous collection, many of them gifts from devoted NMWA Patrons and committees, include works by Miriam Backstrom, Elena Brockmann, Dorothy Dehner, Anna Gaskell, Agnes Martin, Sam Taylor-Wood, Mickalene Thomas, Mary Vaux WalcottRose Wylie, and Catherine Yass, among them. These photographs, paintings, drawings, art books and sculptures join gorgeous works that span the centuries, from Lavinia Fontana‘s portraits of  the 1580’s, Rachel Ruysch‘s splendid botanical paintings from the mid-1700’s, to Angelica Kauffman (reputedly the most highly paid artist of her day) and Elizabeth Vigée-Lebrun’s mid-18th century portraits.

In one current exhibition, Trove: The Collection in Depth, the NMWA has taken works ranging throughout the entire time-line of the collection, and gathered them into five thematic groups, encompassing plants and animals, landscape, portraiture, family relationships, and memory. In this provocative exhibition the viewer finds Rachel Ruysch’s gorgeous  Roses, Convolvulus, Poppies and Other Flowers in an Urn on a Stone Ledge (ca. 1745) paired with a contemporary photograph, Vase of Flowers 1, by Amy Lamb, 1999, of a luxurious botanical arrangement designed to echo Dutch originals. (And for which, the curator shares with us, actual butterflies were chilled in a refrigerator, so that they would stay in place for a few seconds, to allow the photograph to be created at all.)

The NMWA’s collection teaches us a great deal about history as well as art (Hmmm, is that why they call it Art History?), and helps us to rediscover the ways that women have participated in the art world, and the unique stories they have told, through the centuries.

In honor of the NMWA’s 25th Anniversary celebrations in 2012, there are several landmark exhibitions in preparation.


The NMWA has announced that Chakaia Booker‘s intricate and layered sculptures, created from rubber tires, will be featured as the installation along the dedicated exhibition space, the New York Avenue Sculpture Project, outside the front doors of the museum.

Chakaia Booker is the second woman sculptor to be honored in this way, with a one-woman exhibition along D.C.’s New York Avenue. The first artist to be highlighted in this glorious public sculpture installation space has been Niki de Saint Phalle, in 2010-2011.

In 2012 the NMWA will also be opening the landmark French exhibition Royalists to Romantics: Women Artists from the Louvre, Versailles, and Other French National Collections. It is sure to be a blockbuster of an exhibition.

There is going to be so much to see, to learn and to enjoy during the NMWA’s 25th Anniversary year. Will I see you at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in 2012? I hope so.


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