National Museum of Women in the Arts Reopens, Expanding Its Galleries and the Canon

The National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. closed in August 2021 for renovations and an expansion, and has now reopened to a very different country. In that two-year interval, abortion rights were severely curtailed, murder rates for trans women have shot up, and fears of a Handmaid’s Tale–like future have become pervasive. Keeanga-Yamahatta Taylor got right to the point when she wrote, in the New Yorker, “Without the ability to control when, where, how, and if one chooses to become pregnant or give birth, no other freedom can be achieved.”

I thought of this remark while looking at Niki de Saint Phalle’s Pregnant Nana (1995), the work that greets viewers in the newly enlarged permanent collection galleries of this museum. The sculpture depicts a buoyant female figure, her bared nipples replaced with a heart and an asterisk. She seems to be enjoying the moment, her hands held above her head—but her tumescent belly features a multicolored target, hinting that she is also the object of someone else’s violent gaze.

“I’m not the person who can change society, except through showing some kind of vision of these happy, joyous, domineering women,” de Saint Phalle once said. “That’s all I can do.” The curators of the National Museum of Women in the Arts seem to have resigned themselves to something similar.

Across this museum’s galleries, there are reminders of the dour situation that has long faced women across history. There are stark Guerrilla Girls prints reminding viewers of how under-represented women have been in art institutions throughout history—something that also becomes a refrain in the wall text for works by Old Masters just starting to get their due, like Rachel Ruysch and Lavinia Fontana. There are pieces that allude to centuries of racism and colonialism, and plenty of artworks that deal with loss and sickness, too.

The National Museum of Women in the Arts’s new permanent collection galleries are presented non-chronologically.

Photo Jennifer Hughes/Courtesy National Museum of Women in the Arts

But the focus is instead mostly on freedom, with few works explicitly alluding to the danger of being a woman in the US today. Generally, the mood is celebratory and light.

Sandra Parsons Vicchio, the architect behind the $65 million renovation, has aided in creating the sense of levity by getting rid of columns that broke up space and opening up the galleries. (Crucial but slight changes, such as the addition of another ramp outside, have ensured that the museum is a lot more accessible than it used to be as well.) In the process, Vicchio has also added 4,500 square feet of space to the 36-year-old museum, enabling it to present bigger pieces than it used to.

“The Sky Is the Limit,” one of the special exhibitions on view, shows off the museum’s ability to be nimbler when it comes to oversized work. A jaw-dropper of a work by Alison Saar, the 2012 sculpture Undone, depicts a seated Black woman affixed to an area close to a gallery’s ceiling; her sheer dress tumbles around 15 feet down to the floor, concealing within an aluminum tree that extends from her crotch. Sonya Clark’s Curls (2005) features spirals formed from black plastic combs that are hung up high and allowed to pile on the floor, where they kink into the very curls these objects are meant to contain. An entire sunlit gallery is given over to works by Ursula von Rydingsvard, whose carved-wood assemblages rise high above viewers’ heads.

Alison Saar, Undone, 2012.

Photo Jennifer Hughes

Yet even the modest works are given new life in the rehung permanent collection galleries on the museum’s third floor, whose walls have also been reorganized to allow for more openness. Rather than presenting things chronologically, however, the museum is exhibiting its collection thematically, crossing temporal, geographical, and racial borders in the process. Doing so creates a sense of togetherness, an idea foregrounded by one of the treasures of this museum’s collection: the vast May Stevens group portrait SoHo Women Artists (1977–78), in which critic Lucy Lippard, artist Miriam Schapiro, and local legend and bakery owner Signora d’Appolito converse, recalling the form of Neoclassical history paintings.

The themes by which these works are grouped—photography by women is one—are too vague to have a lasting impact on viewers. Yet the dialogues formed by them are unforced and frequently illuminating, even if they are rarely foregrounded.

When art-historical conversations are underlined, the results do impress. In one gallery, there is a 2007 Sharon Core photograph of a split-open cake hung above a quaint still life showing plump fruits and pointy shells by Giovanna Garzoni, a lesser-known painter active in 16th-century Italy. This pairing shows that across the years, from the Renaissance to now, women have always commandeered genres considered—at least within history books—to be male-dominated, even when few others took notice.

When Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay founded the National Museum of Women in the Arts in 1981 as a private museum, many of the artists on view would not have been nearly so famous as they are now. Visiting the museum today, when it is now a public institution, is a reminder of just how many masterworks it has been able to show as a result—there are truly major pieces by Remedios Varo, Alma Thomas, Berthe Morisot, Rosa Bonheur, and Faith Ringgold, whose stars have risen in recent years. Yet the museum in its new form also demonstrates that it remains a font of art-historical figures in need of recognition.

Clara Peeters, Still Life of Fish and Cat, after 1620.

National Museum of Women in the Arts

One could fawn over many gems on view. There is a drop-dead gorgeous abstraction of smeary pinks and whites by Emily Kame Kngwarreye, an Anmatyerre painter whose work remains far more famous in Australia than it is here. There is a landscape by Lois Mailou Jones that out-Cézannes Cézanne, offering a view of the Pyrénées created from clustered-together cathedrals and slanted roofs. There is a remarkable black-on-black vessel by Maria and Julian Martinez, who created it by relying upon knowledge from her Pueblo ancestors that was thought by historians to be lost; the clay used to make it was sourced from near her New Mexico home.

This is a museum that has heeded the call to diversify the canon, centering many Asian, Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and Latin American artists whose work has long been set aside at its margins. When it comes to queering that canon, however, there’s still a good amount of work to be done.

There are some lesbian artists represented here. Mildred Thompson has a blazing yellow abstraction that appears to contain a bursting orb, and Harmony Hammond has a puckered painting that recalls a black seat cushion. Thompson sometimes depicted Black lesbians in her work, and Hammond literally wrote the book on lesbian art history, but you would not know any of that from the wall text, which does not mention either artist’s queerness.

Zanele Muholi, Katlego Mashiloane and Nosipho Lavuta, Ext. 2, Lakeside, Johannesburg, 2007.

©Zanele Muholi/Courtesy the artist and Yancey Richardson, New York/National Museum of Women in the Arts

More generally, there is almost no work that explicitly refers to lesbianism at all. This is a near-omission made all the more disturbing because it mirrors a lacuna in the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s rehung contemporary art galleries, located not far from this institution.

At least one nonbinary artist is on hand: the South African photographer Zanele Muholi, whose art is given pride of place, between a Frida Kahlo painting and a portrait of Wilhelmina Halladay. It is the one explicitly queer art at the museum right now, with a view of two beatific lesbians looking off into the distance, smiling despite living in a place where their community has found a lot to be rightfully angry about. But there are no trans artists to be found, resulting in a lopsided view of womanhood.

Faith Ringgold, American Collection #4: Jo Baker’s Bananas, 1997.

©1997 Faith Ringgold/Photo Lee Stalsworth/National Museum of Women in the Arts

Can liberation be achieved for all when some bodies matter more than others? The question is left open by this museum—and even broached by certain works on view within it.

One such work is María Verónica San Martín’s Mujeres Buscadoras, Fragmentary Memory, Chile, from 2023. It is on view in a small survey of artists’ books in the refurbished special exhibition galleries, though that belies the fact that its text is printed on handkerchiefs. These hankies are a reference to the ones Chilean women waved to mourn the dead under the Pinochet regime, which banned such traditional displays of grief. Some lie draped around a felt container that also holds bags of sand. A small shovel awaits a user willing to dig further, exhuming those who have been kept out of view.