Susan Fisher Sterling – Cracking the Painted Ceiling

The National Museum of Women in the Arts is the only – only – major museum in the world dedicated to celebrating the achievements of women artists. “Shocking!” said Susan Fisher Sterling, who has spent 27 years at the museum, the last six as director. “Besides institutions that may have a focus on a particular racial or ethnic background, most every other museum by the numbers would be seen as a man’s museum. What does that say about women in the cultural landscape? So the great thing about here, is being able to continually drive home that message that if you walk into this museum you may not look at the art and know it’s by women, but sooner or later it dawns on you that you are seeing names you haven’t seen before.”

NMWA’s current exhibit, Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea, which has won rave reviews (see our story), features many paintings by Orsola Maddalena Caccia, an Italian nun. And what happened during that exhibition underlines that NMWA is having an impact beyond its stone walls. The guest curator for Picturing Mary, Monsignor Timothy Verdon, who is director of the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo and canon of the Florence Cathedral, had not focused on Sister Caccia’s work before. Seeing her work in the exhibition had a profound influence on him. “My feeling is that Timothy, now that he is back in Florence, if he can find any women to include [in his exhibitions], he probably will,” Sterling said.

NMWA InteriorThat attention is exactly what the museum’s founder Wilhelmina Cole Holladay had in mind. In the 1960s, Holladay and her husband, Wallace, began acquiring works by women artists, pulling together what would become the core of the museum’s collection. She incorporated NMWA in 1981 as a private non-profit museum. The main building, originally a Masonic temple, was purchased in 1983 and eventually expanded with an adjacent property in 1993. The museum opened its doors in 1987 with its first exhibition, American Women Artists, 1830-1930. Located on New York Avenue, NW, the museum has been designated a Washington landmark.

Sterling became director in March 2008, and by October, the recession had hit, creating financial challenges for many non-profits. “Thanks to a very responsive founder and board, we knew what we needed to do,” said Sterling. “We made judicious cuts and we reorganized staff and the like, and we were able to rebound more quickly from the recession than a lot of other arts institutions because we were working in synch.”

Not only did NMWA survive, it thrived. Sterling noted that from 2008 to 2012, when the museum celebrated its 25th anniversary, the endowment doubled. “That really was board based from our various high dollar constituency groups but also our members, 770 people in all,” she said. “I can’t really tell you that there’s anything better than that.”

Picturing Mary

Elisabetta Sirani, Virgin and Child

That financial success has made possible high-dollar exhibitions like Picturing Mary. “You have to have four years of planning for a project like that,” explained Sterling. “There is a lot that goes into it. There’s a ton of advertising that has to go on to make sure that you actually engage the audience to come. If we weren’t positioned properly in 2012, we couldn’t be having this show in 2015. That’s a big deal.”

Sterling joined the NMWA in 1988 as an associate curator, was promoted to curator of modern and contemporary art in 1990, chief curator in 1994, and deputy director in 2001. She is credited with expanding the museum’s holdings in contemporary photography and photo-based art, abstract painting and sculpture, and feminist art. She is a powerful advocate not only for the museum, but also for the broader topic of women in the arts. And she’s part of a sea change in D.C. where women now head up nine major museums. “It used to be that women were only the heads of alternative spaces or smaller museums,” she said, adding that what is happening in Washington could become a model for the rest of the country.

Sterling is quick to point out what happens when women achieve positions of authority, citing Jen Mergel, the Beal Senior Curator of Contemporary Art at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. “The first time I met Jen, I threw my arms around her and congratulated her,” said Sterling. “We went through [the museum] and we counted 40 percent of the contemporary art in her installation was by women. And she told me it was conscious.”

While NMWA and other museums work to showcase women artists, there’s still a long way to go. Sterling noted that between 16 and 17 percent of women in business will become corporate CEO’s. “The same is true for women in galleries for one-person shows,” she said.“We are in a sense mirroring the stats.”

NMWA ExteriorThat challenge is what motivates Sterling. “We’re working within art history to change it,” she said. “In terms of contemporary artists, we’re really giving them the opportunity to have an exhibition so that they can establish themselves. Our goal ultimately is to make sure that we do our best by them so that in the future you don’t have this similar eroding of either their talent or the recognition of their talent.”

High on Sterling’s list is exploring the potential of NMWA’s brand, identifying the museum as an important, visible platform and supporter for women in the arts. “Mrs. Holladay’s goal was to collect women artists and show their contributions to the history of art; my goal is to carry that work forward for the next number of years with the idea that it’s much more about equity, excellence, and equality through excellence in the arts,” Sterling said. “So being able to take an original vision, something that no other museum in the world has done, because we are the sole museum of our type, and to be able to interpret that into contemporary terms, that is probably my biggest accomplishment at this point.”

Sterling draws inspiration from a trio of women – Lillie P. Bliss, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller and Mary Quinn Sullivan – who helped create the Museum of Modern Art with Alfred Barr. “When Abby Rockefeller put her money in, John D. Jr., her husband, who was putting money into The Cloisters, called the Museum of Modern Art `Abby’s folly.’” she said. “The Museum of Modern Art started to introduce this idea to the country and was the first small museum working its way up. Now you don’t even think of the fact that there are all these other modern art museums all around the world. And the Museum of Modern Art still does what it does. So if we can be that kind of beacon, or that sort of bullhorn, yeah, let’s do it.”

NMWA’s professional curatorial staff plans the exhibitions which can be either solo or group shows. Every five years or so, the museum will stage a humanities-based exhibition, like Picturing Mary, that takes up a theme about womanhood. “Once in a while we have male artists in a thematic exhibition if it makes sense to include them because their work dovetails,” she said.

sculpturesUpcoming shows include Organic Matters – Women to Watch 2015, calling upon women artists to “redefine the relationship of women, nature, and art by investigating the natural world – to fanciful and sometimes frightening effect.” Another exhibition, Super Natural, will have the artists engage with nature as a space for exploration and invention. One-woman shows will include Casting a Spell: Ceramics by Daisy Makeig-Jones, Vanessa Bell’s Hogarth Press Designs, and Doris Lee: American Painter and Illustrator. A current one-woman show, featuring the monumental bronzes by Magdalena Abakanowicz (above), is on view in the median of New York Avenue, NW, in front of the museum.

Lectures, films, and networking events are an important part of what the museum does. “We’ve found with a number of our programs that younger women in particular – even though they are very technological and very involved with social media – are really looking for that interactive engagement that only an audience kind of event can bring,” Sterling said. “We feel we’re perfectly positioned to be that kind of organization that allows younger women as well as older women to have that intense connection over issues that are important to women and girls.”

Gallery2Sterling is encouraged by the numbers of young women who are embracing the cause of promoting women in the arts, as witnessed by the 250 applicants NMWA receives each year for intern positions. And she doesn’t shy away from using the F-word – feminism – noting that young women are now embracing that movement. “When Beyoncé [performed] at the VMA Awards in 2014, at the end of her very sexy routine, was the word `feminism,’” she said. “That’s a woman in the arts, working with a new generation of people, to say feminism is OK. That one moment In front of 14 million viewers, probably did more for feminism than a lot of other things.”

Creating a close connection between women, the arts, and social change is something Sterling is passionate about. “Let me get on my soapbox,” she said with a laugh. “We looked at this really carefully, and we found that when people talk about the arts as being agents for social change, they forget the women. And when women talk about social change they forget the arts. So we’re the perfect place to make that mesh.”

1) Photo of Susan: Photo by Michele Mattei
2) Inside building: Photo by Tom Field
3) Botticelli: Elisabetta Sirani, “Virgin and Child,” 1663; Oil on canvas, 34 × 27 1/2 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C., Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; Conservation funds generously provided by the Southern California State Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts
4) Outside building: Photo by Tom Field
5) Outdoor sculpture: Magdalena Abakanowicz, “Walking Figures (group of 10),” 2009; Bronze, each approximately 106 ¼ x 35 ? x 55 ? in.; All images ? Magdalena Abakanowicz, Courtesy of Marlborough Gallery, New York
6) Gallery shot with two women: Photo by Dakota Fine

National Museum of Women in the Arts
1250 New York Avenue, NW
202-783-5000

About Charlene Giannetti (816 Articles)
Charlene Giannetti, editor of Woman Around Town, is the recipient of seven awards from the New York Press Club for articles that have appeared on the website. A graduate of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Charlene began her career working for a newspaper in Pennsylvania, then wrote for several publications in Washington covering environment and energy policy. In New York, she was an editor at Business Week magazine and her articles have appeared in many newspapers and magazines including the New York Times. She is the author of 12 non-fiction books, eight for parents of young adolescents written with Margaret Sagarese, including "The Roller-Coaster Years," "Cliques," and "Boy Crazy." She and Margaret have been keynote speakers at many events and have appeared on the Today Show, CBS Morning, FOX News, CNN, MSNBC, NPR, and many others. Her new book, "The Plantations of Virginia," written with Jai Williams, was published by Globe Pequot Press in February, 2017. Charlene divides her time between homes in Manhattan and Alexandria, Virginia.