The Newly Reopened NMWA Offers a Museum-Going Experience Powered by Advocacy

The National Museum of Women in the Arts opened its doors late last month with all new exhibitions and a new take on its permanent collection.

After being closed to the public for nearly two years for a $70 million renovation project, the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) has reopened with improved research facilities, enhanced accessibility and several thousand more square feet for displaying art. But NMWA is not a place for a stuffy historical survey kept at arm’s length; it’s an institution with a living, breathing—and very much growing—canon. History and the cutting edge play together here, whether in the newly installed technology in a historic building or the massive red Joana Vasconcelos chandelier of glass, LEDs and crocheted wool hanging within sight of twin marble staircases in the mezzanine of the Classical Revival-style building.

A modern museum gallery is photographed at a wide angle. It features several inset bays in which art of various sizes and mediums is hung. In the foreground, a marble sculpture depicts an abstracted, voluptuous figure with a pregnant belly. The figure is covered in bright patterns and posed stepping forward, with raised, outstretched arms.
Collection galleries at the National Museum of Women in the Arts; Photo by Jennifer Hughes, courtesy of NMWA. Photographer: Jennifer Hughes

Kathryn Wat, the NMWA’s deputy director for art, programs, and public engagement and the museum’s chief curator, told Observer that the institution is offering something both visually stimulating and provocative that lets visitors experience works in a new way. “Maybe you wouldn’t think to pair this with that historical work, but what do you think about that other pairing—what did these two things say to you?” she said. “We’re asking a bit of our visitors, but what I’ve heard before about our presentations is that people are excited by being a little challenged and us offering something unexpected.”

NMWA bills itself as “the first museum in the world solely dedicated to championing women through the arts.” It stands as a direct answer to perennial questions like: Do we really need women’s exhibitions? Do we really need women-centric exhibitions, museums, programming and advocacy in the art world?

The common rejoinder when it comes to spaces like NMWA is that we should simply show the best art, as opposed to limiting collections and exhibitions to art created by artists of a certain group. The implication is that spaces like NMWA elevate works that are somehow less than, ignoring the very real obstacles marginalized artists face. Walking through the renewed NMWA, it’s hard to imagine anyone arguing that this work, by the likes of Frida Kahlo, Mary Cassatt, Amy Sherald, and Louise Bourgeois, doesn’t belong in a prestigious, national-level museum.

Museum visitors observe artworks hanging on the royal blue walls of a small gallery bay. Paintings of various sizes are on display, and small sculptures are in a glass case.
Collection galleries at the National Museum of Women in the Arts; Photo by Jennifer Hughes, courtesy of NMWA. Photographer: Jennifer Hughes

With 40 percent of the pieces on view for the first time, it’s also hard to argue with NMWA’s unique position in the art landscape and what it can offer artists and visitors. The curatorial team at NMWA is fully aware of the power they wield to elevate the status of art and artists with their acquisitions and exhibitions. Their role is not just to show and conserve art; it’s also one of advocacy, to a greater degree than many other institutions. Wat says, “In terms of Contemporary Art, I really see this museum as a partner to work with artists today, and that’s a great privilege for us.”

A modern museum gallery is photographed at a wide angle. Large paintings and sculptures are on display. Visitors observe a life-size sculpture of a horse, facing left with its neck and head bent down. The horse appears to be made of many sticks of driftwood that are different shades of gray, different textures, and different lengths, all coming together to form a sculpture that evokes a horse’s movement.
Collection galleries at the National Museum of Women in the Arts; Photo by Jennifer Hughes, courtesy of NMWA. Photographer: Jennifer Hughes

NMWA is not the place to get a history lesson on women’s art, and despite the “national” in the name, the museum doesn’t limit itself to art by artists from the United States. It is, however, a great place to take in a wide variety of art made by women. There is an overall weighting towards Modern and Contemporary, though there are noteworthy works from other periods. “Remix: The Collection” is not broken down chronologically or by movement. Rather, the reinstalled permanent collection is presented thematically. Sometimes the topic areas are colors (red and violet); at other times they are a medium, like photography; and still others present subject matter, such as “Home, Maker,” “Elemental,” and “Landmarks.” The section on textiles is a welcome inclusion, given its association with women and the short shrift textile art is usually given by critics and institutions. The “Heavyweights” section, which “confounds expectations that women work on a smaller, more delicate scale than their male counterparts” is particularly strong, with work by Chakaia Booker, Judy Chicago and Deborah Butterfield. Highlights from the reinstallation include works by Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, Delita Martin, Niki de Saint Phalle, Berthe Morisot, Mildred Thomspon and Lalla Essaydi.

“The Sky’s the Limit,” the inaugural special exhibition of this redesign, feels like a special treat. Making use of the building’s new movable walls and hanging system, it encompasses contemporary sculpture and immersive installations from the last twenty years—the kind of large-scale or difficult-to-accommodate work that is often reserved for art fairs or one or two spots in larger exhibitions. It’s great to see so much bold work by women in one place, as it spills out onto the floor, sprawls across the ceiling, tinkles in the breeze or calls into question the very nature of the gallery walls themselves. On view through February of 2024, the exhibition includes thirty-three works by thirteen artists, including Yuriko Yamaguchi, Ursula von Rydingsvard, Rina Banerjee, Alison Saar, Sonya Clark and Johanna Unzueta.

A modern museum gallery is photographed at a wide angle. A visitor observes framed artworks on the walls to the left. To the right of the visitor, a large mixed media painting shows a downtrodden woman walking with a hulking load of corn on her back. Several birds stand at her feet.
“Hung Liu: Making History”, (installation view); Photo by Jennifer Hughes, courtesy of the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Photographer: Jennifer Hughes

At this moment in time, how one defines a woman is unfortunately a contentious issue—one that has led to savage debate as LGBTQ people find themselves in the crosshairs of legislation and an unprecedented wave of violence. NMWA looks to artists to self-define gender, welcoming work by cis women, transgender women and non-binary artists alike (one standout is a warm, emotive photograph by South African non-binary visual artist Zanele Muholi). In practice, that means there are LGBTQ artists in the collection, but you might not realize that if all you have to go on are the museum’s presented materials. There are times when queerness and queer history would be natural to include but remained unspoken. For example, in the “Remix: the Collection” section exploring the history of the color purple in the women’s movement, the omission of the “lavender menace” was glaring.

Being in a space like NMWA, it’s overwhelming to continually remember that there’s no work by men in the galleries—a very different experience from that of scouring a museum for the precious few works by women and non-binary artists. While the road ahead may seem long, how will we know when the work is actually done, when we no longer need exclusive exhibitions and art spaces so badly? I pose this question to Wat, who answers: “I guess when we stop talking about it, then we know that we’ve reached it. When it’s just everyday business that there’s tremendous variety, diversity and depth in every museum’s presentation and collection.”

The Newly Reopened NMWA Offers a Museum-Going Experience Powered by Advocacy