By AUDREY FISCHER
To honor “the originality, beauty, imagination and multiple dimensions of women’s lives,” the National Women’s History Project has chosen “Women’s Art: Women’s Vision” as the 2008 theme for National Women’s History Month in March. Who better to deliver the keynote address for the Library’s month-long celebration than an official from the National Museum of Women in the Arts?
Located at 1250 New York Ave. N.W. in Washington, D.C., the museum was founded in 1981 and opened its doors to the public in 1987. “We’re very excited about finally turning 21,” said Deborah L. Gaston, the museum’s director of education, who spoke at the Library on March 19.
The historic building that houses the museum is the site of a former Masonic Temple, which would not have allowed women on the premises.
“We like the irony,” quipped Gaston.
The museum owes its creation to two art collectors and an obscure 16th-century female artist. The museum’s founders, Wilhelmina Cole Holladay and Wallace F. Holladay, began collecting art in the 1960s for their Washington, D.C., home. In a gallery in Vienna, they came upon a still-life by Flemish artist Clara Peeters (1589–1657). Several days later, they saw another painting by the same artist in the Prado in Madrid. Subsequent research in standard art history textbooks such as H.W. Janson’s “History of Art” did not mention Peeters or any other women artists. The glaring omission prompted the couple to concentrate on rediscovering and collecting art by women, thereby giving them a much-needed focus for their collecting.
After acquiring 500 pieces by 300 women artists, including “Still Life of Fish and Cat” by Clara Peeters, the Holladays clearly needed a home for their collection and planning began for the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Today the museum houses 3,600 items by 900 women from 30 countries, from the Renaissance to the present. The museum’s database of 18,000 women artists is aptly named “Clara.”
“We are seeking to recover the names of women who have fallen out of history,” said Gaston, who treated the audience to a slide show of works by a diverse group of female artists who are represented in the museum’s collection. From Suzanne Valadon (1865–1938), a French artist, whose work “The Abandoned Doll” was painted in 1921, to Iranian-born photographer Shirin Neshat, who considers herself a “global citizen,” the artists are hardly household names.
One exception is Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (1907–1954), whose life is the subject of numerous books and a Hollywood film. [On March 13, in honor of women’s history month, the Library of Congress presented the 2002 film “Frida” starring Salma Hayek].
“Frida Kahlo’s reputation has continued to grow and she has attained iconic status,” said Gaston.
Gaston encouraged everyone to visit the museum in person or online at www.nmw.org, adding, “Every month is women’s history month at the museum.”