It’s been dazzling to watch the transformation of the National Museum of Women in the Arts. It started in 2014 with “Total Art,” a straightforward and satisfying show of video artworks by 10 contemporary women artists, including rising stars (Alex Prager) and longtime favorites (Pipilotti Rist). The wave continued that year with a sharp new projection by Soda_Jerk, a two-person collective. With “Super Natural” and “Organic Matters,” two broad group shows examining the relationship between women and nature, the National Museum of Women in the Arts all but announced its new direction: as a significant voice in contemporary art in Washington, D.C. This change is a long time in coming. True, over this span, the museum also mounted “Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea,” a traditional show whose only real flaw was that it contained no contemporary visions of Mary (as a woman of color, for example, or an abstract concept). Notwithstanding the occasional blockbuster, the National Museum of Women in the Arts is dedicating more and more space and recognition to women who are practicing art today, at a time when gallery and museum exhibitions alike are still dominated by men.
Museums in D.C. have mixed records on showing art by both sexes. At the Phillips Collection, the American and European masterworks hanging on the walls are overwhelmingly artworks by men, but the museum’s contemporary-projects series, “Intersection,” features many more women than men. The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden has a decent record on showing new works by women, although its collection is also a men’s club. Women simply don’t rank at the National Gallery of Art. So the National Museum of Women in the Arts serves as an important balance to these institutions. It’s like Ruth Bader Ginsburg says: How many women will be enough on the Supreme Court? When there are nine.
The National Museum of Women in the Arts still has work to do. It has not organized a significant show by a living African-American artist in at least the last decade—if ever. (Some traveling exhibits, like a 2013 survey of Faith Ringgold, have stopped over.) The museum could do more to recognize local women artists and engage directly with the District, whose residents ought to be its strongest constituency. The museum could stand to borrow edgier traveling shows and mount more short-term projects.
Something about the National Museum of Women in the Arts still feels fusty—as if there’s a fiber show always lurking just around the corner. With a couple of truly unexpected, off-kilter shows, the museum could easily put that reputation behind it. A change of the museum’s name and a sleeker brand wouldn’t hurt. In the meantime, the museum is making all the right decisions.