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Women Bisnow
March 25, 2008

New Director
Women's Art Museum

This issue of Washington Women is presented by
Reznick Group:
"Building Business Value"


By Karin Tanabe for Bisnow on Business

How many female artists can the average American name? Kahlo, Cassatt and O’Keeffe are the usual three. “That’s one of our greatest challenges,” says Susan Fisher Sterling, appointed Director of the National Museum of Women in the Arts on March 7th. “Most people can only name three or four female artists, all who did their work after 1860.”


Sterling overlooking the museum’s Great Hall. “My mission is to make sure we have a much wider world to look at,” she says.


While some women uncover their artistic sides later in life (the Grandma Moses show was the NMWA’s largest financial success to date), Sterling started early on the road to running a national museum. A student of contemporary art and architectural history, she came to Washington for a pre-doctoral fellowship at the Hirshhorn. She took her first full-time, post‑Ph.D. job in 1987 as a junior curator at the NMWA.

“I wasn’t hesitant at all to come to a women’s museum—I grew up with the male canon. I thought it was terrific to be involved in a museum showcasing women in the arts. You have the feel that you are a beacon, a light for others. I also liked that the museum was new—being able to build a program.” The museum’s youth also made Sterling and the rest of the curatorial staff very aware of the finances and fundraising it took to bring their ideas to fruition. “I’ve had that exposure all along. In some museums curators are just content providers—here we understand the finances. It was a good segue into being a director.”


“I would love to create a video game like Civilization, a fantasy game giving people different roles in history. I would like to have a woman artist paint the Sistine ceiling,” says Sterling.


The NMWA’s biggest challenge is the same as any other museum: staying financially viable as they do their best work. “My first goal is to raise the museum’s profile. We are this beautiful jewel box of a museum with great exhibitions. I want people to say ‘let’s go to the NMWA, they always have something incredible there.’”

“When I first came here I was tremendously idealistic, which I still am. I thought at some point our job would be over, that there would be equity in the arts. I thought that would happen in ten years.” She gives a hearty laugh. “I was younger then.”

With museums around the globe creating shows like WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution, which came to the NMWA last year, the world of women’s art has started to get its due. “We still very much need this kind of museum—we’re goading other museums to join in the enterprise. Maybe Anonymous was a woman but we don’t want to be anonymous anymore.”

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