A Place of Honor, or of Confinement?

The National Museum of Women in the Arts: Will progress make it obsolete?
The National Museum of Women in the Arts: Will progress make it obsolete? (National Museum Of Women In The Arts)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 22, 2007

The National Museum of Women in the Arts opened its doors in 1987, and immediately the issues tumbled out: Would the former Masonic temple (turned kung fu movie house) be an all-important "room of one's own" for women artists? Or a ghetto? Would it correct a record dominated by the muscular heroics of Michelangelo, Picasso and Pollock, or push women further to the margins of that narrative?

Would separate be equal or would it further institutionalize inequality? What's more, wouldn't the success of the Women's Museum -- full footing for women artists in terms of space, money and acclaim -- by definition entail its obsolescence?

It's a measure of feminism's gains that those questions can now be seen as presenting false choices. As the Women's Museum itself stands to remind us, reality is all in the framing. I'm reminded of what may have been the best advice Gloria Steinem ever gave me, when I was a young would-be writer at Ms. magazine facing some now-forgotten irreconcilable choice. "You know what I always say," she told me, with characteristic mordant wit and blinding clarity. "When you have a choice between two things, take both."

That was just a year or two before Ms., in its unsigned review of the opening show at the Women's Museum (the NMWA trademarked that name), summed up so many feminists' anxieties about an institution many regarded as elitist and disempowering. After chastising the museum for lacking critical and curatorial edge, for marginalizing great women artists and patronizing mediocre ones, the anonymous reviewer ended on a defeatist note: "For now, artists are caught in a double bind. Damned if they do enter the collection, and damned if they don't."

Damned if you do, or take both? That might sum up the cognitive dissonance of the generations, not just of artists but of all women who have come of age in the past 20 years. It certainly seems to fit an art world that has seen huge strides made by women during those years, but whose parameters have changed little since curator, critic and historian Linda Nochlin wrote a seminal (ovulual?) essay in ARTnews.

Published in 1971, "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?" radically reframed the notion of artistic genius, not as some supernatural "golden kernel" of inherent greatness but as the result of intention and ambition on the part of the artist and a conspiracy of cultivation from an entire range of supporters and institutions, from ambitious parents (usually fathers) to teachers (usually male) to spouses (usually wives), not to mention collectors, curators and critics.

In other words, artistic genius is as much socially constructed as mystically imbued. Which might have been one but not the only reason why, until 1986, no female artists were included in H.W. Janson's standard art history textbook, 95 percent of the artworks exhibited in American museums were by men (even though women accounted for 38 percent of working artists), and few if any major museums saw fit to give female artists solo shows. (It bears noting that the National Gallery of Art presented one-person exhibitions of Berthe Morisot and Georgia O'Keeffe the year the Women's Museum opened, perhaps confirming its potential as a source of tacit pressure.)

Those numbers have increased. And a walk through the hushed, genteel galleries of the Women's Museum today reveal a still-young collection, modest in scale and scope, that proves there's nothing thematically monolithic or aesthetically unifying or morally distinct about art made by women, but that there's something potent about considering their work in social and historical context. In fact, its very gentility and modesty make the Women's Museum's collection an inadvertent expression of women's foreclosed potential through the ages. Part of what makes the museum invaluable is its reminder to today's aspiring female art stars that, notwithstanding the feminist victories they now take for granted, 'twasn't always thus.

And clearly things have improved, as this year's feminist shows, spaces and symposia attest to. As Nochlin herself said in a recent issue of ARTnews -- which first published her seismic article and which 36 years later announced that feminist art is the "Next Wave" -- "We've made a lot of progress."

But is that progress structural and enduring, or just another form of marketing hype? As Ben Davis, associate editor of the online journal Artnet, wrote last month, the numbers still don't line up. Women make up more than half the students in art schools, he noted, while only one-third of the solo shows in Chelsea have exclusively featured women artists.

The art world is awash in mad amounts of cash right now, but "What is deemed 'hot' new art must factor in what piques the interest of playboy European heirs, Japanese capitalists, newly rich Russian robber barons, American i-bankers and the like," Davis wrote, "all of whom are predominantly male, and arguably less prone to buy overtly 'feminine,' let alone feminist, work, or take women seriously."

We have made progress, as Nochlin observes. But it's all in the framing: Progress can mean not only more female art stars (a Yuskavage here, a Whiteread there), but entire communities of female artists surrounded by squads of supportive teachers, mentors, collectors and, above all, spouses willing to cook, parent, clean and perform those myriad thankless tasks that make genius possible.

Progress can mean not only that emerging women artists transcend reductionist labels when they don't identify themselves as feminists or women, but that they won't be punished or marginalized if they do.

Progress can mean not that NMWA becomes obsolete ("Hey, half the Hirshhorn's collection is now by women -- we can all go home!"), but that it becomes simply another venue for excellence in Washington, becoming not an annex to, but a crucial part of, the larger cultural landscape. The greatness of a museum, after all, lies not in its organizing principle, but in its curatorial vision.

And progress can mean not just looking critically at the notion of a Women's Museum but looking critically at the far bigger and better endowed National Museums of White Men in the Arts that outnumber it. Progress can and should mean that male administrators, collectors and critics finally see their collections and canons as half-empty when women are missing or not considered.

Of course, that's another framing issue. On my way out of the Women's Museum recently, I happened upon a young woman nursing her baby on the first floor, calmly gazing into the middle distance, looking for all the world like a Mary Cassatt painting two floors up. Was she bathed in the soft sentimental glow of iconic motherhood? Or did she simply embody women's practical -- and, thanks to feminism, inherently political -- capacity for getting on with things?

I'd say both.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company