New Women's Museum Chief Paints Bold Future

Susan Sterling joined the staff a year after the museum opened.
Susan Sterling joined the staff a year after the museum opened. (National Museum Of Women In The Arts)
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By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 8, 2008

For almost 20 years, Susan Fisher Sterling has watched visitors come into the National Museum of Women in the Arts to study the works of Frida Kahlo, Mary Cassatt, Georgia O'Keeffe and Elizabeth Catlett.

Yesterday she took charge of what future visitors might encounter at the country's only museum dedicated to female artists. Sterling, 52, the chief curator and deputy director, was named director of the downtown Washington facility, which often does groundbreaking work but is just as often overlooked in the lineup of Washington museums.

Sterling said that the institution, which is celebrating its 20th year, has a strong foundation. Her vision for it includes ensuring that the museum continues to stand out from others in Washington and the world.

"I want to go back to the core mission, with new strategies, new stories, new scholarships. We also want a new civic identity," Sterling said. "Like any start-up, there were certain things we needed to do first -- building the board, creating the programs and deciding the character. Now, with the 20th anniversary, we realized that we had arrived and could create the kind of buzz we wanted. I want to put my emphasis on that."

She suggested that some old-fashioned marketing is the key.

"We are very proud of our permanent collection. We are this jewel box of a building with great work in it. I want us to blow our horn louder," she said. In January, the museum was one of 20 museums and libraries that received a medal from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services for its commitment to public service.

Sterling joined the staff in 1988, a year after the museum opened in its permanent venue, a landmark building at 13th Street and New York Avenue NW. The institution, founded by Wilhelmina Cole Holladay, started with 500 works; it now has almost 3,000. More than 800 artists are represented. The museum drew record crowds to its shows on folk artist Grandma Moses in 2000 and theater and film director Julie Taymor in 2000 and 2001. Despite its successes, its yearly attendance averages about 140,000.

Sterling, a Cleveland native, studied at Washington University in St. Louis and later received advanced degrees from Princeton University. She wrote her doctoral dissertation on abstract painter Kenneth Noland.

During her tenure, the museum has had 10 directors, and Sterling has twice served as interim head. She has been acting director since October, and part of her charge is to bring stability to the administration. "My vision is simple. In 10 years, I want the Women's Museum to be remembered as presenting a unique experience and education. I want the visitor to say they are eager to visit," she said. The museum has 50 full-time employees and an annual budget of $10.5 million.

As a curator, Sterling organized surveys of photographer Carrie Mae Weems and painters Sarah Charlesworth, Romaine Brooks and Alice Neel, as well as two rare retrospectives of Brazilian art. In addition, as the curator of contemporary art, she brought more photography, abstract painting and feminist art into the archives.

She declined to reveal her favorite shows. "Like an artist, I believe the last work I have done is the best," Sterling said.

For its anniversary, the museum conducted an endowment campaign and collected pledges and gifts totaling $40 million.

"Like a lot of museums out there, the challenge is finances," Sterling noted.

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