Working for two years with no experience and no funding, three local artists, including one from the District, organized the national conference for the Women's Caucus for the Arts that will open in the District next week.
In the process, they have revitalized a long-defunct chapter of the caucus, an accomplishment they say could do even more for local women in the visual arts.
The three-day conference, which opens Tuesday at the Washington Marriott, will address an array of issues, including racism in the arts, ecological activism in the arts, biases against artists with disabilities and the lagging credit for women's contributions to art history.
Organized entirely by volunteers and open to the public, the conference will feature experts from throughout the country. It is the first conference of the Women's Caucus to be held in Washington since 1979, when the local chapter of the caucus disbanded.
Organizer Alice Sims, of Takoma Park, said she took on the task because she feels strongly that banding together is the way to solve some of the troubling issues facing contemporary women artists, including barriers to getting exhibit space, bias against women's themes and pay inequities.
"Women need to take their thinking seriously," said Marilyn Banner, another organizer, who is a sculptor and painter from Bethesda.
Her mixed media works explore links between the body and spirituality, and she said she found little acceptance until she attended a caucus conference in Boston in 1987.
"It was so nourishing," she said. "It was incredible . . . . It presented important materials that I had never heard talked about. So my thought was that if anything like that ever happened in Washington, I would want to be sure that it was as good as it was in Boston. Now I think it's going to be even better."
The caucus is a national professional organization for women artists, art historians, educators and museum professionals.
Its annual conference is always held in conjunction with the annual conference of the College Art Association, which sets the time and location and is convening here this month. Usually, if there is no active caucus chapter where the College Art Association is meeting, there is no Women's Caucus for the Arts conference.
Banner and Sims, who knew each other only slightly, decided not to let that happen here, and together they started summoning other artists to come to the rescue. One inquiry led to Corinne Mitchell, a painter from Brightwood who signed on as a conference leader.
Together the three planned, among other things, eight exhibitions to be sponsored by the conference in local public galleries. Mitchell organized "Beyond the Rainbow, Afro-American Women Artists in the D.C. Area," a mixed-media show on display for the rest of the month at the Martin Luther King Jr. Library.
Other exhibits include works by American Indian women at the Starfields of Astraea gallery on Pennsylvania Avenue NW and works by Asian women at the Studio Gallery on R Street NW.
"Seen in a Different Light," also on display in the King Library, presents work by women artists nationwide who have visual impairments.
In addition to the sponsored exhibitions, Sims, Banner and Mitchell called on private galleries and museums to show women's art during the three-day conference.
By early last month, more than 60 such exhibits were scheduled, with galleries still signing up.
Sims said she is pleased. The new chapter has grown to 215 members. And now, "the galleries in D.C. do show women's work, but we're getting them to think about it, to really focus on it. When you put attention on something, things change."
The conference is expected to draw 350 participants from across the country.
Tickets may be purchased at the door. For information, call Banner at 301-493-5729.