“I think we have seen during the pandemic, more than ever before, the need to really connect to art,” Sterling added. Being in the galleries with the art “some days makes me happy; other days it reduces me to tears. But it elicits real emotion and a real sense of connection. And that’s what any good renovation will help with: creating that connection between the visitor and the art that allows our humanity to come forward.”
Describing itself as the world’s only major museum dedicated to championing female artists, the NMWA has a collection that includes works by Mary Cassatt, Judy Chicago, Frida Kahlo, Faith Ringgold and Amy Sherald. Originally a temple for the Masons, the 1908 Classic Revival building at 1250 New York Ave. NW is a six-story, wedge-shaped structure. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
This second renovation will add 3,000 square feet to its current 20,000 square feet of dedicated gallery space — including larger walls and galleries for contemporary art — and a new visitor orientation gallery meant to improve the visitor experience at entry. (The total interior is 84,110 square feet.) It will restore the building’s roof and exterior, upgrade its lighting, climate, security and technology systems, and improve its ADA accessibility.
Baltimore-based architect Sandra Vicchio, who is leading the project, said the new gallery and education space was the result of reorganizing the floor plan. “We came up with an idea like: ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have a new gallery on the fourth floor with the library and education studio? Wouldn’t that be a programmatic win?’ ” she said.
The pandemic did not lead to design changes, because the renovation plans already included upgrades to the climate system and accessibility improvements such as sliding doors and touchless faucets, Vicchio said.
“We were already striving for very good, very thoughtful design,” she said. “When you’re talking about accessibility, we like the sliding doors into a gallery because it makes it easy for everyone.”
Planning for the project began in 2015, and it was delayed by nine months by the pandemic, Sterling said. The pandemic and construction costs increased the price tag slightly. The museum has raised $50 million from individuals, foundations and corporations, she said.
But the pandemic also gave the museum’s staff time to test the digital plans, and that will help with virtual programming when construction is underway, Sterling said.
“We have been able to experiment and innovate, to try all manner of new programming,” she said about the museum’s two pandemic-related closings since March 2020. (The museum reopened March 3.) It reached 900,000 people through virtual programs in the past year, she said. She expects that success to continue as the public has embraced online programs. “People’s habits have changed,” she said.
Current exhibitions include “Sonya Clark: Tatter, Bristle, and Mend,” “Mary Ellen Mark: Girlhood” and “Julie Chen: True to Life.” An online exhibition, “Reclamation: Recipes, Remedies, and Rituals,” will continue through the end of the year.
During the renovation, the museum plans to hold a major exhibition (details to be announced) at another venue in the city and offer education programs in schools.
“The building is closing, but we will be open for business,” Sterling said.