Susan Fisher Sterling, director of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, prefers the term “art by women” to “women’s art,” because “there’s no such thing as men’s art, either.” Sterling, 62, lives in Rockville.
What’s different about women’s and men’s art? Is there something you can recognize when you see it?
There are some women artists who really do represent their work differently, from a personal perspective. There are also women artists who work in a way that one couldn’t necessarily tell it was work by a woman artist. The purpose here is one of gender equality and the recognition of women artists’ accomplishments. They’re 51 percent of the artist population, and they’re not getting their due.
What in your life prepared you for this job?
Childhood rapture in a museum. Not only the art itself, but the activated, contemplative space.
How do you predict what people are going to want to see?
This is part desire on the part of our curators, and part thinking about what’s going on in the world, the zeitgeist, and part polling science. Our whole society is in the moment. So we understand people want to see more contemporary art — and in a kind of context that gives them a way of thinking about the world, as opposed to the old way of doing exhibitions, where museums were seen as an authoritative voice. The idea for museums now is very much about exchange.
How do you think being a paid-admission museum in a city of free museums affects who comes here?
It means not everybody will come to the museum. We’re closer to the performing arts in some ways because we don’t rely on the federal government for funding; this is a public recognition that they’re coming to us. They’re paying admission to support activities beyond what the government supports.
How do you know a piece of art is good?
No, I get it. I believe that I know a piece is good when I have that chill, when I have that visceral reaction. Sometimes it’s a visceral reaction that’s positive: I have to see that. A lot of times in contemporary art I don’t know what I’m seeing, but I have that reaction: This is something I need to understand. It’s both an intellectual and a visceral, physical reaction. In some contemporary art, you can feel a sense of upset; you don’t really like it, but something is drawing you to it. You know it’s dangerous, or you know you don’t get it. It’s something that says, “You don’t like me, but we’re going to have this conversation.”