From a question “Can you name 5 women artists?” to a world wide campaign

 February 10, 2020

Photo: National Museum of Women in the Arts

It was the question that was first asked by Wilhelmina Cole Holladay, who in the 1970s set out to collect artworks exclusively by women, and is the co-founder of the only museum in the world solely dedicated to advocating women in the arts. The answer to this question still poses difficulties to most people, which this unique private museum, the National Museum of Women in the Arts is committed to change.

The National Museum of Women in the Arts sees as its mission to champion and promote women artists by addressing gender imbalance issues, educating the public and initiating campaigns such as the one called #5WomenArtists. In the 1970s the opening of such a museum raised several questions and doubts.

When asked why women artists need their own museum, Wilhelmina Cole Holladay would ask ‘Can you name 5 women artists?‘ most couldn’t” says NMWA’s communications manager, Emma Filar.

NMWA is more than a museum, its purpose extends way beyond the art it showcases on its walls. Frequently held lectures, readings, films celebrate women in all art forms.

I truly feel that the arts are meant to be shared,” says Holladay. “You can buy art, you can hang it on your wall... but great art has a life of its own. There is a longevity of great art that has very little to do with the individuals who for a time during their life possessed it.

Photo: National Museum of Women in the Arts
Photo: National Museum of Women in the Arts
Photo: National Museum of Women in the Arts
Photo: National Museum of Women in the Arts

Today, the museum continues to grow. The collection includes works by more than 1,000 women artists. The museum has presented more than 300 exhibitions, showcasing the contributions of women artists from around the world. Educational programs for all age groups and many varied outreach programs are held each year. NMWA has 22 committees in the United States and around the world spreading its mission.

The museum’s Library and Research Center continues to be the world’s information leader on female artists with 18,500 books and print resources.

Changing awareness takes time but the approach has changed since its beginning, especially in view of the rise of social media, gaining access to much more people in a direct way. It is a time of rising awareness and during this time, there is also an increased interest in the museum and its activities, especially since its aim is to be the leader in the issue of parity in the arts.

The #5WomenArtists campaign started off during the Women’s History Month in March, when the museum had a great opportunity to celebrate women artists. Bringing it to social media has transformed it to a movement that has been growing ever since.

Photo: National Museum of Women in the Arts
Photo: National Museum of Women in the Arts

We wanted to capitalize on this attention to advance our mission in a fun and engaging way... without a dedicated budget. So, we decided to use social media to pose the founder’s question to our growing followers, and encourage them to challenge others in a way that would also bring awareness to the fact that the question isn’t as easy to answer as it seems” explains Filar.

The #5WomenArtists campaign has reached many parts of the world, and has seen since its launch a worldwide participation. Over the past four years there have been organizations from more than 50 countries participating in it. It shows how many organizations are actually aware of the issue and the problems related to it, and are taking actual steps to address it.

In fact, for the 2019 #5WomenArtists campaign, we moved from awareness to action, asking participating organizations to take pledges to implement real change to address gender inequity in their institutions” reveals more about the campaign Filar.

Getting to know some of the highlights around the world affirms how the campaign of awareness is moving into the direction of action in also previously inactive and traditional museums of the world. The Jewish Museum for example pledged to organize a Wikipedia edit-a-thon to improve the representation of women artists on Wikipedia, to highlight women artists on its social media channels and Medium stories, and to highlight products by women artists in the Jewish Museum shop.

Other examples are the Museo Guggenheim Bilbao, which pledged to acquire a new work by a woman artist for its collection. The National Gallery, London, pledged to highlight the work of Artemisia Gentileschi with a major exhibition on the artist in 2020, the first ever in the United Kingdom. The New-York Historical Society’s Center for Women’s History pledged to explore the vital role of women in shaping the American story through four exhibitions of work by women artists in 2019.

The North Carolina Museum of Art pledged to feature programming about women artists and add women artists to the museum’s permanent collection as part of its Matrons of the Arts initiative. The Tate pledged that 95% of the work featured on its social channels during Women’s History Month, will be by women artists.

Furthermore, le Gallerie degli Uffizi pledged to highlight more women artists on its social media channels, to create dedicated Instagram posts throughout the year and to publish articles on its website about women artists. In addition, it is dedicating special exhibitions to women artists and feminists around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries and a monographic exhibition of Kiki Smith.

Another campaign that was influenced by NMWA’s work is the National Gallery of Australia’s #KnowHerName campaign, which has led to a major initiative to address gender imbalance in Australian museums.

According to Filar, the trend of increasing visibility for women artists is encouraging.

To sustain this overall upward trend, it will take dedication by all corners of the art world: teachers, galleries, patrons, museums and curators” continues Filar.

The source of challenges and obstacles that women artists still face is the continuity of deep-rooted beliefs, limitations and patterns that continue to support the existing environment in all fields and parts of the world.

Womens’ lives are complicated by an inherently patriarchal system. This can be seen in the unequal pay they receive for the same work, the lack of paid maternity leave, lack of organized support for child-rearing, and the perception that women aren’t ‘as good’ as men at certain professions – including art” describes it more in detail Filar.

Beliefs that were thought to be stone hard and unbreakable can however change. Interestingly, the NMWA is situated in a former National Masonic Temple in the the middle of Washington D.C., in the very place where at one time women were not allowed to enter. Today, its aims, views and activities are like the water of river, carving a way to build routes for change.

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