National Museum of Women in the Arts Reopens After Two-Year Renovation


Some disagree with the idea of dedicating a museum solely to women’s art. Photo: Fourandsixty via Wikimedia Commons.

Privately founded in 1987 in Washington, the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) is the first museum in the world dedicated solely to women artists. Currently closed, the museum will re-open in October 2023 after two-and-a-half years spent on a $67.5 million renovation, according to WTOP. By showcasing the unique perspectives that female artists offer, the museum aims to empower women in the arts and challenge the public’s perception of them.

One wants to believe there is enough integration of women and minorities into the art establishment.

— Lowery Sims

In its early days, while hoping to ignite discourse surrounding the role of women artists, the museum came under criticism for its conservative and “safe” exhibitions. According to Grace Gluek, an art critic from The New York Times sent to cover the museum’s opening, the museum forbade any art pieces related to abortion or even politics in general.

Opposing the NMWA’s mission, curators from well-established art museums criticized the underlying premise that women artists deserve a place of their own. “One wants to believe there is enough integration of women and minorities into the art establishment,” Lowery Sims, an independent curator of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, commented in a 1987 New York Times article.

Some female artists who also identify with other underrepresented communities bristled at the idea of “women’s art.” Alma Thomas created her groundbreaking, radiant and colorful abstract paintings in the 1960s and 1970s, earning the title of one of Washington’s most celebrated and influential artists. She rejected the label of “Black artist” or “female artist,” commenting, “I am a painter. I am an American,” in an interview with ARTnews.

Curator Tiffany E. Barber said in the catalog for Thomas’ recent exhibition, “She endeavored to infuse her work with meaning beyond racial and gender constraints. In so doing, she challenged the singularity of race.” Established museums all over the world exhibit Thomas’ art; her paintings hang locally in the National Gallery of Art, the Hirshhorn, the Phillips Collection, the American Art Museum and the NMWA.

In naming the NMWA, its founders hoped that the Smithsonian would take it under its wings as a true, free national museum. Instead, the Smithsonian recently announced plans to open its own American Women’s History Museum. In December 2020, Congress gave its formal approval to build this new Smithsonian museum on federally-owned land, with the selected site to be announced soon. One of the Smithsonian’s stated goals is to teach visitors to reflect on “historical empathy” to examine the role and impact of women throughout the nation’s history. It remains to be seen if the proposed women’s history museum will compete with the NWMA for private funds, visitors and art collections.