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A look inside the National Museum of Women in the Arts after its major renovation


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Geoff Bennett: In leading museums these days, women artists are gaining more prominence, including in major exhibitions, but studies of acquisitions and overall exhibitions show just how much the gender gap remains.

One institution, the National Museum of Women in the Arts in the nation's capital, is solely dedicated to the creativity and work of women, and recently reopened after an extensive renovation.

Jeffrey Brown paid a visit for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: When Petah Coyne was just starting out as a young unknown artist in New York in the early 80s, both the work and the artist herself took some by surprise.

Petah Coyne, Artist: When I was doing proposals for other cities, I would write what I wanted to do, and then they would be at the airport with my name on a sign, and I would get off and they would go: "Oh. Oh, we didn't think you were a woman."

And I said: "Oh, you thought I was a man."

"Well, no, we didn't think you were a man, but we didn't think you were a woman."

And I'm like: "OK. Well, here we are."

Jeffrey Brown: Today, Coyne's sculptures are shown in major museums around the world, including here at the newly renovated and reopened National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. They're extraordinarily labor-intensive, intricate and rich in detail, using a variety of materials, and, important to Coyne, they take up space.

Petah Coyne: I just -- I feel like the work has to be big. And it's all about scale. If this was small and petite, I think it would look goofy. It would look like a little Christmas decoration. I'm not into Christmas decorations.

I'm into, like, I want you to feel what that piece felt like to me. I want you to walk up near it and have it there in your space, the same way it felt to me.

Jeffrey Brown: It's the kind of experience this museum seeks, beginning with a sculpture that greets the visitor, Niki de Saint Phalle's Pregnant Nana, following a two-year $70 million overhaul that has opened up its floor plan, enlarged its galleries, and given it the ability to show and hang larger works.

And it's an experience with a very specific mission, says deputy director and chief curator Katie Wat.

Katie Wat, Deputy Director and Chief Curator, National Museum of Women in the Arts: We all wanted to make a bold statement about women and their creativity. I think there are conventional ideas about what women artists do or how their art looks.

Jeffrey Brown: And what is the statement?

Katie Wat: The statement is that women's creativity is illimitable. It just doesn't know any bounds or boundaries.

Jeffrey Brown: The museum, the first in the U.S. solely dedicated to women, was founded in 1987 by Wilhelmina Cole Holladay in what had been a Masonic temple, ironically a building from which women were once barred.

As the story goes, on visits to European museums, Holladay and her husband admired the work of 17th century Flemish artist Clara Peeters, a contemporary of Rembrandt, but were shocked to find no mention of her in art history books. They set about to collect art by women, which became the basis for the museum.

Now its galleries are arranged around themes showing how women have tackled certain subjects, materials, even colors over time. Artists of the past such as Lavinia Fontana, Frida Kahlo, Berthe Morisot are connected to contemporaries such as Petrina Hicks, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, and Faith Ringgold.

There are artists such as Amy Sherald, whom the museum showed before she became well-known for her portrait of Michelle Obama, and large-scale works by artists including Sonya Clark, Alison Saar, and Rina Banerjee in a special inaugural exhibition Katie Wat curated titled The Sky's the Limit.

Katie Wat: This is a work by the Brazilian artist Beatriz Milhazes. And it's sort of inspired by the landscape of Rio de Janeiro and Carnival and so forth in terms of its color and vibrancy the shapes of it and so forth.

It weighs 450 pounds.

Jeffrey Brown: What you're feeling is that people still don't expect this kind of work, the scale of work, from women.

Katie Wat: Yes, I think it's true. I think there's this idea that women like to work or prefer to work or have a proclivity toward working on a smaller, more diminutive scale.

We want to blow that idea out of the water with this kind of show.

Jeffrey Brown: But is a museum dedicated to women's art still needed, as it might have been in the 1980s, when the art collective Guerrilla Girls were creating their direct-confrontation advocacy art? Much has changed.

As seen in exhibitions we featured, including 17th century Italian artist Artemisia Gentileschi and contemporary Americans such as Sarah Sze, and for Petah Coyne herself.

You're exhibited in galleries and museums around the country, around the world. Is it still important for you to have work here in this museum?

Petah Coyne: Oh, absolutely.

Jeffrey Brown: Why?

Petah Coyne: I think it's sad that we have to still have this museum. This is what's sad. I am one of the privileged, lucky ones. I am.

And maybe because I'm Irish and we dig until we die, but I have been blessed, but all those that are not blessed, I -- and are good -- there are so many good women artists that do not get airplay. And it's just -- it's terrible.

So, they -- this museum must exist, and I think it shouldn't be the only one.

Jeffrey Brown: Coyne and museum officials cite damning statistics, including a recent survey of 31 U.S. museums showing that just 11 percent of acquisitions and about 15 percent of exhibitions between 2008 and 2020 were of work by women.

Katie Wat: I have seen changes over the past couple of years, and they have been very encouraging. But I don't know if this is a sea change or if this is the swing of the pendulum. I think that remains to be seen, and so I think our work is still very critical.

Jeffrey Brown: Is it possible to you to imagine a day when this museum is no longer needed?

Katie Wat: My hope is that we will reach that day. I do think, though, that there's always going to be a place for us as sort of the pioneers, the leaders on this topic, and keeping it in the forefront of folks' mind as we go forward, leading not just for sort of gender equity in the arts, but all kinds of equity in the arts.

Jeffrey Brown: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C.

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