More than 12 years ago, the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) began the Women to Watch exhibition series as a way to identify and celebrate emerging and underrepresented women artists from across the country and around the world. The series is a dynamic collaboration between the museum and our national and international outreach committees.
Every two to three years, NMWA’s curators propose a general theme for Women to Watch based on a specific medium or subject. They work with members of each outreach committee and a contemporary art curator from each committee’s region to create a shortlist of artists. Many of these curators work at major museums—from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris to the Museo de Artes Visuales in Chile. From the guest curators’ shortlists, NMWA’s curators further hone the theme and select the individual artists whose work will be featured in Women to Watch. In many cases, the exhibition offers artists their first national recognition. The process is an exceptional way to discover innovative artists deserving of our attention.
In 2008, when I was NMWA’s chief curator, I created the first Women to Watch exhibition featuring photo-based works. The exhibition was modest in scale and cost, since we wanted as many of our committees to participate as possible. We featured 32 works by 11 artists representing six states and four countries. Among the artists exhibited, Valérie Belin, Joan Myers, Lissa Rivera, Elisa Sighicelli, and Zoe Strauss have become familiar names in the art world. I remember the sense of discovery and joy that I felt when I received these submissions.
I still follow the careers of many of the artists I selected. Zoe Strauss (b. 1970) has had a profound impact on my thinking because featuring her was the first time I worked with an artist engaged in social practice. Strauss’s work has created positive regard for, and interactions within, her south Philadelphia community. Through her Philadelphia Public Art Project, Under I-95 series, and Billboard Project, she has recorded life in the neighborhood where she grew up and lives: children doing flips on discarded mattresses, storefront churches advertising salvation, and chain-link fences lined with goods for sale. According to Strauss, each image tells a story that contributes to a larger narrative about the beauty and difficulty of everyday life. Strauss received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2017 and is now a Magnum photographer.
Today, Women to Watch has grown into a major exhibition, and we are preparing to open the next in the series, Paper Routes, this fall. This sixth iteration features 22 contemporary artists who transform one of the greatest, oldest, and most humble art materials—paper. Expect some wonderful surprises as these artists use paper in innovative, remarkable ways. We look forward to safely reopening and introducing these amazing works and their creators to you.
—Susan Fisher Sterling is the Alice West Director of the National Museum of Women in the Arts.