Get to Know NMWA’s Director: Part 2

NMWA Director Susan Fisher Sterling answers questions about art, equity, and travel. This is part two of a two-part questionnaire. Explore part one.

Yael Bartana, What if Women Ruled the World, 2016; Neon, 98 1/2 x 38 1/2 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Museum purchase, Belinda de Gaudemar Acquisition Fund, with additional support from the Members’ Acquisition Fund; © Yael Bartana; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

What do you consider your greatest achievements regarding women and the arts?

First, helping NMWA founder Wilhelmina Holladay and the board of trustees to build this museum. Second, having the privilege of working in contemporary art and being in the exciting position of introducing artists to the world.

What is your favorite museum outside of your own?

It could be the last one I’ve visited. The Science Gallery in Dublin is working in an innovative way. I have always loved the Musée Guimet in Paris and the Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus in Munich. I like museums that surprise me. There’s a real sense of discovery when you are at a smaller museum, and it becomes a jewel box experience.

What has been your most inspirational travel destination?

I traveled to Brazil in 1993 and saw phenomenally important work from the 1960s and 1970s that I had never seen, the flipside of what was happening in the U.S. at the time. I was one of the first curators in the U.S. to recognize that this work was missing from our lexicon of great contemporary art. As a result of the trip, we were able to show two exhibitions of work by Brazilian women artists at NMWA.

Frida Baranek, Untitled, 1991; Iron, 44 x 75 x 46 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Museum purchase: The Lois Pollard Price Acquisition Fund; © Frida Baranek / Galeria Raquel Arnaud, © Frida Baranek

What do women in leadership positions in the arts need more of?

According to the 2014 Association of American Art Museum Directors survey, there is a gender gap in salaries. We need more women in executive leadership positions and more women in board leadership positions. We also need to create more time for women to speak with experts from other fields, creating centers for relevant conversations about the future of our culture. And we need an influx of younger people who believe in what museums do.

What does gender equity mean to you?

Women need to be recognized both as sole producers and as part of a larger context of women. Equal representation has a ripple effect. Communities will support women if their work is valued. We need to focus on a wider world view including women of color.

What artistic talent would you most like to have?

It may not be an artistic talent, but I’ve always wanted to be able to see the future.

Tell us something we might not know about you.

I like science fiction—especially Star Trek and Westworld. I wonder what art would look like on another planet or galaxy.

Get to Know NMWA’s Director: Part 1

NMWA Director Susan Fisher Sterling answers questions about art, equity, and travel. This is part two of a two-part questionnaire. Explore part two.

NMWA Director Susan Fisher Sterling; Photo by Michele Mattei

Was there a pivotal moment that led you to working in the arts? If so, what was it?

From the time I was in fourth grade, I had the good fortune to take school field trips to the Cleveland Museum of Art. We went on Mondays when it was closed to the public so I always felt like it was a very special place. Since it’s an encyclopedic museum, you could see everything from early civilizations through to the early 20th century. The now-famous director Sherman E. Lee brought in Asian art that glowed on the walls. In high school I was able to have a one-day-a-week internship, working with Henry Hawley who was an expert on Fabergé eggs.

Which women artists do you admire most?

I admire the next artist I am about to see. But to narrow it down, right now I deeply appreciate great artists who are all about creating social awareness with intentions to incite social change. I am drawn to artists who are handling big topics, and creating art that makes you think about our world.

Which historical women artists would you like to invite to a dinner party?

I would like to dine with women artists from French society in the 18th century. There was a brief period when women held court in the salons of Paris before the French Revolution. It was the beginning of the modern age. At the table it would be great to see Élisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun—who became the court painter to Marie Antoinette—as well as Marguerite Gérard, Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, and Anne Vallayer-Coster.

If you could change one thing in the art world, what would it be?

The reputation of women in the art world. In music, there are blind juries so the judges can’t see the gender or race of the person playing. Perhaps this needs to be considered more within visual art competitions.

What is the role of art in our society?

It’s central! Essential!

Director’s Desk: Amy Sherald Inspires

A few weeks ago at the National Portrait Gallery, a two-year-old girl stood captivated in front of Michelle Obama’s new portrait by Amy Sherald, the artist who also won the gallery’s 2016 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition. A snapshot of the girl enthralled by the painting circulated on Facebook, where it quickly went viral—as did so many of the photographs of the portrait of the former first lady.

Amy Sherald, They call me Redbone but I’d rather be Strawberry Shortcake, 2009; Oil on canvas, 54 x 43 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in honor of the artist and the 25th Anniversary of NMWA; © Amy Sherald

Amy Sherald, They call me Redbone but I’d rather be Strawberry Shortcake, 2009; Oil on canvas, 54 x 43 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in honor of the artist and the 25th Anniversary of NMWA; © Amy Sherald

The little girl’s mother told CNN, “As a female and as a girl of color, it’s really important that I show her people who look like her that are doing amazing things and are making history so that she knows she can do it.”

This statement echoed the former first lady’s remarks at the painting’s unveiling, “[Girls, and especially girls of color,] will see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the walls of this great American institution. And I know the kind of impact that will have on their lives because I was one of those girls.”

It is extremely exciting for me to see the public interact with Sherald’s work in person and on social media. While the painting of Obama evoked a mixed reception from some who were unfamiliar with her stylized practice, it won high praise from many for its insightful take on a strong woman, inspiring people of all ages. In 2012—before Sherald’s name was widely known—the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) took notice of her work. You can see two paintings, They Call Me Redbone but I’d Rather Be Strawberry Shortcake and It Made Sense…Mostly In Her Mind, in our galleries.

NMWA visitors study Amy Sherald’s Amy Sherald’s It Made Sense…Mostly In Her Mind, 2011 (left) and They call me Redbone but I’d rather be Strawberry Shortcake, 2009 (right); Photo: Emily Haight, NMWA

NMWA visitors study Amy Sherald’s It Made Sense…Mostly In Her Mind, 2011 (left) and They call me Redbone but I’d rather be Strawberry Shortcake, 2009 (right); Photo: Emily Haight, NMWA

The museum’s exterior; Photo: Traci Christensen, NMWA

Our Chief Curator Kathryn Wat says, “Sherald’s flamboyant palette and the gray-scale skin tones of her figures are part of what makes her work so engaging. The way she positions figures in her portraits—usually aimed straight forward and looking out with a neutral expression—is also arresting. I think she rejects the romantic idea that portraits ought to capture not just a likeness but the essence of a sitter’s character. Her work offers a much livelier take on portraiture—it suggests that people are never of a singular personality and much more complex than we might ever imagine.” Sherald explained that the way she portrays skin color is “a way of deconstructing race and asking that question about what race means to us as a people.”

In the wake of the Obama portrait’s unveiling, Sherald’s work is receiving widespread attention. She was recently awarded the 2018 David C. Driskell Prize from the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, which is presented to a person who has made a significant contribution to the conversation about the work of black artists.

In honor of Women’s History Month, our museum hung a banner featuring Sherald and the word “inspire” on the building. When a woman artist deserves praise, we don’t hesitate to shout it out.

—Susan Fisher Sterling is the director of the National Museum of Women in the Arts.