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 Alice West Director of the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Welcome!

Susan Fisher Sterling, Director of the National Museum of Women in the Arts

Susan Fisher Sterling, Director of the National Museum of Women in the Arts

As the director of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, I welcome you to our new blog, Broad Strokes: NMWA’s Blog for the 21st Century! As NMWA enters its third decade, we’re excited to venture into the virtual realm and connect with our ever growing audience of art enthusiasts, NMWA members, and fans.

This blog will feature insiders’ perspectives from NMWA curators, educators, preparators, and other staff. We’ll share the inside scoop on upcoming exhibitions, education and public programs, as well as unknown tidbits about works in our collection. Most of all, we’re excited to read your comments, as they will energize our discussions, too. Let the dialogue begin!

In honor of Frida Kahlo’s birthday, (July 6), our first post spotlights one of the most prominent works in our collection and the only Kahlo painting on view in Washington, D.C.—her Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky.

About the painting:

Frida Kahlo, "Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky", 1937, Oil on Masonite, 30 x 24 in., Gift of the Honorable Clare Boothe Luce

Frida Kahlo, “Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky”, 1937, Oil on Masonite, 30 x 24 in., Gift of the Honorable Clare Boothe Luce

Did you know that this masterpiece was almost destroyed in a fit of violent rage? What’s more, can you guess who was almost responsible for this horrible deed?

Mexico, 1940: two women are visiting and chatting in an artist’s studio. One is Clare Boothe Luce, prominent American diplomat and one of the first women to be elected to the U.S. Congress, and the other is the now-legendary painter, Frida Kahlo. Sitting on an easel in the studio is one of Kahlo’s most recent works, a 30 x 24 in. painting titled Self-Portrait dedicated to Leon Trotsky. In it, a traditionally-dressed Kahlo holds a letter addressed to the controversial Russian revolutionary. However, the painting is much more than a token of Kahlo’s political admiration for Trotsky, as Luce was soon to discover. A telephone ring interrupts the women’s conversation – Kahlo picks up, listens, and abruptly flies in frenzied panic. “I’m going to kill myself!” she shouts, as she picks up a knife and rushes towards the self-portrait, determined to destroy it.

The news Kahlo received that day was that Trotsky had been assassinated. Trotsky and Kahlo had engaged in a short-lived love affair while he and his wife were staying in Mexico with Kahlo and her husband, Diego Rivera. The romance never fully took off; Trotsky loved his wife deeply, and the political ramifications of such a romance would have been dire for Trotsky. Instead, he and Kahlo became good friends, and Kahlo sent the self-portrait to Trotsky as a gift on November 7th – his birthday, as well as the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. The painting was exhibited in New York, but eventually found its way back to Kahlo’s studio where it had been abandoned by the Trotskys when they moved out in 1939.

Terrified by Kahlo’s outburst, Luce intervened. She implored Kahlo to spare the painting and sell it to her instead. Kahlo conceded, and the portrait survived, making its way one step closer to its final home at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Almost 50 years later in 1987, NMWA’s founder Wilhemina Holladay visited Luce at her Watergate apartment, where the frail, cancer-stricken woman calmly told her, “I’m going to die in two months. There are a few things of interest that I want you to have for your museum.” Kahlo’s self-portrait was one of these treasures. Boothe died later that year; the painting was added to NMWA’s collection in 1988 and has been the cornerstone of our museum ever since.

It’s ironic that one of NMWA’s most acclaimed works came into our collection through such a series of tragedies. Considering Frida’s tumultuous life story, however, perhaps it could be no other way. Its intriguing history adds a layer of mystique to the masterpiece, and offers us a glimpse into the passionate mind of one of the greatest artists of the last century.

Susan Fisher Sterling, Ph.D., Director

More about the Museum Director: Susan Fisher Sterling has been with NMWA for 20 years and has helped shape the museum into what it is today. She has her PhD in Art History from Princeton University and has curated a number of amazing exhibitions, including The Magic of Remedios Varo, 2000, and Alice Neel’s Women, 2005. She has also taken great strides in acquiring feminist art, contemporary photography, and abstract painting and sculpture for the museum’s collection.

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