East City Art Features—National Museum of Women in the Arts: Bridging Past and Present Through Art and Transformation

By Phil Hutinet on October 30, 2023
Courtesy of the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Photo credit: Elyse Cosgrove/Asico Photo.

The National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA), nestled in the heart of Washington, DC, has long been a beacon for art lovers and a bastion for championing the work of women artists. A testament to this commitment, NMWA recently emerged from a two-year renovation, a transformation that speaks volumes about the institution’s dedication to adapting and preserving its unique identity in the ever-evolving art world. In a candid conversation with Katie Wat, Deputy Director for Art, Programs and Public Engagement/Chief Curator at NMWA, we explored the motivations, revelations, and challenges that defined this significant undertaking.

A New Dawn: Positioning the Museum for the 21st Century
The grand reopening of NMWA has been met with eager anticipation by the press, patrons and general audiences. After two years of careful planning and renovations, the museum opened its doors to the press on Wednesday, October 18 and to the public Saturday, October 21, 2023. Free tickets for the opening weekend were unavailable by mid-week, a testament to the public’s excitement about the reopening of this venerable institution.

The question that begs to be answered is why was a renovation of this magnitude necessary? NMWA has always produced groundbreaking exhibitions and maintained an outstanding permanent collection. In discussing the matter with Katie Wat during the press preview, she was quick to shed light on the primary motivations for this major undertaking.

Courtesy of the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Photo credit: Elyse Cosgrove/Asico Photo.

Visitor Comfort and Accessibility: The Driving Force
The decision to renovate NMWA was driven by the institution’s unwavering commitment to both its mission and to accommodate its visitors. The historical building, constructed in the early 20th century, was never intended to house an art museum. When the NMWA first opened its doors in 1987, the building’s preliminary facelift sufficed. But more recently, the building’s structure and floor plan did not align with the demands of contemporary artistic practices.  In addition, as the number of visitors increased, the need for enhanced accessibility and comfort became more apparent over time.

The renovations aimed to rectify this, making NMWA more visitor-friendly. The alterations in the physical layout made it easier for visitors to navigate the museum, a thoughtful gesture that reinforces the museum’s commitment to enhancing the overall visitor experience.

A museum visitor stands between a long, snake-like piece of metallic paper printed with splotches of black, blue, purple, brown, and orange in an abstract pattern. The paper is suspended from the ceiling on two sides.
Installation view of Mariah Robertson’s 9 (2011), featured in The Sky’s the Limit at the National Museum of Women in the Arts; Photo by Jennifer Hughes, courtesy of NMWA

The Changing Landscape of Women’s Art
One of the significant challenges that the previous gallery spaces faced was their design, which harked back to the 1980s. These spaces were conceived with easel paintings and prints in mind. However, the art world is in a constant state of flux and artists are increasingly experimenting with diverse mediums, scales, and materials.

NMWA had to adapt to this evolving artistic landscape, necessitating modifications to its gallery spaces. The previous design posed a number of structural challenges to accommodate the larger, heavier artworks created in recent years, particularly sculptures and other massive installations.

To address this concern, NMWA, in collaboration with architect Sandra Vicchio of Sandra Vicchio & Associates, embarked on a mission to create more versatile gallery spaces. The new designs allows for the safe display of heavier works. Reinforced walls ensured that even the most substantial paintings with large frames could be exhibited without concern. The increased flexibility of the gallery spaces, free from the limitations of the past, enabled NMWA to showcase a broader and more diverse range of contemporary art.

Behind the Scenes: A New Opportunity for Expansion
The renovation at NMWA encompassed not only the visible areas but also ushered in significant changes behind the scenes. In particular, the dated administrative spaces underwent a thorough overhaul, emerging as more efficient and reconfigured hubs. This transformative process unleashed valuable space for the expansion of the gallery areas, giving rise to a renewed and more welcoming experience for the visiting public. Beyond this, the restructured administrative spaces also provided a valuable opportunity for the establishment of additional areas dedicated to enriching the museum’s programming offerings.

Courtesy of the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Photo credit: Elyse Cosgrove/Asico Photo.

Aesthetic Resplendence
While the changes to the museum’s functionality and flexibility were remarkable, the transformation also extended to aesthetics. The most apparent visual transformation was the newfound brightness of the mezzanine level, the “loft space” just above the lobby entrance. It now stands in stark contrast to the previous oxidized orange ambiance of the 1987 peach-colored walls. The renovation of the mezzanine also unveiled the seemingly lost gilding, buried beneath layers of time and the orange glow of the walls. The gilding now gleams with resplendence. The museum’s visual rejuvenation not only enhances the visitor experience, it also allows the exhibitions to truly come alive.

The Renovation’s Impact on Programs
The renovation went beyond physical changes; it will also impact the museum’s programs. A new Learning Commons was introduced on the fourth floor. This space features a studio equipped with sinks, a facility that was notably absent in the past. Now, the museum can host workshops, and classes on various art techniques. It provides an opportunity for school groups to engage in hands-on activities and adults to attend classes.

Courtesy of the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Photo credit: Elyse Cosgrove/Asico Photo.

Embracing Technology
Technology was also embraced during the renovation process. The performance hall is a prime example. It now boasts LED lights, a high-quality sound system, and digital capabilities, all of which facilitate presentations, press talks, and panel discussions. The performance hall is NMWA’s gateway to ensuring that it remains a hub of intellectual and artistic dialogue.

Documenting “HerStory”: The NMWA Library
The significance of the museum library, highlighted during the interview with Katie Wat, cannot be overstated. The library is a testament of the museum’s commitment to recognizing the importance of documenting women artists and bringing their contributions to the forefront of history. The library will preserve the legacies of women artists who have long been overlooked or undervalued in the annals of art history. It is a space where their stories are recorded, celebrated, and shared, ensuring that their artistic contributions are not forgotten but acknowledged and embraced by a wider audience. In a world where the narrative of art is often dominated by male artists, the library embodies the NMWA’s dedication to writing that narrative that now includes and amplifies the voices and works of women artists, allowing their stories to resonate through the ages.

A Rich 36 Year History
The renovation at NMWA is not just about enhancing aesthetics and functionality. It is a holistic rejuvenation that has enabled the museum to stay true to its mission of celebrating and advocating for women artists. As the art world continues to evolve, NMWA remains adaptable, embracing change while preserving the legacy of women in art.

National Museum of Women in the Arts is located at 1250 New York Ave NW, Washington, DC.  For more information visit the museum’s website at nmwa.org