Hirshhorn Museum presents exhibition and conversation ‘Behaving Boldly’

Creating a space for women and nonbinary people in museum settings is necessary, according to DC art gallery directors

Hirshhorn Museum presents exhibition and conversation ‘Behaving Boldly’

Guerrilla Girls, The advantages of being a woman artist (from Portfolio Compleat: 1985-2012), 1988. Offset lithograph, 17 × 22 1/16 in. (43.2 × 56 cm). Joseph H. Hirshhorn Purchase Fund, 2014. Photo by Cathy Carver.

The directors of the Hirshhorn Museum, the National Gallery of Art, the National Portrait Gallery and the American Art Museum addressed the need for increased representation of female and nonbinary artists in art museums at a panel discussion on Jan. 19.

The directors of the four Smithsonian museums, Melissa Chiu, Kaywin Feldman, Kim Sajet and Stephanie Stebich, addressed this issue of equity head-on at a panel discussion led by Sarah Thornton called Behaving Boldly: Women Leading 21st Century Museums.

The “Put It This Way” exhibit highlighted at the event displayed artwork by 49 women and nonbinary artists exclusively from Hirshhorn's permanent collection. One-quarter of that artwork was made in the past decade by artists such as Loie Hollowell, Rachel Jones, Deana Lawson, Sondra Perry and Kiyan Williams. One-third of it had never been displayed at the Hirshhorn. 

The exhibition speaks to underrepresented, marginalized artists while delving into a variety of political, patriarchal and prejudiced concerns. 

“Prejudice is like wind in a tennis game, you never see it but you always feel it,” said Chiu, director of the Hirshhorn. 

For many years women and nonbinary artists' works have been kept out of D.C.’s most prestigious museums and exhibits. In 2021, the National Gallery of Art published a paper saying  approximately 11 percent of the artists represented in the Gallery’s collection are women.

“In our president's gallery, only two of the portraits up there right now are painted by women,” said Sajet, director of the National Portrait Gallery, during the panel.

One of the leading organizations in the discussion to take issue with the lack of female and nonbinary artists in museum spaces, was the Guerrilla Girls and their debut of “Horror on the National Mall!,” a special Washington Post section on feminism and art. 

The print presents statistics that demonstrate how few works of art by women and artists of color are on view in D.C. museums. When the print was published in 2007, there was only one work by an African American artist on display at the National Gallery.

“Excellence in art used to be defined as large scale pieces that were very masculine,” said Feldman, director of the National Gallery of Art. Once she had a viewer say to her, “they don’t own many female works because they own works of excellence.”

Going forward, creating reputable change in D.C. museum representation seemed to be a priority for the four directors. Stebich, director of the American Art Museum, mentioned when she looks for new art pieces, she looks for excellence and art pieces that bring about deep, progressive conversations.

“We've been really active about trying to add more works to the collection that tell new stories for us,” Feldman said. 

“Put It This Way: (Re)Visions of the Hirshhorn Collection” is up for public view until fall 2023, with free access to the public. 

This article was edited by Hannah Langenfeld, Kylie Bill and Nina Heller. Copy by Isabelle Kravis, Sophia Rocha and Stella Guzik.


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