#WCW: Celebrate Women Every Day at DC's National Museum of Women in the Arts

“I love the fact that this museum is oriented through the arts in uplifting and being a champion to women everywhere,” said Virginia Treanor, associate curator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

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B. On Top: Are you familiar with the arts scene in D.C.?
nTreanor: I have become more so since starting here and it’s an incredible arts scene. I think D.C. has had moments in the past, like with the Washington Color School, that are very well-known, but I think less well-known is the fact that it’s really been a consistent presence in D.C. I think it often gets overshadowed by New York and maybe even Philadelphia to a certain extent. But D.C. and Baltimore as well have strong arts communities and there’s some amazing stuff being done.

nB. On Top: What do you do in your capacity as curator at the museum?
nTreanor: Our responsibilities as curators are to present works in our collection, which here we have on the third floor, and present them in such a way that, in this museum in particular, the story of women artists throughout history is being told not through a narrow lens but through a wider lens. That’s kind of our responsibility with our own collection. And then, also in terms of programming exhibitions, certain times we organize our own exhibitions, like ‘Revival’ this summer was organized by the chief curator, Kathryn Wat, but a lot of times, because we are a small staff, we do what a lot of museums do is we kind of host exhibitions that have been organized elsewhere.

nB. On Top: Do you think there will be a point in time when we won’t need a museum specifically for women artists? Perhaps, down the line, there might be enough women in general art museums that a specific museum won’t be needed?
Treanor: So, our director, Susan Fisher Sterling, tells a funny story sometimes that when she started here when the museum started, so she started here 30 years ago, she tells a story like she remembers thinking, ‘Oh, you know, like 10 years, we’ll probably be good; we’ll have accomplished our goal,’ and 30 years later, we’re still at it. Parity in the art world is certainly getting better all of the time, but I think that’s even more of a reason not to give up the fight too soon, especially in this day and age. I personally have felt a renewed sense of purpose and determination within the past year just in terms of that idea of do we really need a separate institution? And the past year has made it absolutely clear that yes, we do. I would like to be optimistic and say yes, sure, within my lifetime, but I don’t know. I think we’ll have a job for a while.

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Opened in 1987, the museum is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year and bills itself as “the only major museum in the world” dedicated to promoting women in the arts. Its collection of more than 5,000 works includes pieces from Kara Walker, Mickalene Thomas, Amy Sherald, Sonya Clark and Chakaia Booker. (Now you can name five women artists!)n

nFor Treanor, who has been with the museum for five years, her interest in women in the arts has stayed with her from early on.n

n“All through my career, I’ve always been interested in women in art, whether it’s women artists, women represented in art, or women as patrons and collectors, like our fantastic founder Wilhelmina Holladay,” she said.n

nWhile the museum does have an admission fee, the first Sunday of the month offers free admission for Community Day.And in honor of the new exhibition, those with ties to Howard University or Maryland Institute College of Art will receive free admission to the museum from Oct. 20 to 22.n

nBefore the upcoming exhibition “Magnetic Fields: Expanding American Abstraction, 1960s to Today” opens Friday, Oct. 13, I chatted with Treanor about her role as curator, D.C.’s arts scene and why this museum is still important today.
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B. On Top: You’re a D.C. native. What was it like growing up in the area?
nTreanor: [I] have really appreciated as an adult that experience of growing up in a community that was so diverse. Growing up, you don’t know any different, it’s just normal, you don’t realize that unfortunately, the world is not quite so tolerant and diverse. I remember there being tensions here and there; I went to a very large public school, it was very diverse. But I had friends from everywhere and it was totally normal and I loved it. And it wasn’t until I got into the ‘real world' that I kind of was like, ‘Oh, well, what’s going on here?’ Anyway, I loved growing up in this area.

nB. On Top: What sparked your interest in women in art?
nTreanor: I remember wanting to know, when I was younger, because I was interested in history in general, kind of before I was exposed to the art side of things, I remember wanting to know, like, what did people do back in whatever day? How did women, like, what did they do when they got their periods? And you can’t find that kind of daily, normal life of a woman in history books. It doesn’t exist. And so, I think that was my first inkling that there’s a lot of the story that’s left out of the narrative of history that we learn in school. I kind of became attuned to that. When I took art history classes, I realized this is kind of an amazing entrée to the past. You have these objects that are kind of giving you a window into what was going on.
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Teta Alim
B. On Top: Are you familiar with the arts scene in D.C.?
nTreanor: I have become more so since starting here, and it’s an incredible arts scene. I think D.C. has had moments in the past, like with the Washington Color School, that are very well known, but I think less well known is the fact that it’s really been a consistent presence in D.C. I think it often gets overshadowed by New York and maybe even Philadelphia to a certain extent. But D.C. and Baltimore as well have strong arts communities and there’s some amazing stuff being done.

nB. On Top: What do you do in your capacity as curator at the museum?
nTreanor: Our responsibilities as curators are to present works in our collection, which here we have on the third floor, and present them in such a way that, in this museum in particular, the story of women artists throughout history is being told not through a narrow lens but through a wider lens. That’s kind of our responsibility with our own collection. And then, also in terms of programming exhibitions, certain times we organize our own exhibitions, like ‘Revival’ this summer was organized by the chief curator, Kathryn Wat, but a lot of times, because we are a small staff, we do what a lot of museums do is we kind of host exhibitions that have been organized elsewhere.

nB. On Top: Do you think there will be a point in time when we won’t need a museum specifically for women artists? Perhaps, down the line, there might be enough women in general art museums that a specific museum won’t be needed?
nTreanor: So, our director, Susan Fisher Sterling, tells a funny story sometimes that when she started here when the museum started, so she started here 30 years ago, she tells a story, like she remembers thinking, ‘Oh, you know, like 10 years, we’ll probably be good; we’ll have accomplished our goal,’ and 30 years later, we’re still at it. Parity in the art world is certainly getting better all of the time, but I think that’s even more of a reason not to give up the fight too soon, especially in this day and age. I personally have felt a renewed sense of purpose and determination within the past year just in terms of that idea of do we really need a separate institution? And the past year has made it absolutely clear that yes, we do. I would like to be optimistic and say yes, sure, within my lifetime, but I don’t know. I think we’ll have a job for a while.
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B. On Top: What have been the reactions to the museum, especially with first-time visitors?
nTreanor: Even though we’re not on the [National] Mall and we do have a small admission fee, so that kind of sets us apart already from a lot of museums in Washington, we do get a fair number of tourists and first-time visitors, and it’s always really nice to interact with those people. A lot of them, I have to add, are from this area and have never been to this museum before. So, it’s really nice to introduce them to the museum, for them to see the space, this very dramatic space when you walk in, and to give them that overarching history of women in art, and to see them walk away, kind of like, ‘Oh my God, I had no idea’ or like ‘I never thought about this particular aspect that way before.’ That’s really rewarding.

nB. On Top: How important is it for the museum to represent a diverse group of women?
nTreanor: It’s very important. I think that, for as radical as the idea of this museum was when it opened in 1987, unfortunately, those considerations came a little bit later. But we were the first museum to have a monographic exhibition on Carrie Mae Weems in the 1990s. I think that this institution has always had a certain level of investment in diversifying the kinds of arts that maybe weren’t represented in our collection from the get-go, but we’ve made efforts, large efforts, to build our collection in that direction, as well as to program in that direction.

nB. On Top: Looking back at your career, what have been some of your favorite exhibitions?
nTreanor: I’ve been in the museum world now for 17, 18 years, working in different museums, and I’ve found it all very fulfilling. I certainly find this institution personally to be a really good fit in kind of feeling like, not to sound cliche, but that we’re making a difference and we’re interacting with the real world. As much as I love 17th century Dutch art, and I do, I love it, I’m not sure what it’s doing for the world right now, you know what I mean? It can seem a little bit removed, and I’m not saying it doesn’t have merit. But one of my proudest, most fulfilling moments in general, but definitely here, has been when we did that rehang of the third-floor galleries and we scrapped the chronological layout and we went with these themes. And we sat down, it was last summer, we sat down with education [department] and we talked about it and we planned it out and we did the rehang — we took everything off the walls, we painted and we put everything back up right after the holidays. When we started talking about this rehang last summer, we did not know what the outcome of this [2016 presidential] election was going to be, we did not know there was going to be a Women’s March in Washington on Jan. 21, but there was, and that weekend was a phenomenal weekend, particularly, to be at this museum, and I was here that Saturday and Sunday. It was absolutely packed, and I was so happy knowing that in those third-floor galleries that were crammed full of people -- young, old, black, white, men, women -- that I knew that there was something in there for everyone to relate to, that it was a much more inclusive story that we were telling. That felt really good. And, again, it’s not the kind of thing you can plan for; it was just the confluence of events. It was just incredible.

nB. On Top: And tell me more about the upcoming exhibition.
nTreanor: ‘Magnetic Fields’ is an intergenerational exhibition of abstract art by black women artists. It’s a really powerful exhibition in a lot of ways. There are a lot of really strong works in it and some really interesting stories as well. I was leading some tours there yesterday and I was saying that, you know, this is not the be-all, end-all. This is not meant to be like a survey of black women artists who work in abstraction. This is one conversation among many to be had to kind of change this narrative that we’ve had in this country about what abstract art is and who has produced it. I think it’s an eye-opening exhibition. And I think people are going to be introduced to a lot of artists whose names are not familiar to them at all. But also, it’s highlighting artists who have gone to have fantastic success like Shinique Smith. It’s a great exhibition. It’s wonderful to see kind of an older generation of artists paired with a younger generation of working artists.

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