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The National Museum of Women in the Arts reopens after a major two-year renovation


Just off the National Mall in Washington, the world's first major museum dedicated to women artists reopens on Saturday with revamped spaces and a collection that points to more than three decades of change and barriers.


SUSAN FISHER STERLING: While the discourse has progressed since the museum was founded, gender and intersectional racial inequality remain pervasive in the art world.

KHALID: The director of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Susan Fisher Sterling, unveiled the renovations that took two years and $70 million to complete. NPR's Olivia Hampton got a preview.

OLIVIA HAMPTON, BYLINE: As you walk in, you're greeted by this large chandelier by Joana Vasconcelos. It's ruby red and gold, festooned with LED lighting that looks like Christmas lights. There is Murano glass. It's absolutely kitschy. Most pieces in the inaugural show, "The Sky's The Limit," are also suspended overhead. They're big and bold, like Mariah Robertson's "9," an abstract rush of color on photosensitive paper that stretches out 160 feet and folds over trapeze bars. Senior curator Katie Wat said the work came all rolled up.

KATIE WAT: And I thought, I'm sure it's cool, but I really don't have any idea what it looks like. And when we unfurled it, it just exceeded every expectation. I think of this as one of the sleepers in the show.

HAMPTON: Wat says Robertson's work with light and chemicals inspired her.

WAT: I think about women who have to wear a hazmat suit to make the artworks that they create. That says a lot to me, and I love that sort of physicality. That's a really big part of this artwork.

HAMPTON: Another piece by India-born New York-based Rina Banerjee fully embraces the more-is-more aesthetic. In keeping with its maximalist persona, the title is so long that museum staff gave it a nickname, "Lady Of Commerce."

WAT: I see an antique chandelier from the Victorian era in India and then painted ostrich eggs over the top of this figure that's created from kind of a wooden dress form that is embellished with a birdcage that goes on and on and on and on.

HAMPTON: Sandra Vicchio's architecture firm has transformed a former Masonic temple that didn't allow women members.

WAT: And you sort of flow from one space to the next. You also sort of see art talking to each other.

HAMPTON: Upstairs...


HAMPTON: ...There's a sampling of the collection...


HAMPTON: ...That's grown from just 500 works when the museum first opened in 1987 to more than 6,000 pieces spanning five centuries.

WAT: Here we are walking through the door. The first thing I wanted everyone to see is a gorgeous marble figure, a sculpture by the French artist Niki de Saint Phalle. This is a pregnant nana, and it's over 5 feet tall. It weighs more than a ton.

HAMPTON: Other works by artists like Amy Sherald or Sonya Clark challenge racial stereotypes, while Graciela Iturbide honors Mexican Indigenous culture and Cindy Sherman manipulates themes of identity in her photographs.

WAT: This is a museum. It's also a megaphone. We're also about advocating for greater visibility, greater opportunity.

HAMPTON: For women of all identities. Olivia Hampton, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF TENDAI SONG, "TIME IN OUR LIVES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Olivia Hampton
[Copyright 2024 NPR]