In a renovated Masonic temple just a few blocks from the White House, Judy L. Larson ’98PhD presides over the only museum in the country dedicated solely to art by women.

“Ironic, isn’t it?” asks Larson (left), smiling at the thought that the former all-male enclave now fairly radiates with female creativity.

The National Museum of Women in the Arts–with a permanent collection containing works by eight hundred female artists dating from the sixteenth century to the present–is so surprising in scope that visitors who intend to take a quick tour between the Smithsonian and the Mall end up spending the whole afternoon wandering its galleries.

The museum’s exhibits are eclectic and wide-ranging: from pottery with hand-painted geometric designs by American Indian women to botanical engravings of exotic plants and insects; stark black-and-white photographs of elderly women in the South during the Depression to glamour shots of starlets during Hollywood’s heyday. The propriety of an eighteenth-century silver George II tea caddy contrasts with a 1980s pop sculpture of dancing psychedelic lizards.

The museum’s collection also contains the only Frida Kahlo painting in a public collection in the District of Columbia, Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky, (top), which, says Larson, has been getting a lot of attention since the Kahlo biopic, Frida, was released. Other popular works in the museum’s collection include the mother-child study The Bath (below) by Mary Cassatt, 1891; The Abandoned Doll (left) by Suzanne Valadon, 1921, which poignantly captures a girl’s emerging sexuality; a Georgia O’Keeffe still life, Alligator Pears in a Basket, 1923; and Louise Dahl-Wolfe’s portrait of an aged Colette, 1951.

The exhibit Insomnia: Landscapes of the Night will be at the museum through November 30. From the depiction of a clock frozen at 4 a.m., to a woman with three pairs of wide-open eyes, to a bed covered with newspaper personal ads, the exhibit captures the feelings and causes of a sleepless night as interpreted by forty female artists.

Larson, who has been executive director of the museum since September 2002, was curator of American Art at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta while working toward her doctorate at Emory through the graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts (ILA). Her major areas were women’s studies, African-American studies, and Southern studies.

“It was the perfect background for this position,” Larson says. “My time at the ILA really prepared me for interdisciplinary projects. And the High was a great place to hone my skills. They have very high standards and a certain consistent look. I took away that discriminating eye.”

Larson served as executive director of the Art Museum of Western Virginia in Roanoke, where she oversaw the acquisition of $33 million of American art, before coming to D.C.

At the National Museum of Women, she heads a full-time staff of fifty-five and oversees a budget of $9 million. About 120,000 people visit the museum annually.

Founder Wilhelmina Cole Holladay, who is still actively involved, started the museum in her home after she and her husband began collecting art in the 1960s and noticed the underrepresentation of women in major exhibitions, museum collections, and art history texts. The museum remains well supported by the capital’s elite.

“This is one of the first museums Mrs. Bush visited. An inaugural ball was held here. And just this afternoon, we gave a tour to the Senate wives and had lunch with them afterward,” Larson says as she stands overlooking the spacious Great Hall and Mezzanine. “It definitely has the ooh-ahh factor.”

But Larson is equally proud of the museum’s behind-the-scenes resources: its library and research center, which contains nearly seventeen thousand files on individual women artists, over eighteen thousand volumes about female artists, 650 artist’s books created by women, and rare exhibition catalogues. “Women artists won’t be better known until people start doing research and writing dissertations about them,” she says.

Currently, Larson is busy organizing a spring 2004 show, Nordic Cool: Hot Women Designers, that will feature female architects, fashion designers, industrial designers, and trade artists from five Scandinavian countries.

“Our vision for the future is to reach beyond the visual arts, to include the decorative and applied arts as well,” says Larson. “Did you know the Volvo design team last year included three women?”–M.J.L.



© 2003 Emory University