Honoring Artists as Changemakers for Women’s History Month

A photograph of a woman standing in front of a black sculpture.

 SAAM's Director, Stephanie Stebich, in front of Louise Nevelson's Sky Cathedral. Photo by Libby Weiler.

Women’s History Month has me thinking of the riches of women artists in SAAM’s collection, especially during a trying year when in-person visits were replaced by virtual experiences. Coming out of our pandemic year (fingers crossed) into what I hope is a promising spring and summer, I think of women artists today responding to our demanding times as alchemists: using everyday materials and their personal lives and experiences to create transformative art. SAAM recently acquired hand-made face masks by women artists. Korean American artist Julia Kwon’s Unapologetically Asian, confronts the rise in anti-Asian racism in the U.S. that accompanied the pandemic while also helping to promote public mask wearing. Native women artists Vicki Soboleff, Marlana Thompson, and Katrina Mitten created masks that use elements from the natural world including cedar, sweetgrass, and seeds. 

The women whose artworks are in SAAM’s collection are changemakers, whether it is Sarah Goodridge creating miniatures in the nineteenth century or Corita Kent combining art and social justice in the twentieth. It would take me forever to list all the women artists who have turned their own experiences into powerful art.

This month, we are presenting the third annual Women Filmmakers Festival at SAAM: Her History Lessons, featuring work by Coco Fusco, Miriam Ghani, and Cecilia Vicuña. Their work reflects the global nature of contemporary art today, looking at issues that resonate beyond geographic borders, such as climate change, social justice, and pandemics. One of the exciting aspects of this annual event is that the artist's voice is heard both through the artwork and through a public conversation with Smithsonian experts. 

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Carmen Lomas Garza, Tamalada, 1990, color lithograph, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase made possible by John B. Turner, 1997.5, (c) 1990, Carmen Lomas Garza

In addition to my role here at SAAM, I am also the co-chair of the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative. Launched in 2018, the initiative is one of the country’s most ambitious undertakings to research, collect, document, display, and share the compelling story of American women. It is inclusive, highlighting the stories of those who identify as women. This. year, we are focusing on virtual programs, education outreach, and making Smithsonian collections about women and girls more discoverable online. 

The Initiative has laid the groundwork for the new Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum, which, along with the National Museum of the American Latino, was authorized by Congress in December 2020. To begin planning for the museum, we will: 

1. Establish an advisory board within six months. 

2. Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch will name an interim director for the Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum while we perform a national search for the founding director. 

3. We will explore site options on or near the National Mall in Washington, DC. The final selection will be made by December 2022. 

We are incredibly excited by the challenge and opportunity of creating new national museums for the twenth-first century. This is work the Smithsonian does very well with unique expertise and experience in creating museums that serve the nation and engage the world in dynamic ways. 

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Beth Lipman, Bancketje (Banquet), 2003, glass, oak, oil and mixed media, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the James Renwick Alliance, 2007.21

With spring right around the corner, I want to leave you with a selection of work by women artists in SAAM’s collection who remind us of the future we desire together: a time to be with friends and family, and venture back into the world. Beth Lipman sets the table for friends and family in her glass-filled installation, Bancketje (Banquet) inspired by Dutch still lifes, while Carmen Lomas Garza’s Tamalada creates a joyous burst of family gathered in a kitchen preparing a meal together. If getting back outside is top of mind, then be inspired by the words of the great sculptor Edmonia Lewis, who, in 1864 wrote, “There is nothing so beautiful as the free forest. To catch a fish when you are hungry, cut the boughs of a tree, make a fire to roast it, and eat it in the open air, is the greatest of all luxuries. I would not stay a week pent up in cities, if it were not for my passion for art.” 

Be safe and be well. We are in this together.