It’s no surprise that women are underrepresented in the art world. Left out of textbooks, exhibitions, and museum collections, women artists often face an uphill battle to get the recognition they deserve. The North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA) recently announced a new initiative, Matrons of the Arts, to help change that. The movement highlights female-identified artists in the Museum’s permanent collection and around the world. Matrons of the Arts is a museum-wide, ongoing project that presents programs, exhibitions, and acquisitions by and about women artists. Inspired in part by the name five women artists challenge put on by the National Museum of Women in the Arts—and playing off the phrase patron of the arts—this campaign seeks to bring the public’s attention to women who have been and continue to be major figures in the world of art.
Created with input from NCMA curators, program directors, and Lizzie McNairy, a member of the NCMA Board of Trustees and Collections Committee, the campaign aims to change the connotation of the word in the art world, elevating “matron” to champion and leader. A matron is no longer a passive bystander but a fierce and powerful force. By working together to make women a priority—and to get both women and men excited to do so—we can bring about wonderful institutional change.
“Throughout time women have played an invaluable role in the arts as creators and as matrons,” McNairy has said. “This is a museum that is committed to sharing the creative contributions of women in the arts, for the story of art is far richer when it is inclusive and diverse.”
McNairy calls it “an initiative that sought to tell a broader story ... the her-story and whole-story of art.”
Matrons of the Arts will add new acquisitions to the Museum’s free permanent collection, host programs and events, and spotlight female artists through special exhibitions. The first purchase of the initiative is a bust of Daphne, created in 1853 by artist Harriet Hosmer, known as the first professional female sculptor in America and working at a time when women were often banned from even attending art classes. The bust’s new home is in the museum’s American Gallery. The NCMA is already home to several works by prominent female artists, including Georgia O’Keeffe’s Cebolla Church, 1945; Portrait of Madame X Dressed for the Matinee, 1878, by the renowned American impressionist Mary Cassatt; Elisabeth Vigée Lebrun’s portrait of Count Shuvalov, circa 1795–97; Louise Nevelson’s Black Zag CC, finished in 1977; and important African ceramics created by women. A recent gift of works by Louise Bourgeois deepens our holdings as well.
The first event hosted at the Museum as part of the movement was a free Women in Art lecture by Bridget Quinn, author of Broad Strokes: 15 Women Who Made Art and Made History (In That Order). She used the late Linda Nochlin’s revolutionary 1971 essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?,” as a starting point of discussion, speaking to a sold-out room of art lovers eager to learn more.
By telling the stories of female artists whose work is in the NCMA’s permanent collection, exhibiting and acquiring more work by important women artists, and hosting special events featuring female artists and authors, the NCMA joins the international drive to achieve a more diverse representation of female artists in museums around the world. We want this movement to be global, and we highly encourage other organizations to get involved by being intentional in their acquisitions and programming.
For more information visit ncartmuseum.org/matrons. Follow the movement at the NCMA and around the world on social media via #matronsofthearts.
To get involved or support this effort, contact Marjorie Hodges, director of external relations and special projects, at firstname.lastname@example.org or (919) 664-6860.
Mary Cassatt, Portrait of Madame X Dressed for the Matinée, 1877–78, oil on canvas, Gift of Charlotte Hanes in memory of her husband, R. Philip Hanes Jr., and gift of anonymous donors
Harriet Hosmer, Daphne, 1853, marble sculpture. Purchased with funds provided by the Calvin and Marisa Allen Foundation, Anne Allen Cheatham, and Lizzie Cheatham McNairy and Charlie McNairy on behalf of the Matrons of the Arts Initiative, and by the bequest of Carlisle Adams.
Soo Sunny Park, Unwoven Light, 2013, brazed chain link fence, Plexiglas, natural and artificial light, dimensions variable; © 2017 installation view from Wright State University.