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Women artists don’t get equal representation in museums, says Melani Douglass, the director of public programs for the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Even though about 51 percent of visual artists today are women, only three to five percent of major permanent collections in the U.S. and Europe are by women artists, according to statistics. And, to boot, they only make 81 cents for every dollar a male visual artist makes.
That’s why nearly 500 D.C.-area women and woman-identifying artists gathered at the NMWA on Wednesday to take a historic photograph, as part of a nationwide project to attract visibility for thriving women artist communities.
Kim Schoenstadt began the Now Be Here project in her home city of Los Angeles in August of 2016. She got the idea to showcase the number of women artists living and working in cities where they are not equally represented in museums and galleries. Since then, Now Be Here has been replicated in three cities—New York City, Miami, and now D.C.—with a total of 2,070 artists participating.
Schoenstadt co-organized the local gathering with D.C.-based artist Linn Meyers. For them, being involved in the project is about standing up to the excuse that women artists don’t get shown because there aren’t enough of them. It’s also about connecting artists in different artistic communities with each other. Meyers says she was initially unaware of the vast numbers of women artists when she moved to D.C.
“I started to realize it’s actually not a small community, it’s just a hard-to-see community,” she says.
Beyond the 500 artists who participated in Wednesday’s photo, Meyers and Schoenstadt say that the number of people who have RSVP’d to the four events since 2016—more than 3,000 artists—is what’s most impressive about this project. It “gives a more accurate reflection of the community,” Schoenstadt says.
“This project, part of the impetus is to point out some inequities and point out the strength of the female art community,” Meyers adds. “It’s not to complain about the ways in which things are unfair.”
That’s why the museum, located at 1250 New York Ave. NW, is the only major museum in the world that focuses entirely on women in the arts. And Now Be Here is the perfect project to show the art world that women artists make up a vast and vibrant community, Douglass says.
“Very few collections highlight women artists. And then when you get to talking to artists of color or women artists of color the numbers drop even more dramatically,” she says. “It is expanding and it’s only expanding because there are… women and men that are actively pushing for equality, not only in the arts but in arts administration… who is making the decisions of what’s bought, what’s shown, what’s represented.”
The NMWA played a crucial role in organizing Wednesday’s event, helping to put together a cocktail hour, an open discussion, and a resource fair with nearly two dozen arts organizations after the photo.
Schoenstadt, Meyers, and the NMWA reached out to the participating artists through personal outreach and snail mail, as opposed to social media. The organizers say they were able to attract a more diverse group of women that way. The photo even included some children, which Schoenstadt says was a wonderful opportunity for young artists to boost and reinforce their artistic confidence.
“Imagine what that memory is going to be like for them,” she says. “That validation at a very young age in life.”
Schoenstadt and Meyers didn’t intend the event to be a forum to complain about inequality in the art world, but rather to celebrate women in the arts and give them a platform to connect with each other.
“Once you see us in numbers and know it’s such a huge crowd it’s undeniable that we’re here and that we’re working and that we’re serious and that we identify ourselves as artists,” Meyers says. “And the conversation can just go from there.”
The National Museum of Women in the Arts will host a forum on the El Tendero/Clothesline Project on Nov. 12 with Mexican artist/activist Mónica Mayer. More information availablehere.