National Museum of Women in the Arts
National Museum of Women in the Arts renovation project: Great Hall; Rendering by Sandra Vicchio & Associates, LLC, with Marshall Craft Associates, Inc.

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It’s a bit of an insult to learn that some people assume the National Museum of Women in the Arts is a quaint house museum rather than a multistory institution, located in a historical building and situated in the heart of downtown D.C. But alas, Susan Fisher Sterling, NMWA’s director, says that’s the case. Underestimate the museum all you want, but the joke will be on you when it reopens Oct. 21, 2023, after a two-year and $67.5 million renovation.

The museum, the first in the world solely dedicated to championing women artists, closed in August 2021 for its first full renovation since opening in 1987. Currently, the interior is crowded with construction equipment, boarded-up windows, scaffolding, and half-exposed brick walls, but come fall, the space will include more than 2,800 new feet of gallery space—carved out of the existing building—spanning four floors. Two new elevators are being installed to make the entirety of the museum accessible.

Sandra Vicchio (left) of Sandra Vicchio & Associates and National Museum of Women in the Arts Director Susan Fisher Sterling; Credit: Sarah Marloff

Located at 1250 New York Ave. NW, the wedge-shaped, flat-iron building was originally built in 1908. The new design, by Baltimore-based firm Sandra Vicchio & Associates, aims to “preserve the exterior fabric of the building while creating an interior that allows this forward-looking institution to meet its mission,” explains Sandra Vicchio. “Balancing this ethos of historic structures with forward-looking interiors is really at the core of the work that we do.” 

Several columns have been removed from the ground-floor rotunda (turns out they weren’t for support, just looks). Artwork will now replace the welcome desk that previously sat in the entryway. The second floor, complete with movable walls and ceiling tracks, will house rotating special exhibits, including the inaugural opening show, The Sky’s the Limit

In addition to equipping the space with updated technology—QR codes abound!—and all the various electrical and safety systems, the renovation will also make it possible for large, as in “monumental,” as Fisher Sterling calls them, works to be displayed for the first time in NMWA, via reinforced ceilings and walls. (The opening show will display a 450-pound piece that will be suspended from the new ceiling.)

“Being able to display that kind of work is not something we could do before,” Fisher Sterling says. “When you think about the nature of art today, the nature of installations, video art, all the new media that can be involved in art, as well as more traditional painting and sculpture, we’re going to be able to tell the story of women’s accomplishments more fully.”

The movable walls will allow the second-floor gallery to shape-shift to fit a specific show or artist’s needs—be it to create one large gallery wall or more intimate spaces. 

“Flexibility is really the name of the game,” explains NMWA’s Director of Operations Gordon Umbarger, especially, but not only, when working with different artists with different needs. “As the past few years have shown us, we don’t know what’s right around the corner.” The flexibility, which extends to the new fourth-floor Learning Commons, is about future-proofing the museum as much as is possible.

The Learning Commons, an entirely new space, replaces former offices—including Fisher Sterling’s. The area will feature the new education and public program studio, as well as the library and research center. Here, NMWA hopes to host their ongoing talks and book clubs, as well as workshops and community space for local groups that don’t have their own space. “A big part of our effort will be to make sure that we have a real connection with the community through this space,” Fisher Sterling says. 

The stairs connecting the ground floor’s great hall to the mezzanine, Feb. 15, 2023; Credit: Sarah Marloff

The third floor will house NMWA’s collection galleries. As it did previously, the museum will organize the work by theme rather than by timeline. According to Fisher Sterling, NMWA opts for this layout because the work of women and people of color tend to come later in timelines. The museum has been organizing galleries and exhibitions thematically since 2017—one of the first museums to do so. Today, NMWA’s collection totals just over 6,000 objects, many of which have never been showcased to the public.

Some of those never-before-seen pieces will be part of the opening exhibition, where they will hang in all their massive, “bold, powerful, impressive glory,” says Fisher Sterling. She says that The Sky’s the Limit “is the perfect embodiment of our ambitions: It will showcase immersive installations and large scale sculpture that could rarely, and in some cases never, been shown here before.”

The National Museum of Women in the Arts reopens on Oct. 21, 2023.