Campaign to Promote Women Artists Comes with a Surprising Challenge

With #5WomenArtists, the National Museum of Women in the Arts is tackling gender representation in galleries and exhibitions.
Visitors snap pictures of "Autoportrait au Petit Singe" (1945) by Mexican artist Frida Kahlo at the exhibition 'Frida Kahlo/Diego Rivera, Art in Fusion' at the Musée de l'Orangerie in Paris in October 2013.
Mar 4, 2016· 1 MIN READ
Jennifer Swann is TakePart’s culture and lifestyle reporter.

Frida Kahlo was the first 20th-century Mexican artist to sell a painting to the Louvre. Suzanne Valadon was the first woman accepted to the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts in France. And Alma Woodsey Thomas was the first fine arts student to graduate from Howard University.

But aside from Kahlo, whose image can be found on modern merchandising, many female artists have been largely forgotten by art history. That’s why the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., has launched a social media campaign to illuminate the life and work of female artists from around the world. Timed to Women’s History Month, the effort hinges on one simple question: Can you name five women artists?

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Given women’s underrepresentation in art museums, galleries, and history textbooks, for some folks, answering the question might not be easy. Just 28 percent of solo exhibitions across eight museums spotlighted women throughout the 2000s, according to statistics on the National Museum of Women in the Arts’ website. And although women earn half of all master’s of fine arts degrees in the United States, just a quarter of solo exhibitions in New York art galleries feature women.

National Museum of Women in the Arts director Susan Fisher Sterling hopes the hashtag #5WomenArtists will help people better respond to that question—without any hesitation. “By calling attention to the inequity women artists face today as well as in the past, we hope to inspire conversation and awareness,” she said in a statement. “We are excited to invite other art museums to join us in this initiative.”

The Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, the Getty Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in Los Angeles, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston are among the institutions that have embraced the initiative. Those museums posted photos on Twitter of contemporary artists including Louise Bourgeois, Diana Thater, and Yayoi Kusama. However, some of the museums participating in the campaign have also been targeted by activists for not including female artists in major exhibitions.

The group Guerilla Girls has long sought to expose women’s underrepresntation in major art museums by publishing exhibition statistics on graphic posters and billboards. Less than 5 percent of the artists in the modern art sections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York are women—but 76 percent of the nudes are female, according to one of the group’s campaign posters.