The passion is what drives us forward
Kathryn Wat was a high school student when she found out about the great work being done at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.
She’s now chief curator at the Washington DC museum, the only major museum worldwide dedicated solely to women’s creative contributions.
Dr Wat recently spoke on women in the arts as part of a lecture hosted by the Bermuda National Gallery.
She said that female artists around the world faced similar challenges in getting their work shown, reaching out to new audiences and raising awareness.
“It was interesting because although there are specific things I am sure to this country that might be a little different from women artists working in other areas, there are lots of similarities and lots of things that resonate throughout different cultures,” she said.
“What I also observed is that everyone is very hopeful, upbeat and passionate about what they do. That’s what I was struck by — how driven, excited, passionate and focused these women artists are.
“That passion is what is going to drive us forward, as well as our talents. Women artists are acknowledged to be at the forefront of so many different areas and they are going to continue, in particular, to drive new media.”
The National Museum of Women in the Arts was formed by art collectors Wilhelmina Cole Holladay and Wallace F Holladay in 1987, after they noticed that women, and various racial and ethnic groups, were grossly under-represented in museum collections and major art exhibitions.
Its goal is to help people rediscover artists who weren’t written into the history books and show people women’s relevance in the art world.
Dr Wat said: “I want people to be inspired by the works they see and the stories they learn about [at the museum], but I also want them to know that women artists have always been around and they have always been working.
“Our collection starts with works from the 16th Century. [Women artists] were certainly smaller in number and they didn’t get written into the history books, which is why Mrs Holladay, when she started to collect women artists, had such a hard time finding information about them.”
Today’s female artists are especially prominent in video, sculpture and sound installations, she said.
And although there are an equal number of women and men in art room classrooms, their work isn’t displayed in that proportion.
“If you look at who is getting solo shows at commercial galleries and who is being focused on in one-person exhibitions in museums, it’s still male artists by a tremendous percentage,” said Dr Wat.
“So that is something we still want to raise awareness about and change people’s focus in the meantime and find greater parity in the art world for women.”
Scholars in the 1970s originally set out to define how women’s artwork differed to men’s, but art insiders today say the pieces are largely the same.
“You can’t put a painting in front of someone and have them say categorically if it’s from a woman or a man,” said Dr Wat. “So again we want parity, we want the equal playing field and we want women artists to be considered in the same way male artists are.”
She said she loved working with artists, particularly those in the realm of contemporary art, and was often inspired by contact with such individuals. She also said it was rewarding to get to play a part in rewriting history and contribute to historical knowledge about women artists from the past.
Dr Wat said she was thrilled that her job allowed her to meet with new people — whether on a tour at the museum or during a lecture overseas — to show them the images and engage in discussion about what the importance, impact and aesthetic appeal of the art work is.
“I get such a charge out of doing that and that is so gratifying for me because it changes people’s perspectives, their ideas and raises awareness,” she said. “Having that kind of impact is wonderful.”
Dr Wat said she had been interested in art from a young age, but it took a serious turn while taking an art history class in college. She was learning about everything from prehistoric art to present day works and was amazed to see the variety of ways people used art to express themselves globally.
“I was astonished by human creativity and achievement,” she said. “I was coming out of high school when I was mostly worried about my own work and my friends and all the things that high-schoolers are concerned about, so this broadened my view and really changed my world view and showed me things I had never seen or thought about.
“I got a little taste of that and decided this is what I wanted to dedicate myself to.”
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