M&T Bank Presents CEOs You Should Know

M&T Bank Presents CEOs You Should Know

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Susan Fisher Sterling, Director, National Museum of Women in the Arts

Susan Fisher Sterling

Susan Fisher Sterling is Alice West Director of the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) located in Washington, D.C. She built her career and the stature of the museum around the message of equity for women through excellence in the arts. 

Sterling started at NMWA in 1988—a year after the museum opened—as associate curator, then was appointed curator of modern and contemporary art, followed by chief curator/deputy director. Sterling assumed the directorship of the museum in 2008. Under Sterling’s collaborative feminist leadership, NMWA developed with a dual focus on arts and advocacy, and she grew the profile of the institution through high-caliber exhibitions, in-depth publications, expansive public programs, and increased global visibility.

During her tenure, the museum has presented landmark exhibitions of work by some of today’s most influential modern and contemporary women artists. These include solo exhibitions of Romaine Brooks, Judy Chicago, Sonya Clark, Graciela Iturbide, Mary Ellen Mark, Loïs Mailou Jones, Alice Neel, Faith Ringgold, Ursula von Rydingsvard, Remedios Varo, and Carrie Mae Weems. Key contemporary surveys have showcased Brazilian artists (1993 and 2001), artists from the Arab world (1994 and 2014), Australian Aboriginal artists (2006), and Korean artists (1991), among others. Sterling also was responsible for bringing important international exhibitions to the museum, including Inside the Visible (1996), WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution (2007), and Womenhouse (2018).

In fulfillment of the museum’s mission, Sterling also led projects that brought due recognition to great women in the history of art. Among these were early exhibitions featuring Sofonisba Anguissola, Josepha D’Obidos, Lavinia Fontana, and Judith Leyster, and surveys such as An Imperial Collection: Women Artists from the State Hermitage Museum (2003), Italian Women Artists from Renaissance to Baroque (2007), and Royalists to Romantics: Women Artists from the Louvre, Versailles, and Other French National Collections (2012).

Since Sterling joined NMWA, in partnership with a dynamic board, the museum’s collection has grown to more than 6,000 works, with a commitment to diverse representation across all mediums. She has grown NMWA’s impact through signature programs like the groundbreaking Women, Arts, and Social Change public programs initiative. Begun in 2015, this series includes diverse presenters on topics related to arts, gender equity, and significant social issues of our time.

Sterling has expanded NMWA’s influence outside of the museum’s walls. The New York Avenue Sculpture Project, which Sterling created in 2010, has brought significant large-scale public artworks by Magdalena Abakanowicz, Chakaia Booker, Niki de Saint Phalle, and Betsabeé Romero to the streets of Washington, D.C. She also has led the museum’s development of a unique global network of 29 committees providing grassroots support for women artists. These groups work with NMWA on the ongoing Women to Watch exhibition series, which brings new talents to international attention.

Sterling has fostered NMWA’s capacity to act as both a museum and an amplifier, advancing discussions on gender parity in the art world. Challenging fellow cultural institutions to make significant commitments to gender representation, the museum’s globally recognized #5WomenArtists social media campaign, which asks the question “Can you name five women artists?” has been cited as an inspiration for equity initiatives across numerous industries.

Under her aegis, NMWA’s collection, exhibitions, and programs have garnered grants and recognition from the National Endowment for the Arts; the Institute of Museum and Library Services (Museums for America Grant), in support of an extensive digital accessibility initiative; the inaugural Anthem Awards, a new Webby Awards initiative acknowledging global leaders creating social impact; and the Muse Creative Platinum Award.

Sterling is now at the helm of a $67.5 million renovation of NMWA’s historic building, with plans to reopen to the public in fall 2023.

A lifelong champion of promoting women through the arts, Sterling has received National Orders of Merit from Brazil and Norway. She has been recognized as one of the Most Powerful Women in Washington by Washingtonian magazine and is a recipient of ArtTable 30th Anniversary Honors as well as the President’s Award from the Women’s Caucus for Art. Sterling holds a B.A. in art and archaeology from Washington University in St. Louis and an M.A. and Ph.D. in art and archaeology from Princeton University.

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