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NCMA's "Matrons of the Arts" initiative highlights female artists

NCMA Matrons of the Arts
"Daphne," a bust by Harriet Hosmer, is displayed next to Mary Cassatt's "Portrait of Madame X Dressed for the Matinee." Courtesy of the NCMA.

According to the North Carolina Museum of Art, the word “matron” is no longer a derogatory term, but an elevating one. 

Set to officially launch this month, the Matrons of the Arts is a museum-wide initiative seeking to give female artists better representation. This will be done through special programs with guest speakers, exhibitions that feature female artists and the highlighting of artwork in the NCMA’s permanent collection. 

The title is a play on patrons of arts — while patrons are seen in a positive light and as supporters of the arts, matrons are seen as “passive and stodgy,” according to Jennifer Dasal, the associate curator of contemporary art at the NCMA. 

“It's sort of a subversive way to (put) the word matron into a positive light and then also to show that women are at the forefront of the mission of this Matrons of the Arts initiative,” Dasal said. 

The initiative has been in the works for about a year now, with exhibits linked to the initiative such as "We’ve Met Before" by textile artist Andrea Donnelly. However, its first big launch will occur on Sunday, Jan. 28 at a sold-out event featuring guest speaker Bridget Quinn, who is the author of “Broad Strokes: 15 Women Who Made Art and Made History (In That Order).” 

Not only is the NCMA focusing this initiative on their art collection, but also on the books and the magnets that will now be sold at the museum store. 

“When we first started the initiative, there was only one book in the bookstore about a female artist," said Lizzie Cheatham McNairy, founder of the Matrons of Art. "Now, we have tables full."

“These artists are and were incredibly talented and played a big role in the story of art. I'm really excited now that if a girl walks in, she's going to see other women artists represented — that people will be able to give themselves a broader education about art.” 

McNairy found herself questioning the education of art history after touring many elementary schools for her kindergarten-aged son. She realized that with the exception of one artist, there were no female artists represented on the walls of the art rooms in these schools. She wondered how it was possible to tell boys and girls alike that they can be anything they want to be, but yet they’re not seeing themselves represented. 

Thus began the spark behind the Matrons of Arts initiative. 

The movement has been carried out with a strong group effort. As exhibitions open, artists will be able to speak at talks. An immersive exhibit, opening on April 7, titled "You Are Here: Light, Color, and Sound Experiences" will feature several female artists including Durham-based artist Heather Gordon. One of Gordon’s works set to be featured is titled “Cinnabar” and refers to a chemical compound of mercury sulfide. 

Gordon hopes to create a transformational space with a time-lapse video projection showing salt dancing in geometric pattern using Chladni Plates.

“We are manifesting, we're creating a byproduct," Gordon said. "So when we walk out of the museum, we have obtained a different perspective on art and what an immersive installation can be and what art can do for us. Perhaps, I would love it even if we think of it as a reassignment of cultural value.”

Female artists that remain in the NCMA’s collection range from Louise Bourgeois, to Mickalene Thomas, to Georgia O’Keeffe. Adding to this collection of works by female artists includes a marble sculpture titled “Daphne” that has just been acquired by the museum. It was created by Harriet Hosmer, who is considered to be one of the first big female sculptors of the 19th century. 

Dasal describes it as “a beautiful kind of classical bust view of a woman… it is so peaceful and so graceful, and it's this perfect white marble.” 

Women have played a huge role in the arts, and the Matrons of the Arts initiative is only at the beginning of its sincere and uplifting efforts to bring female artists to the forefront of history.


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