Meet the women museum directors changing the way we think about art

In celebration of International Women’s Day, we profile seven museum directors who are showcasing new artists, restoring reputations, and deploying art as a force for change

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Sheikha Al Mayassa is at the heart of Qatar’s nation-building programme. Photo: Harry Cory Wright/The Interior Archive

Sheikha Al Mayassa, Qatar Museums, Doha

Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, one of the most familiar faces of Qatar’s ruling Al Thani family, is also the chair of Qatar Museums. In that role she has an annual budget that makes her a major player on the global art stage — arguably, even, the single most influential figure in the museum world.

Qatar’s nation-building programme has involved huge investment in museums and art venues. The magnificent Museum of Islamic Art, launched in 2008, cost $800 million to create. More recently its spectacular National Museum — formed of interlocking discs designed by Jean Nouvel, and said to have been inspired by a desert rose crystal — opened in 2019 to wide acclaim. Time magazine announced it as one of the World’s Greatest Places to Visit.

The Sheikha has to balance two artistic traditions — European and Middle Eastern. Works by titans of the Western art canon have been acquired — Richard Serra’s East-West / West-East, a permanent installation in the Qatari desert, being a notable example. But she has also created Mathaf, a museum of modern Arab art; and, strikingly, she personally commissioned Brigitte Lacombe to photograph Arab sportswomen. That progressive exhibition, Hey’Ya, has now been seen around the globe.

The Sheikha’s long-term aim, it seems, is to make Doha the intellectual centre of the Middle East — if not the art capital of the entire world.

Mal Lawal 3, featuring works owned by 26 Qatari collectors, is coming soon to the National Museum of Qatar

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Kaywin Feldman, who in December 2018 became the first woman director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Photo: Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

Kaywin Feldman, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

When Kaywin Feldman was director of the Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA), a concerned trustee asked her if the museum might ever be the focus of protest. She told him bluntly that it would.

‘We have it all on our walls: imperialism, colonialism, war, oppression, discrimination, slavery, misogyny, rape and more.’ Artists, she explained, reflect our beautiful and horrific world back to us.

Born in Boston in 1966, Feldman studied archaeology before obtaining a master’s degree in art history from the Courtauld Institute in London. During her 11-year tenure at MIA, her focus on social justice and equality led to groundbreaking exhibitions on gender and race identity, including Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists and The Contested Body. She also established the Center for Empathy and the Visual Arts in response to concern among social scientists that empathy is in decline in the US. 

In December 2018, Feldman broke the glass ceiling to become the first woman director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., where she continues to pursue a radical agenda.

A Superb Baroque: Art in Genoa, 1600-1750 is at the National Gallery of Art from 26 September 2021

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Olga Sviblova at MAMM with works from the series Farms of Hephaestus, 2017, by Tim Parchikov. Photo: © Turkina Faso. Artwork: © Tim Parchikov

Olga Sviblova, MAMM, Moscow

On graduating with a degree in psychology from Moscow State University, Olga Sviblova was offered a job in the military. She declined. In 1970s Soviet Russia her options were limited, so she became a street sweeper.

‘All the artists, poets and writers were cleaners,’ she says. The perk was the free time it brought, and she used it to curate exhibitions in friends’ apartments and make films about the underground art scene, a subject on which she became the authority.

By 1991, the year the Soviet Union fell, she was addressing the World Economic Forum in Davos. Five years later she opened the Moscow House of Photography, building a collection of more than 80,000 prints and cementing the reputation of a generation of overlooked Soviet photographers.

But Sviblova had bigger ideas, and in 2010 the collection was subsumed into MAMM (Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow), the most dynamic contemporary art space in Russia, where she remains the founding director. At any one time there will be half a dozen shows in its galleries, featuring work by modern and contemporary Russian and international artists, exhibitions that invariably attract thousands of curious visitors. When, for example, she organised the first ever Russian exhibition of paintings by Sean Scully, then largely unknown in the country, it drew 19,000 people on its opening weekend.

Boris Nazarenko: Flow is at MAMM from 27 April 2021

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Maria Balshaw at Tate Britain with Cerith Wyn Evans, Forms in Space… by Light (in Time), the 2017 Tate Britain Commission. Photo: Tom Jamieson / New York Times / eyevine. Artwork: © Cerith Wyn Evans

Maria Balshaw, Tate, UK

The director of Tate, and by extension the most powerful woman on the British art scene, overseeing four museums and more than 75,000 works, Maria Balshaw had been in post 18 months when it was announced that Tate Britain would henceforth dedicate one of its most prominent gallery spaces to works made by women in the past 60 years.

Visit it now, and there are 36 works by 32 artists. Perhaps the most striking is the late Susan Hiller’s multimedia installation Belshazzar’s Feast, the Writing on Your Wall (1983-4), its very title a call to action.

Since Balshaw’s arrival in 2017, Tate Modern has staged major retrospectives of female artists including Anni Albers (1899-1994), Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962), Dora Maar (1907-1997) and Dorothea Tanning (1910-2012). Coming up are solo exhibitions of Paula Rego (b. 1935), Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1899-1943) and the sculptors Magdalena Abakanowicz (1930-2017) and Maria Bartuszová (1936-1996).

Yet Balshaw insists that she and the artists shown at Tate should not be defined by gender. ‘I might have been defined as much by the fact that I grew up in a town without an art gallery as by the fact that I was a girl,’ she told The Times.

Balshaw neither studied art history nor worked as a curator. Rather, her first degree was in English literature and cultural studies, her doctorate in African-American visual and literary culture. Hence, perhaps, her determination ‘to broaden the story, add nuance and complexity’.

Paula Rego is at Tate Britain from 7 July and  Sophie Taeuber-Arp at Tate Modern from 15 July 2021


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Laurence des Cars at the Musée D’Orsay in Paris. Photo: © Franck Ferville

Laurence des Cars, Musée de l’Orangerie and Musée d’Orsay, Paris

In a world that is always talking about art as a global dialogue, Laurence des Cars has made it her responsibility to open and maintain the lines of communication. Before she became director of the Musée de l’Orangerie and Musée d’Orsay, she spent seven years helping to set up the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

An internationalist to the core, des Cars insists that it is vital to involve the ‘new actors’ in Africa and the Middle East in the global exchange of ideas and cultural treasures. ‘It’s no longer just a conversation between Europe and the US,’ she says.

To make that conversation worthwhile, great paintings must travel. In 2019, for example, she took Impressionist works from Paris to the Mohammed VI Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Rabat, Morocco, for an exhibition seen by record numbers of visitors.

‘Nothing can replace direct contact with the work,’ says des Cars. ‘One might imagine the most high-definition reproductions conceivable, but even those can never replicate the texture, the materiality, the emotion that emanates from an original piece.’

If art is a universal language, it needs fluent speakers to help it flourish. Laurence des Cars — a thoughtful writer on art as well as a curator — is one of those eloquent people.

Bring on the cinema! is at the Musée d’Orsay from 28 September 2021

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Thelma Golden with Andy Robert, Greyhound II Harlem, 2017 (detail). Photo: Brad Ogbonna / Redux / eyevine. Artwork: Courtesy the artist, Hannah Hoffman, Los Angeles, and Greene Naftali, New York

Thelma Golden, Studio Museum, New York

‘Creating space is a cultural act,’ Thelma Golden has said, ‘but it is also a political act.’ Throughout her career as a curator, Golden has championed African-American artists and helped draw attention to the ‘global black presence’ in art.

That has meant ‘reinventing the museum as a think-tank’ or ‘a space for a contest of ideas’ — a definition that any forward-thinking curator in the world would now subscribe to.

Golden began her career as an intern at the Studio Museum in Harlem. From there she went to the Whitney, where she co-curated the epoch-making 1993 Biennial. That event was more diverse in terms of its artists than any previous iteration, and much of the art on show was difficult and confrontational. Some critics were left baffled and angry — but the point had been made: art can and should be deployed as a force for change.

Back at the Studio Museum, where she has been director since 2005, Golden continues to look to ‘artists who understand and rewrite history, who think about themselves, who have created new places for us to see’.

The Studio Museum’s online exhibition, Hearts in Isolation: Expanding the Walls 2020, continues until 31 July 2021

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Zelfira Tregulova, director of Moscow’s State Tretyakov Gallery. Photo: courtesy the State Tretyakov Gallery

Zelfira Tregulova, State Treyakov Gallery, Moscow

Until the Ministry of Culture appointed Zelfira Tregulova as director of the State Tretyakov Gallery in 2015, there was rarely a queue to enter Moscow’s revered repository of Russian art.

The following year, drawing substantially on works from its own collection, she organised an exhibition of the great 19th-century portrait painter Valentin Serov (1865-1911). More importantly, she created a buzz. Half a million people saw the show, many queuing for up to four hours in sub-zero temperatures. Subsequent blockbusters devoted to Ivan Aivazovsky (1817-1900) and Ilya Repin (1844-1930) proved even more magnetic.

A veteran of several major Moscow museums, among them the Kremlin and Rosizo, Tregulova also spent time at the Guggenheim in New York, where she worked on the exhibitions Amazons of the Avant-garde (1999-2001) and Russia! (2005-6).

As well as reigniting an interest in Russia for its own culture, she is determined to bring contemporary art from other countries to Moscow, too. Hence the Tretyakov’s planned survey of contemporary art from India, drawn from the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in New Delhi. Like India’s pavilion at the 2019 Venice Biennale, the exhibition (dates to be announced) will be overseen by Nadar’s chief curator, Roobina Karode.

Dreams of Freedom: Romanticism in Russia and Germany is at the New Tretyakov Gallery from 23 April 2021

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