Filling the Gaps: Women’s History Month and Museum Collections

One of the most awkward and thought-provoking moments I have ever experienced at the National Sporting Library & Museum was in my early years as the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Curator when the Museum first opened. It was in 2012, and I was a young and enthusiastic curator of a fine art collection which had grown over the previous decades through generous donations and bequests to the Library and was transferred to the new space under Museum standards and care. I was conducting a private tour with a potential sponsor considering underwriting bus transport for student groups.

Franklin Brooke Voss (American, 1880–1953), Portrait of Mrs. William C. Langley, Aside on Sandown, oil on canvas, 28 x 36 inches, National Sporting Library & Museum, Gift of Mrs. Eleanor Langley Fletcher, 1962

As we wound our way through the galleries, discussion flowed freely. We chatted about highlights of the collection, challenges of new museums, and growth of the collections. We built a good rapport, and as the tour ended, we exchanged contact information. I was honored by the kind compliments offered as we said goodbye. Then, the visitor paused for a moment and remarked:

“You know, this museum is really beautiful, but I haven’t seen a single woman represented in these spaces today.”

Marie-Louise Radziwill (American, b. 1956), The Maryland Hunt Cup, 1973, bronze, 9 x 12 1/2 x 9 inches, National Sporting Library & Museum, Gift of the artist, 1978

I was taken aback, but upon further reflection, it was an astute observation and largely correct. At that time, there were few works by female artists or depictions of women on view in the Museum galleries. Frankly, we did not have many artworks in this category (in addition to other notable gaps) in the permanent collection that met the bar for Museum display based on condition and prominence set forth in our Collections Management Policy. Needless to say, we did not get the underwriting, and that day I understood that I needed to focus more on making our art collection installations, acquisitions, and permanent and loan exhibitions more diverse representations of the sporting culture of our past, the community our mission serves today, and future interest.

Marie-Rosalie Bonheur (French 1822–1899), Lion studies, oil on canvas, 9 1/8 x 12 1/2 inches, National Sporting Library & Museum, Gift of the Estate of Milton Ritzenberg, 2018

Let me be clear. I am not a revisionist in my role at NSLM. My dedication to our institution is to drill down to finding an accurate account of sporting art and culture in any given era. There are many times when these concepts have not historically converged, but illustrations and satirical images fill in the gaps, opening our eyes to individuals and their stories.

Salle Foster, “The Sporting Woman: A Book of Days,” 1989. Little, Brown, and Company, NSLM Collection; reproduction of John Collet (English, 1720 – 1780), “The Ladies Shooting Poney,” hand-colored mezzotint, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, New Haven.

We have worked hard over the years, not as a politically correct endeavor. The National Museum of Women in that Arts mission and #fivewomenartists campaign reminds us that women have historically been significantly underrepresented across museums (Further reading: Women in Art: The Double X Factor, 2017 blog). Acknowledging this, means recognizing that if museums continue to prioritize prominent artists from past eras, this then perpetuates the selection of male over female artists.  We countered this at the NSLM by creating a Collecting Plan to equally consider underrepresented artists and subjects as part of our growth. 

Mildred Sands Kratz (American, 1928 – 2013), End of the Line, 1970, watercolor on paper, sight size 20 3/4 x 28 inches, National Sporting Library & Museum, Gift of Patricia Cox Panzarella and Thomas Panzarella, 2020

Additionally, we have looked to curating exhibitions featuring female solo artists and introduced new scholarship on sporting women and art, including The Art of Women and the Sporting Life, Clarice Smith: Power & Grace, and Sidesaddle, 1690-1935. Most recently we presented, Leading the Field: Ellen Emmet Rand, a project that re-established the artist’s significant contributions to sporting portraiture during the heyday of sporting life in the U.S. and her prominent career as a pioneering female artist in her lifetime.

Ellen Emmet Rand (American, 1875-1941), Miss Emily Davie, ex-Whipper-in to the Aiken Junior Drag, 1932, oil on canvas,
48 ½ x 31 inches, on loan from the Collection of Geoffrey N. Bradfield to “Leading the Field: Ellen Emmet Rand” exhibition, October 4, 2019 – June 30, 2020

Women’s History Month offers us an opportunity to reflect and reminds us to set new goals for the future, not just in this month but year-round. Women have always been an integral part of sporting culture and art, and it is imperative that we preserve the record of their endeavors and accomplishments.

Clarice Smith, (American, b.1933), Gallop, 2009, oil with gold and copper leaf on canvas, on 5-panel screen, 50 x 77 1/2 inches, National Sporting Library & Museum, Gift of Clarice Smith, 2015, © Clarice Smith

Claudia Pfeiffer is the Deputy Director and George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Curator at the National Sporting Library & Museum and has been with the organization since the position was first underwritten by the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Foundation in 2012. Her primary focus is the research, design, interpretation, writing, and installation of exhibitions. E-mail Claudia at cpfeiffer@nationalsporting.org

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