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Higher profile for D.C. women's museum

Washington, D.C. -- For almost 20 years, Susan Fisher Sterling has watched visitors come into the National Museum of Women in the Arts to study the works of Frida Kahlo, Mary Cassatt, Georgia O'Keeffe and Elizabeth Catlett.

Last week, she took charge of the country's only museum dedicated to female artists. Sterling, 52, was named director of the downtown Washington facility, which often does groundbreaking work but is just as often overlooked among Washington museums.

Sterling said that her vision for the 20-year-old museum, which has 50 full-time employees and an annual budget of $10.5 million, includes ensuring that it stands out from others in Washington and the world.

"We are very proud of our permanent collection. We are this jewel box of a building with great work in it. I want us to blow our horn louder," she said. In January, the museum was one of 20 museums and libraries that received a medal from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services for its commitment to public service.

Sterling joined the staff in 1988, a year after the museum opened. The institution, founded by Wilhelmina Cole Holladay, started with 500 works; it now has almost 3,000 by more than 800 artists. The museum drew record crowds to its shows on folk artist Grandma Moses in 2000 and theater and film director Julie Taymor in 2000 and 2001. But yearly attendance remains a problem, averaging about 140,000.

As a curator, Sterling organized surveys of photographer Carrie Mae Weems and painters Sarah Charlesworth, Romaine Brooks and Alice Neel, as well as two rare retrospectives of Brazilian art. In addition, as the curator of contemporary art, she brought more photography, abstract painting and feminist art into the archives.

She declined to reveal her favorite shows. "Like an artist, I believe the last work I have done is the best," Sterling said.

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