In her best Queens accent Meredith Rutledge-Borger, a curator for The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, recounts the comment that Cyndi repeated over and over as she toured the museum “Where are the women?” It’s likely that Meredith edited out a few of Cyndi’s, shall we say, more colorful words, but the general question was one that Meredith had posed to her colleagues many times, and having one of the leading voices of the industry calling you to the carpet finally sparked them to take action.
What resulted from Cyndi’s visit was an exhibit devoted solely to rock and roll’s most iconic female artists.
First debuted at The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, the “Women Who Rock: Vision, Passion, Power” exhibit opened today (September 7) in the nation’s capital at the National Museum of Women in the Arts and will be showing through January 6, 2013.
While actually very fitting, at first glance the elegant Renaissance Revival building that houses the National Museum of Women in the Arts seems like an odd host for the exhibit unless maybe you imagine Joan Jett smashing one of the stunning crystal chandeliers that hang in the museum’s Great Hall with her guitar.
The National Museum of Women in the Arts founders, Wilhelmina Cole Holladay and Wallace F. Holladay, began collecting art in the 1960s, just as scholars and art historians were beginning to discuss the underrepresentation of women and various racial and ethnic groups in museum collections and major art exhibitions.
The Women Who Rock exhibit was selected to close the National Museum of Women in the Arts’ 25th anniversary celebration at the museum’s current location.
“This exhibit is our first opportunity to highlight performing arts in a very high profile way,” says National Museum of Women in the Arts’ chief curator Kathryn Wat, who believes that the exhibit fits perfectly with the museum’s mission.
Just slightly smaller than the inaugural showing, the current exhibit incorporates to various degrees 70 artists and includes more than 250 artifacts ranging from photos, performance videos, and album covers, to more personal memorabilia such as clothes, instruments, and set lists.
Visitors are first introduced to the exhibit by rock and rolls foremothers, the women like blues singers Ma Rainey and country singer Mother Maybelle Carter. It was their music that laid the foundation for today’s rockers – male and female.
From the women that planted the seeds of rock and roll, the exhibit’s journey continues with later pioneers such as Wanda Jackson and LaVern Baker through 60s girl groups, 70s disco, 80s punk, and contemporary stars.
Each phase of the exhibit builds on the bigger and bigger story of the music that links them all together as well as a subtext about feminism and sexuality.
The dominate artifacts of the exhibit are the clothes, with items such as Billie Holiday’s fox-fur-stole, Cher’s “Half Breed” dress and headdress, and Rihanna’s leather, studded bustier that she wore during her performance at the 2008 American Music Awards.
The clothes are more than just a fashion show. As Meredith explains, “a huge part of [an artist’s] presentation is what they are wearing” because it helps transport the observer to a specific time and shapes the overall experience.
Lady Gaga’s meat dress that she donned for the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards, not only shocked, but also served to as a political statement about the military’s anti-gay don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy that was still in effect at that time. The dress’ preservation and place among the artifacts helps underline the fact that the women in the exhibit were not only shaped by the world around them but also helped shape it.
A copy of Loretta Lynn’s “Back to County” album is used to tell the story of her support for birth control, which she expressed poignantly through her controversial song “The Pill,” the only single released from that album.
Bald from chemotherapy to treat her breast cancer, Melissa Etheridge performed at the 2005 Grammy Awards wearing a top designed by Junya Watanabe. The double breasted jacket with purple fringe and silver skull buttons is shown in the exhibit not only to discuss Melissa’s illness but also her coming out as a lesbian and her political activism.
Cancer-free, Melissa just release a new album “4th Street Feeling [Deluxe Edition]” and she will receive the National Museum of Women in the Arts’ Award for Excellence in the Performing Arts at the museum’s annual fall benefit on November 4.
In a statement released by the museum, Melissa remarks, “I am honored to receive this award from the National Museum of Women in the Arts. I have long admired their work and salute this museum for all it is doing to celebrate women artists, especially the women who challenged societal norms to pursue careers in the arts. These women inspire us all and I am proud to be among them.”
The National Museum of Women in the Arts is conveniently located in the heart of Washington, D.C., at the corner of New York Avenue and 13th Street, N.W. The museum is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on Sunday from 12 noon to 5 p.m. (closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day). General admission is $10, $8 for seniors and students and free first Sunday of every month. Call 877-226-5294 for advance sales.
Kimpton has been playing the welcoming host to women road warriors long before Carrie Brandshaw sipped her first cosmo. Luckily for visitors to Washington, D.C., the city is home to eight of the hotelier’s properties.
The stylish and modern Donovan House (1155 14th Street, N.W.; 800-383-6900) and the grand Hotel Monaco (700 F Street, N.W.; 800-649-1202) are each in walking distance of the National Museum of Women in the Arts as well as the city’s extensive metro system.
Keeping with the exhibit’s theme, the Hard Rock Café (999 E Street, N.W.; 202-737-7625) offers its own collection of rock and roll memorabilia as well as an extensive casual dining menu, including an extensive selection of burgers.
Many of the best restaurants in the nation’s capital are also headed by women. Chef Jamie Leeds owns and operates Hanks Oyster Bar, with two locations in Washington, D.C. (633 Pennsylvania Avenue, S.E.; 202-733-1971, and 1624 Q Street N.W.; 202-462-4265), is among the city’s top seafood spots. Not only a culinary powerhouse, Jamie is the immediate past president of the Women Chefs and Restaurateurs that works to promote and enhance the education, advancement and connection of women in the culinary industry.
In addition to the groundbreaking Women Who Rock exhibit, the critically acclaimed production of “One Night with Janis Joplin” fresh from its run at the Cleveland Play House will make its Washington, D.C. debut at the newly refurbished Arena Stage (1101 Sixth Street S.W.; 202-488-3300), from September 28 through November 4. Janis, who is prominently featured in the Women Who Rock exhibit, is considered one of the most influential female rock and roll musicians of any generation or gender. Playwright-director Randy Johnson received unprecedented access to the Joplin family archives to create “One Night with Janis Joplin,” which enabled him to give audiences a profound immersion into this blues-belting innovator’s musical brilliance.
To rock out or get political around D.C. during your trip, visit Destination DC.