Trendsetters in Art and Politics

Posted June 27, 2008 at 4:36pm

It’s fitting that three women standing in the far corner of one of the galleries at the National Museum of Women in the Arts are talking about the challenges faced by female artists over time.

But the women, strikingly styled in the fashions of the 1920s, 1950s and 1970s, are not visitors or even curators; they are mannequins designed by Dutch artist Mathilde ter Heijne to examine how the role of women in society has influenced art.

The piece is one of about 60 on display as part of “Modern Love,” the museum’s new exhibition of work by contemporary female artists. The exhibit, which runs through September, showcases pieces donated to the museum by Washington lobbyists Heather and Tony Podesta.

The Podestas, known for being at the cutting edge of Washington insider politics, are also on the forefront of the contemporary art world. They have given nearly 250 pieces to the NMWA since 1998, significantly modernizing what was traditionally a museum aimed at preserving older work.

“The Podestas and a couple of other collectors have helped us to bring the collection up to the present,” said Kathryn Wat, NMWA’s curator of modern and contemporary art.

The relatively new arrival of women on the historically male-dominated art scene, coupled with experimentation with new media and technology, has driven the couple’s interest in female artists.

Some of the “most interesting artists who have burst on the scene in the last 5 or 10 or 20 years are often women,” Tony Podesta said.

The innovative and, at times, provocative collection ranges in medium and focus. The mix includes oil paintings, photographs, video installations and sculptures.

The couple’s love for travel, largely in pursuit of new artists and trends, is also apparent in the international nature of the collection. Though they come from different corners of the globe, the pieces share a focus on exploring identity, both in terms of culture and gender.

“In building the collection of the Podestas’ [art], there was a sense that we would have an international art selection,” said Susan Fisher Sterling, director of NMWA. “That was very important to us because, if you think of the last 10 to 15 years, you see a growing global dialogue in contemporary art.”

But the exhibit showcases more than just the couple’s distinctive taste in art. It is a looking glass into the life and mind of the collectors. Accompanying the pieces are cell phone accessible podcasts of the Podestas giving a peek at what the pieces mean to them.

One photo of a sullen young girl sitting naked on a bed was a piece that Tony showed Heather when he cooked her dinner for their third date. (They soon learned that the artist had been a high school classmate of Heather’s.) And a painting of two white tea cups, slightly out of focus but tied together by a red string, embodies the way the pair brought their lives — and love of collecting art — together, Tony Podesta explains in the recording.

The museum began using the dial-by-cell technology to bring artists’ voices to the galleries about a year ago with the help of a grant from the Cora and John H. Davis Foundation. Museum officials say these recordings are an extra special addition to the show.

“Heather and Tony’s version is quite distinctive — very personal, very meaningful, and they add something to the exhibit that a curator, no matter how personal you are, can’t,” Wat said.

For the Podestas, who routinely host tours of the work displayed in their home and offices for friends and other art aficionados, recording their commentary had its benefits.

“The advantage of doing that is you can always rerecord it, while if you have 20 people looking at work in your home or your office and you say something, you can’t delete it,” Tony Podesta joked.

It might surprise the average viewer that most of the pieces, including larger installations, were once on display in the couple’s home. An installation made of hanging clusters of surgical steel and resin reminiscent of raindrops collecting on fibrous spiders once dangled above the Podestas’ dining room table and ter Heijne’s three mannequins were set up to “have a conversation” in an upstairs video room.

“It’s a little bit like visiting friends you haven’t seen in a long time,” Podesta said of seeing a piece that was once a part of the couple’s everyday lives on display in a museum.