4 Fascinating Museums that Were Founded by Women

Footnotes from the Most Fascinating Museums

Bob Eckstein’s 2024 book, Footnotes from the Most Fascinating Museums: Stories and Memorable Moments from People Who Love Museums (Princeton Architectural Press) is a fantastic addition to the body of work by this talented writer, illustrator, and cartoonist.

A love letter to museums mainly around the U.S., it’s an eclectic collection that features Bob’s distinctive artwork. It was interesting to discover that several important museums were founded by women, and that’s what we’ll focus on here. 

You’ll find plenty of art museums, of course, but other types of museums are well represented as well. Science, culture, transportation, history, and historic homes are represented. The entries offer basic info, but what really makes them shine are the personal stories from visitors to each venue.

In addition to those highlighted below, I hadn’t realized that the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in NYC was founded by three women collectively known as “the Ladies” — Abby Rockefeller, Lillie P. Bliss, and Mary Quinn Sullivan. 

Footnotes from the Most Fascinating Museums is a book to treasure and dip into. I love it, and I think any art and culture aficionado will, too! Make sure to scroll down to read a Q & A with Bob. 

Footnotes from the Most Fascinating Museums by Bob Eckstein 2024

Footnotes from the Most Fascinating Museums by Bob Eckstein
is available on Bookshop*, Amazon*, and wherever books are sold

From the publisher: We already know and love Bob Eckstein’s New York Times bestselling Footnotes from The World’s Greatest Bookstores. Now, Footnotes from the Most Fascinating Museums looks at the most beloved museums in North America. More than 75 museums are featured here (full list below) including those specializing in art, natural history, academia, science, and more.

Profiles from curators and museum workers appear alongside 155 original pieces of whimsical artwork that illustrate a story about the museum or showcase a particular work of art in its collection. This is a thought-provoking, inspiring reminder of why we go to museums and in the first place why we love them so much.

Artists, art lovers, students, travelers, and adventurers of all ages will delight in this highly giftable book. The following entries on the four museums are adapted from Footnotes from The World’s Greatest Bookstores, by permission of the author.

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Whitney Museum of American Art

New York City, Est. 1930

Whitney Museum by Bob Eckstein

The Whitney, or officially the Whitney Museum of American Art, was founded by socialite Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney in 1930. The museum is most famous for its Whitney Biennial exhibition which showcase up-and-coming artists.

Its latest location is in the Meatpacking District in Manhattan. Its eight stories and two-hundred-thousand square feet consist of New York City’s largest column-free exhibit spaces. The museum includes an education center, library, theater, a conservation laboratory, and observation decks.

Their famed Independent Study Program, which boasts a list of accomplished artists, curators, and art historians as their alumni, is free and located in Roy Lichtenstein’s Greenwich Village studio. Michelle Obama attended the ceremonial ribbon-cutting of the new Renzo Piano–designed building in 2015 with Mayor Bill de Blasio.

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Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Boston, Massachusetts, Est. 1903

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Built in 1901, Fenway Court was the former home of Isabella Stewart Gardner. Two years later it became the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, a must-see attraction in Boston filled with excellent examples of European, Asian, and American paintings, sculpture, tapestries, and decorative arts.

“We were a very young country and had very few opportunities of seeing beautiful things, works of art. I decided that the greatest need in our country was art. . . . So, I was determined to make it my life’s work if I could.”

The new wing of the museum, designed by Renzo Piano Building Workshop, opened in 2012 and will help preserve the original historic building by hosting all the museum’s public performances and events. 

The museum highlight is a magnificent fifteenth-century Venetian palace courtyard. The courtyard has a glass roof that illuminates the museum’s galleries by diffusing the natural light. Gardner purchased eight Venetian stone balconies which overlook an exceptional Roman tile mosaic for the parameter of the center sanctuary.

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American Visionary Art Museum

Baltimore, Maryland, Est. 1995

American Visionary Museum by Bob Eckstein

Fifi, 2001, Theresa Segreti

One eight-year-old was brought by her grandparents. She loved AVAM so much she sat in our gallery floor and refused to move, declaring, ‘I am going to live here.’ They reasoned, ‘Where are you going to sleep?’ ‘What will you eat?’ She had plausible answers for all. The museum store had snacks, she could bathe in our sinks, and there’s a water fountain in the basement.” (—Rebecca Hoffberger, retired founder, director, and curator)

American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM) specializes in outsider art, also known as “intuitive art” or “raw art.” Baltimore granted the land to the museum under the condition it would remove the pollution from the copper paint factory and whiskey warehouse that was there previously. Congress has designated it America’s national museum for self-taught art.

The one-acre campus contains sixty-seven thousand square feet of exhibits, features three floors of space, the Tall Sculpture Barn, the Wildflower Garden, and the Jim Rouse Visionary Center. The museum uses guest curators for its shows and focuses on themed exhibitions with titles like Wind in Your Hair and High on Life.

The museum’s founder, Rebecca Alban Hoffberger, ran AVAM “pretty un-museumy” and, at the time of its 1995 opening, rejected academic scholarship and museum “tradition,” reportedly upsetting prominent members of the art world. But the museum has since won the support of collectors, critics, and the public.

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Museum of Motherhood

St. Petersburg, Florida, Est. 2002

Motherhood Museum

Museum of Motherhood is the first of its kind—a museum and educational center devoted to mothers, mothering, and motherhood in the world, covering the art, science, and history of mothers.

“By understanding the complex nature of family and women’s place in society, we become more compassionate and inspired in everything we do,” said Martha Joy Rose, the founder.

“I watched a couple of kids from the local high school try on the pregnancy vests and then waddle around groaning. Within five minutes they begged to take them off. One of the kids lamented how much they weighed. ‘Can you imagine doing that for nine months?’ the one asked. Is that how long they take to cook?’ the friend replied.”

The founder’s vision of the new building is that it will be in the shape of a womb with a front entrance symbolizing where motherhood all begins.

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Contributed by Bob Eckstein, a New York Times bestselling author. He has written for the New Yorker, New York Times, Reader’s Digest, Playboy, GQ, Wall St. Journal, and publications worldwide. He is also a Contributing Editor at Writer’s Digest and his newest book is Footnotes from the Most Fascinating MuseumsVisit his website and connect with him on Substack.

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