A Proud History

The Smithsonian Women’s Committee traces back to 1966 when Secretary S. Dillion Ripley led the Smithsonian. Having set out an ambitious plan to reinvigorate and expand the Smithsonian, he added new museums and research facilities, introduced the Smithsonian Associates and Smithsonian magazine, and was the impetus for what is now the SWC.

Secretary Ripley’s idea was to have a committee, made up of women, that would raise money and act as informal Ambassadors for the Smithsonian. He turned to his dynamic wife, Mary Livingston Ripley, to be the driving force. She established the “Ladies Auxiliary Committee of the Smithsonian Society of Associates.” Here is what happened next:

  • In May 1966, the Ladies Auxiliary Committee began operations and from the start, played a key role in the expansion of the Smithsonian. For example, the Committee collected insects and plants for the National Museum of Natural History and created the National Orchid Collection.
  • During the 1970s and 1980s when charity balls were the rage in Washington, the SWC hosted the most coveted dances in town. The first one, in 1971, took place around the bull elephant in the Natural History Museum. Other balls tied imaginative themes to Smithsonian exhibits and raised significant funds for the Smithsonian.
  • 1980 proved to be a pivotal year for its the SWC. The Committee was looking for ideas on how to obtain a steady income source for its grantmaking, and the answer came from the Director of the Renwick Gallery, Lloyd Herman. He suggested hosting a national craft show.
  • Three years later, in April 1983, the SWC hosted the first Smithsonian Craft Show. It provided a national showcase for the best in basketry, ceramics, decorative fiber, furniture, glass, jewelry, leather, metal, mixed media, paper, wearable art and wood. The show was originally held in the Mellon Auditorium, a beautiful WPA building in Washington, but due to the need for more space, the show moved to the National Building Museum in 1995. It now features 120 artists annually.
  • In 2005, the SWC added the fall Smithsonian Craft2Wear Show to recognize the highest quality American made wearable art. The show featured limited-edition jewelry, clothing, and accessories from recognized and emerging designers.
  • By 2014, the SWC was ready to play an even larger role in advancing craft artistry in the US. In cooperation with the Smithsonian, the organization established the Smithsonian Visionary Award, which honors artists who are deemed by curators and experts in the field to have risen to the pinnacle of sculptural arts and design in the US. The Secretary of the Smithsonian presents the award annually.
  • In 2015, the SWC established the “Honoring the Future Sustainability Award,” which recognizes pioneering craft artists working with sustainable materials and processes.
  • In 2021, the Committee established another award, the Smithsonian Women’s Committee Delphi Award. It is presented annually to one or more mid-career artists whose work demonstrates distinction, creativity and exceptional artistry and who are predicted for greatness by experts in the field. 
  • To further highlight the work of past and present Smithsonian Visionary Award and Delphi Award winners, each year the Smithsonian Visionary Award Committee hosts an annual online auction in the Spring with works from these artists. As with the Smithsonian Craft Show and Craft2Wear, the proceeds from this unique auction help to fund grants for Smithsonian programs.
  • In 2022 at the 40th Anniversary Craft Show, the SWC recognized six “Smithsonian Women’s Committee Champions.” This award is a new honor for SWC members who, over the years, have made outstanding and generous contributions of time and talent to the SWC. Click here to learn about the honorees.