The women we look up to in the arts — from New York City Ballet’s Wendy Whelan soaring above the stage at Lincoln Center to action hero Elizabeth Streb scaling a building in London — have their eyes focused on their own heroines, some famous and others less known.

Makers: Women Who Make America” is a groundbreaking PBS documentary and archival project that tells the story of women’s advancement in America over the past 50 years, built on an archive of interviews with women who challenged the status quo in fields from coal-mining to entertainment.

We asked a wide variety of our city’s trailblazing women, “Who has inspired you?” Here are the answers from some of New York City’s great artists, curators and cultural leaders.


Virginia Johnson, artistic director and founding principal dancer of Dance Theatre of Harlem

Therrell Smith is a maker—still. The daughter of an African-American physician, when Therrell couldn’t find anyone to teach her ballet in segregated Washington, DC, she took herself off to Paris to study with the legendary Russian ballerina Matilde Kchessinskaya. She came back home and opened her own school in 1948. My mother, wanting to support her good friend, sent her two daughters to study with Therell. I was one of them. Read more.

In this June 13, 2013, episode, NYC-ARTS visits the studios of Dance Theatre of Harlem.

Pam MacKinnon, 2013 Tony Award winner for Best Direction of a Play (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”)

At age nine I saw Liz Swados’ “Runaways” on a trip to New York City with my father. I was young for the material but so taken by it. I still own the cast album and can sing its songs, while images of the production continue to haunt me. I always loved that it was created by a woman, who, like me, was from Buffalo, NY. Almost 15 years later, having just dropped out of a Ph.D. program in political science to become a director myself, I assisted Anne Bogart.  Read more.

Watch Pam MacKinnon discuss Bruce Norris’ “Clybourne Park” (2012) on NYC-ARTS.


Anne Pasternak, president and artistic director, Creative Time

Inspiring women abound in visual arts professions. Just think of such great museum founders as Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and Peggy Guggenheim, visionary philanthropists such as Aggie Gund, and extraordinary artists such as Jenny Holzer, Kara Walker, Cindy Sherman, Shirin Neshat, Barbara Kruger and more. But as a young professional living in SoHo in the 1980s, I only had to look down the block to find someone who would inspire my career — Annie Philbin, then the executive director of the Drawing Center [now director of the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles]. Read more.


Judith Shea, sculptor

In 1970 when I was very young and finding my way in the world, I took a job at the United Nations folk art center doing displays. My boss was a woman named June Henneberger. She was very passionate and knowledgeable about folk art and traditional crafts, and she wanted me to understand the things I was handling and appreciate their history. So, she lent me her books each week to prepare for my work. At the time I was completing my studies in art and art history toward my second degree, a BFA, and this extraordinary education complimented that and broadened my view of art. But the more profound education June gave me was by her example, and through her friendship. Read more.

Sculptor Judith Shea talks about her exhibition “Her Own Style” at the National Academy Museum and the women artists’ self-portraits in it on NYC-ARTS.


Valerie Steele, chief curator at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology

Diana Vreeland paved the way for me as a fashion curator.  In her work as special consultant to the Costume Institute, Mrs. Vreeland transformed antiquarian “costume” exhibitions into dramatically exciting fashion exhibitions. Read more.

Read about The Museum at FIT’s current show, RetroSpective, and see the fantastic shoes from its prior exhibition, Shoe Obsession. The NYC-ARTS Curator’s Choice segment on June 20, 2013, features the PUNK:  Chaos to Couture exhibition mounted by The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute.


Elizabeth Streb, founder STREB Lab for Action Mechanics (SLAM)

Trisha Brown’s investigations excavated the ground over which every choreographer, including me, has been searching in, around and through, over the last 40 years. No one in the dance world, in the new languages of the motion-world, has been untouched by her influence. Her brilliance is embedded in her relentless insistence that everything that came before was open to question, to reexamination. Read more.

See Elizabeth Streb’s extraordinary actions at the 2012 London Cultural Olympiad. Learn more about the Trisha Brown Company’s most recent season on NYC-ARTS.

Ann Temkin, chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art

The memory of Anne d’Harnoncourt, the legendary director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, will always serve as a guide to me in my work as a curator of modern art. Until her premature death at 64 in 2008, she inspired and nurtured countless individuals to become better curators, donors, artists, and art appreciators. Read more.

Hear from Ann Temkin speak about works at MoMA on NYC-ARTS Curator’s Choice segments.


Wendy Whelan, principal dancer at the New York City Ballet

The one woman who has continued to inspire me as an artist and human being is Marie Cecile Gibson. She was my ballet teacher in Louisville, Kentucky, from the age of 11 to 14. By the time I was 14, she had arranged for my audition to the School of American Ballet and subsequently helped facilitate finding a local benefactor to pay for my education at a New York private school — something my parents could never afford. For the past 20 years, she has cultivated and dedicated her life to creating NOBA, New Orleans Ballet Association, which has provided over 35,000 free dance classes to the community.  Read more.

Watch an NYC-ARTS segment about the School of American Ballet and learn more about New York City Ballet’s history and repertoire on American Masters and NYC-ARTS.

See full episodes and clips ofMakers: Women Who Make Americaonline at THIRTEEN. Hear from more New York City “makers” on the women who have inspired them, and share your story, too.