Wilhelmina Cole Holladay

Wilhelmina Cole Holladay, photo by Michele Mattei

Wilhelmina Cole Holladay was the founder and chair of the board of the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA), located in Washington, D.C. Against tremendous odds and with dedication, drive, and a singular vision, Holladay created a museum to help address the underrepresentation of women artists in museums and galleries worldwide. For nearly 40 years, Holladay’s vision has been the guiding light of NMWA. Her foresight in recognizing women artists of the past and championing women artists of the present by creating a museum was visionary—even revolutionary—for the time.

Holladay’s interest in art by women began in the 1970s, when she and her husband Wallace were traveling abroad visiting museums and galleries. They were particularly drawn to a painting they saw in Vienna, a 1594 still life by Flemish artist Clara Peeters. They saw additional paintings by Peeters at the Prado in Madrid. When Holladay attempted to learn more about the artist, she could find no information on Peeters—or any other female artist—in the standard art history textbook of the day, H. W. Janson’s History of Art. Astonished by this discovery, the Holladays made this the focus of their collecting and began to search for work by other women artists.

By the 1980s, the Holladay collection had grown to approximately 500 works by 150 artists, from the Renaissance to contemporary times. In addition to artwork, the Holladays kept an archive of catalogues, books, photographs, and biographical information on women artists. Nancy Hanks, then head of the National Endowment for the Arts, encouraged the Holladays to consider establishing a museum, and Holladay focused her considerable organizational and fundraising skills in this direction.

NMWA was incorporated in 1981, and for the next six years, Holladay opened her residence to the public for tours, traveled extensively to garner support for her idea, raised more than $20 million from public and private sources, purchased and renovated a historic building to house the collection, and donated her personal collection and library to the museum. On April 7, 1987, Barbara Bush, wife of the then-Vice President, cut the ribbon to open the museum in a 1907 Renaissance revival landmark building located two blocks from the White House.

In over 35 years, NMWA’s collection has grown to include more than 5,500 works by approximately 1,000 artists. Rotating special exhibitions showcase work by established and emerging women artists. The museum is a leader in online content and arts education, and its programs build engaged communities and foster conversations and connections that inspire change. NMWA also maintains one of the foremost repositories of documents and materials on women artists in its Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center. The museum’s budget has grown to $11 million, and the full-time staff numbers 50. NMWA members and donors, nearly 13,000 strong, come from all over the United States and 21 other countries, and its network of national and international committees has 25 outreach groups with more than 3,000 program participants throughout the United States and around the world.

Holladay was born on Oct. 10, 1922, in Elmira, N.Y. She developed an early appreciation of art from her maternal grandmother. She earned a BA degree from Elmira College in 1944, studied art history at Cornell University, and completed postgraduate work in art history at the University of Paris in 1953–54. During World War II, Holladay worked in Washington, D.C., where she met her husband, an officer in the United States Navy. She worked as social secretary to Madame Chiang Kai-Shek from 1945 to 1948, but after the birth of her son Wallace Jr., she dedicated herself to volunteer projects.

In addition to serving as the chair of the museum’s board of trustees, Holladay was active in many other ventures, serving on the boards of the National Women’s Economic Alliance, the Adams National Bank, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the World Service Council of the YWCA, the American Academy in Rome, the United States Capitol Historical Society, the National Gallery of Art’s Collector’s Committee, and the International Women’s Forum. In recognition of her service, Holladay received the National Medal of Arts as well as diplomatic orders from France and Norway. She also was listed regularly as one of the most powerful women in Washington, D.C., and received a lifetime achievement award from the District of Columbia. Among Holladay’s other awards for her service to women were induction into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, a lifetime achievement award from the Women’s Caucus for Art, the Women Who Make a Difference Award from the International Women’s Forum, and the Distinguished Achievement Award from the National League of American Pen Women. She received honorary doctorate degrees from four colleges.

The museum Holladay envisioned and created continues to flourish and grow, and its message gains strength with each successive decade. Following in the founder’s footsteps, NMWA continues to increase public awareness of gender equity issues and inspires dynamic exchanges about art and ideas through its collections, diverse exhibitions, programs, acquisitions, and social media campaigns. The museum advocates for better representation for women artists and serves as a vital center for thought leadership, community engagement, and social change. It is a unique place: the first museum in the world solely dedicated to championing women through the arts.