A Museum of Their Own
Founder of the National Museum of Women in the Arts
January 23, 2009
Women in the Arts and author of the A Museum of Their Own.
Wilhelmina Cole Holladay is the author of A Museum of Their Own, National Museum of Women in the Arts, a lively account of how she founded the museum, which opened in 1987 in Washington, D.C.
Years ago, while traveling abroad, Holladay admired a 17th-century still life by Flemish painter Clara Peeters. When she came back to the United States, she tried to research Peeters, but to her surprise could find nothing. As she researched, she realized the art history survey texts didn’t mention any female artists. She made it her mission to showcase the accomplishments of talented women, and her work has reverberated across the world.
Q. When did you become aware that women were not being represented or even acknowledged in the canon of Western Art?
Holladay: Traveling in Austria, we saw and admired works by Clara Peeters in the Kunsthistorisches Museum. Later at the Museo del Prado in Madrid we discovered additional examples. I had studied history of art, worked at the National Gallery of Art and was surprised that I knew nothing about a woman whose stature enabled her to be in two of the world’s great museums. I believe this was in the early 1970s. Returning home, we consulted various reference books and discovered that not only Clara Peeters, but all women had been omitted.
Q: How did the idea of creating the National Museum of Women in the Arts evolve?
Holladay: We had purchased a few paintings for the house. A close friend who was one of the great American collectors said, “If you are going to buy art you must have a focus. It will be more interesting to you and to others.” We eventually, with just cause, decided to have a collection that would show the contribution of women to the history of art from the Renaissance to the present. After many years we had gathered approximately 500 works. Nancy Hanks, who was the first woman chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts and, in the eyes of many, the godmother of the arts in America, was a friend. We were having dinner one night, and she exclaimed, “You have made me so aware of women artists that now when I go to a museum I ask, ‘Are there women artists in your collection?’ Inevitably the answer is either none or perhaps one or two. Our museums are made up totally of men artists. We need a museum of art by women. Would you be willing to donate your collection and your library as a seed from which it might grow?” The idea started out as a laughable suggestion, but after serious consideration we wondered if it might somehow be possible.
Q: Throughout the process you maintained a focused vision. What in your background or experience prepared you most for undertaking such an enormous endeavor?
Holladay: I assume that the sum total of my experiences helped to prepare me for undertaking the museum. My grandmother consistently built self-confidence. My mother gave me almost total independence. My father was totally indulgent. Successfully being the president of my child’s private school. Leading that institution in a drive to add more needed grades and to build the necessary additional classroom required discipline and persistence. Acting on a bank board and eventually being chairman increased my awareness of the need for fiscal responsibility.Q: You underscore an amazing fact: That Janson’s History of Art the bible of art history did not include even one woman artist in its original 1962 publication. How has the National Museum of Women in the Arts changed society’s recognition of women artists?
Holladay: When the museum opened in 1987, I received a call from Mr. Gottlieb, the head of Abrams Publishing Company, and he said, “Get up here and help us celebrate. We’re putting women in Janson’s History of Art.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery of Art had mounted less than five exhibitions by women in 138 years. Since our opening and the increased awareness of the problem, they and other museums have made an effort to show art by women. As the museum has made women artists better known, others have begun to acquire them.
Q: Did you face opposition with the premise that women artists had been neglected?
Holladay: It would be difficult to dispute the fact that women artists had been left out of American museums and American art history books. However, there was opposition voiced concerning the museum’s goal to show the contribution of women to the history of art. Conservative dowagers thought the effort was a feminist maneuver and the feminists were upset that we were unwilling to take on political issues such as abortion and homosexuality. As I have frequently stated, to me art is the great unifier rising above religion, nationality, color, etc. It seemed truly important to have nothing divisive which might hamper establishing the museum. It pleases me greatly that the dowagers and the feminists have all come around and now support our cause.
Q: What story of an artwork’s acquisition to do you still relish today?
Holladay: So many things happened by chance that I feel the museum was meant to be. I relish one of the early acquisitions that falls into that category. We were in Paris and leaving that day for the States. I told Wally that I was just going to run out and gets gifts for the grandchildren. He cautioned me to hurry because it was necessary to catch a plane. Walking away form the hotel, I happened to pass a gallery and that gallery happened to have Lavinia Fontana’s (1552-1614) Portrait of a Noblewoman in the window. Being rushed I entered, presented my card, said I was very interested in the painting and that I would be back in touch later since it was necessary to catch a plane. The gallery owner happened to be there, and that gallery happened to have a sister gallery in New York. He offered, in view of my serious interest, to send the painting to New York that we could study it. After considerable research, we made the purchase. Lavinia Fontana was the leading artist in the 1500s. The pope invited her to pain at the Vatican. This work is the oldest in the museum’s collection. It is greatly admired and has been prominently displayed in three of our exhibitions that dealt with Renaissance art. Another reason to love the grandchildren.
Q: What do you hope this book will accomplish?
Holladay: My hope is the book will successfully reach many new people who will be introduced to the National Museum of Women in the Arts and find it worthy. In its own fashion, it will help to acknowledge the efforts of the many who have made the museum possible. The proceeds from the sale of the book will go to the endowment which will assure the museum’s future.
For more information, please visit National Museum of Women in the Arts.