Wilhelmina Cole Holladay (1922–2021)
March 09, 2021
Wilhelmina Cole Holladay, who founded the world’s only museum devoted solely to the work of female artists, died March 6 at the age of ninety-eight. At the time that the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC, opened, in 1987, between 95 percent and 98 percent of work exhibited in museums was by men.
Born in Elmira, New York, to a businessman father and a homemaker mother, Holladay credited her grandmother with introducing her to beauty and to close looking. “As a little girl I would say, ‘Look, Grandma, isn’t that flower beautiful?’” Holladay recalled. “She would reply, ‘Yes, dear, but why?’” Holladay graduated from Elmira College in 1944 and went on to study art history at Cornell University and at the University of Paris. While working in Washington during World War II, she met her future husband, Wallace F. Holladay, then an officer in the US Navy and later an architect and real estate developer.
During a trip to Vienna, Holladay was struck by a work by seventeenth-century Flemish artist Clara Peeters. When she went to look it up in H. W. Janson’s History of Art, the authoritative text of the day, she learned that the artist was not even mentioned. Over time, she discovered that women were tremendously underrepresented in art-history books and in museums. With her husband, she set about rectifying this: By the 1980s, the pair had amassed a collection of roughly five hundred works by women artists as well as a number of books and archival information on the subject. Encouraged by Nancy Hanks, at the time head of the National Endowment of the Arts, Holladay in 1981 incorporated the National Museum of Women in the Arts and began raising funds toward the renovation of the former Masonic temple that would house it. The institution opened to the public six years later; today, it holds in its collection more than five thousand works by about a thousand artists.
Holladay in 2006 was awarded a National Medal of the Arts for her efforts. In 2017, on its thirtieth anniversary, the museum received a $9 billion bequest—the largest in its history—from California businesswoman Madeleine Rast. Over the decades, Holladay faced criticism from those who feared that the museum risked further marginalizing the position of women in the arts. She argued that for art by women to assume its rightful place in the broader art world, it first needed to be brought to people’s attention. “There is no such thing as ‘women’s art,’ ” she told the New York Times. “Art is art. But there is art by women that is not recognized yet. No one else is going to do it unless someone focuses on it.”