Wilhelmina Cole Holladay, who founded the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the first and only museum solely dedicated to championing women through the arts, died on Saturday in Washington, D.C. She was 98.
“For nearly 40 years, Wilhelmina Holladay has been the guiding light of our museum,” director Susan Fisher Sterling said in a statement. “Mrs. Holladay knew the power of art and the importance of women in art and in the world.”
Wilhelmina “Billie” Cole developed an early appreciation of art from her maternal grandmother, the museum said. She earned a B.A. from Elmira College in 1944, studied art history at Cornell University and completed post-graduate work in art history at the University of Paris in 1954.
During World War II, she worked in Washington, the museum said, where she met her husband, Wallace, an officer in the Navy.
In the 1970s, they were in Vienna when they saw a 1594 still life by the Flemish artist Clara Peeters, as well as other paintings by the artist in Madrid. Holladay wanted to find out more about Peeters, but found there were no women listed in the standard art history textbook, the museum said. So the Holladays began to search and collect work by women artists.
By 1980, the Holladay collection had grown to about 500 works by 150 artists, and Nancy Hanks, then head of the National Endowment for the Arts, encouraged them to open their own museum, the statement said.
The National Museum of Women in the Arts was incorporated in their residence in 1981. For the next six years, the public could tour the collection while Holladay raised the money for a building for the museum. In 1987, they opened in a 1907 Renaissance revival landmark building two blocks from the White House, the museum said.
“Her foresight in recognizing women artists of the past and championing women artists of the present by creating a new museum was visionary — even revolutionary — for the time,” Sterling said in the statement. “Her actions signaled a major shift in our thinking about art and society, and it is her genius and purpose we carry forward with us today.”
The museum’s collection has grown to include more than 5,500 works by about 1,000 artists, the museum said.
In addition to serving as the museum’s chair of the board, Holladay served 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, the statement said.
A celebration of her life will be announced at a future date, the museum said. In lieu of flowers, the family requests contributions may be made to the National Museum of Women in the Arts.