One of the favourite hobbies of the rich is art collecting...thank God. This can entail everything from prints for the bathroom to a Picasso for the den, or even whole museums. And while museums all over the world salivate over the collecting efforts of the erudite wealthy as they grow older and more bequest prone, there are, in fact, so many major collectors today, seldom does any one of them make much of a lasting impact on the art world. However, in Washington, DC, at 1250 New York Avenue N.W., not far from the White House, there is a major museum, built around the collection of a single couple that has had a very major and lasting impact on the national, even the international art world. It's not the National Gallery, the Hirshhorn, the Corcoran, or the Smithsonian. By historic standards, it a brash, young upstart, opening in 1987 in a 78,000 square-foot Washington landmark, formerly the Washington Masonic Temple. Despite its recent birth, today, with over 200,000 members, the National Museum of Women Artists stands proudly next to all the other Washington museum giants in showcasing the best art the world has to offer.
Wilhelmina Cole Holladay and her husband, Wallace, were not in any way unusual when they began collecting around 1960. The money came from real estate management and development, everything from rest homes to hotels and shopping malls all over the country. But their collection began at a time when scholars were just starting to discuss the missing feminine presence, as well as that of certain racial and ethnic artists, in museums around the world. As a result, the Holladays began collecting exclusively, art from all eras created by women. Their oldest piece dates back to the Renaissance, by Lavinia Fontana, of Bologna, probably the first ever professional female artist; while works by twentieth century artists include paintings by Elaine de Kooning, Audrey Flack, the Native American artist, Jaune Quick-To-See Smith, and most recently, Frida Baranek, a Brazilian non-objective sculptor who wasn't even born when the Holladays first started collecting.
The museum was founded in 1981 and for the first few years consisted of volunteer docents leading tours of the Holladay's home where the museum's collection was first housed (principally paintings from the Holliday Collection which formed the core of the museum's offerings). The New York Avenue location was purchased in 1983 but it was almost four years later before financing and remodelling were completed and the museum truly became a reality. Since its opening, the museum's supporting membership has quadrupled in size; its collection has come to include such important female artists as Judith Leyster, Frida Kahlo, Dorothy Dehner, Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, Angelica Kauffman, Käthe Kollwitz, and Margaret Bourke-White; while its library and research centre grown to house more than 11,000 volumes and files on more than 16,000 women artists. Also, like any self-respecting art museum, in 1997, they sprouted their first wing with two new galleries sponsored and dedicated to Elisabeth A Kaser.
Today the NMWA has a collection of over 2,700 works by more than 800 artists. But the museum is more than just an art gallery. More recently, they've begun sponsoring and showcasing the work of female writers, dancers, and musicians in addition to their continuing outreach program working in conjunction with many Washington area schools, universities, and the Girl Scouts of America. Every year the NMWA also organises and sponsors a number of travelling art exhibitions that spread out across the country to older, more traditional museums and educational institutions. Part of the museum's growth can be credited to its being in the right place at the right time as the world of art struggled to answer the question first posed by Linda Nochlin in her groundbreaking 1971 article, "Why have There Been No Great Women Artists?" Part of it can be attributed to the feminist movement since the 1970s. Another factor has been the gradual rise in prominence of female artists themselves in the last thirty years. But in no small part, the continuing success of the National Museum of Women Artists comes from the ongoing involvement and guidance of Wilhelmina Cole Holladay who, even today, often leads personal tours of the museum's art, much of which she chose herself.