A museum devoted to art by womenProbably the only one in the world according to the American Association of Museums -- is expected to open in Washington in the next three or four years in the 1907 Masonic Temple at 801 13th St. NW at New York Avenue.

The National Museum of Women's Art already has unconditional pledges of $1.5 million, plus $1 million a year for four years to be matched by other donations, Wilhelmina Holladay, the museum's founder, said yesterday. The museum will be an independent, nonprofit institution.

"Women's art is a gap to be filled in the history of art," Holladay said, explaining why she had embarked on the project. "Eighteen years ago, my husband and I first saw paintings by Flemish painter Clara Peeters 1594-after 1667 in an Austrian museum. When I looked her up in the standard art text, H.W. Janson's 'History of Art,' I found that not only was she not listed, but no woman was included. It's hard to say why women have been so neglected in the history of art. Perhaps it's because the art historians were men and they wrote about their buddies, the men they drank with and knew. Even people who know a lot about art can't name 10 women artists of the Renaissance. It's not that we want to compare them with men, or say they are lesser or greater, but that they are, they exist."

The nucleus of the museum will be the approximately 100 artworks by women collected by Wilhelmina Holladay and her husband Wallace. He is president of Holladay Corp., which includes Holladay-Tyler printing and binding and real estate investments.

Artists in the collection include: Bernice Abbott, Anni Albers, Rosa Bonheur, Mary Cassatt, Helen Frankenthaler, Barbara Hepworth, Sheila Isham, Angelica Kauffmann, Ka the Kollwitz, Lee Krasner, Alice Neel, Georgia O'Keeffe, Betty Parsons, Alma Thomas, Anne Truitt, Suzanne Valadon, Lee Weiss and Marguerite Zorach. The earliest work in the collection is by Lavinia Fontana, whose work supported 11 children and her husband in Italy until her death in 1614. One of the more recent works is an acrylic and oil abstract painting by Nancy Graves, an American, born in 1940.

"Our collection is only the seed," Holladay said. "We hope other collectors will donate works. Equally important as the permanent collection, the museum will be a research and study center and offer scholarships. The exhibitions will be of and about women including historic surveys as well as fine, decorative and traditional arts such as textile arts."

The building, a Renaissance revival structure designed by Washington architect Waddy Wood, is now owned by the Masonic Temple Association. The contract provides for a purchase price of $4,750,000, by the National Museum of Women's Art, Holladay said, with settlement to be within seven months. The 68,000-square foot, flat, iron-shaped building still is a Masonic Lodge and houses the Town movie Theater. An auditorium on the top floor seats 500, and each of the five floors has two large rooms now used for Masonic rites. The building is close to the convention center site and the twin National Museum of American Art and the National Portrait Gallery.

Already, the museum has a 300-volume library on women in art, including a rare edition of botanical drawings by Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) and a sketchbook by Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun, collected by Holladay, plus the promise of an 800-volume collection of books on women artists to be given by Chris Pettus, an author who is compiling a dictionary of women's art before 1900.

Jeanne Butler Hodges, former president of the American Institute of Architects Foundation, served as acting director during the year-long planning period for the museum that began with its incorporation in 1981. She has since resigned to become a free-lance museum consultant. Holladay said the museum's advisory council will meet this month to name a selection committee to choose a permanent director and a professional staff.

The museum now has two full-time and two part-time staff members. It has received four small grants from private foundations but intends to seek grants from corporations and the endowments. The development phase has been supported by the Holladay, Marks, Queene Ferry Coonley and R.K. Mellon family foundations as well as private donors.

Roma Crocker and Wilhelmina Holladay are co-chairing the advisory committee, which includes Michael Ainslie, head of the National Trust for Historic Preservation; Lucius Battle, chairman of the John Hopkins Foreign Policy Institute of the School of Advanced International Studies; William McCormick Blair, lawyer and former director of the Kennedy Center; Adelyn D. Breeskin, National Museum of American Art senior curatorial adviser; Nina Cullinan, Houston art patron; Alice Fordyce, vice president of the Lasker Foundation; Betty Beale, syndicated columnist; Claire Getty, Georgetown philanthropist; Edwin S. Grosvenor, editor/publisher of Portfolio magazine; Dr. Ann Sutherland Harris, author of a book on women's art; Cynthia Helms, author and art lecturer; Wallace F. Holladay, head of the Holladay Corp.; Dr. Richard Howland, special assistant to the secretary of the Smithsonian; Hadlai Hull, director of the Hull Gallery; Elizabeth Jones, chief sculptor and engraver of the U.S. Mint; Mary Lasker, president of the Lasker Foundation; Harry Lowe, deputy director, National Museum of American Art; Margaret Mallory, Santa Barbara, Calif., art patron; Dorothy Marks, journalist; Constance Mellon, New York philanthropist; Sonny Norman, New Orleans art patron, Dr. Barbara Novak, Barnard College art history chairman; Annemarie Pope, president of the International Exhibitions Foundation; Margaret Steuart, chairman of last year's Washington Antiques Show; Mary Ann Stewart, community service volunteer; and the Baroness H.H. Thyssen-Bornemisza, Swiss art collector.

The first fund-raising event will be a gala dinner and dance at the Departmental Auditorium Feb. 22 with an exhibit of 30 years of Givenchy designs.