Wilhelmina Cole Holladay, 91, founder of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, is seen inside the museum. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post )

Wilhelmina Cole Holladay used to work at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the museum she founded 27 years ago, almost every day. Now, she’s here just a couple of times a week, though she also works most days from home.

The culture wars have quieted for now, and Holladay, 91, is focused on the long term.

The NMWA has a $50 million endowment, a historic home a few blocks from the White House and had 91,139 visitors last year. It is a Washington institution and Holladay’s goal is no longer legitimacy. That fight was fierce, and she won it long ago. Now she is looking to legacy.

On this March afternoon, in her intimate office, sprinkled with art and awards and honorary degrees, Holladay speaks with clear pride of the museum’s balanced budgets, its all-women board of trustees she’d stack “against any board, of any organization.” Of their upcoming exhibition on the image of the Virgin Mary opening just before Christmas. And she speaks with clear delight of her late husband who collected with her, planned with her, unwaveringly supported her ambitious goal to create a museum that “directly addresses the gender imbalance in the presentation of art in the U.S. and abroad,” as NMWA’s Web site puts it.

In her shrewd, but gracious, grand-dame way, she has been selling this museum ever since she founded it, just as the nation was having pitched battles about the roles, and places, for female artists and their work. She still thinks she can sell the museum’s mission, her passion. If donors believe in “what we’re doing, we never lose them,” she says. It’s the point that continues to drive her, even after all these years.

A controversial start

She starts out the interview by telling how she’d fretted over what to wear that morning and finally decided on a long Missoni skirt her husband, Wallace F. Holladay, bought for her 30 years ago in Rome.

The late architect and businessman had an artist’s eye and loved to dress his wife and muse as they traveled the world collecting beautiful things. “All I can say is that no one ever had a better marriage,” Holladay says, and her face still lights up in the telling.

A native of Elmira, N.Y., she met her husband in Washington in the mid-1940s when she worked as social secretary for Madame Chiang Kai-shek, and he was a Navy officer. He became a successful real estate developer, and when the couple began collecting art in the 1960s, close friend and collector Richard Brown Baker suggested they come up with a focus. A collector “must arrive at a virtual personal interest — a line of acquisition that really sends him,” he wrote to Holladay.

The Holladays became intrigued by a Flemish artist they discovered on a trip to Europe. After returning to the United States, they were unable to find information on Clara Peeters — or on any other female artist, for that matter — in art history textbooks. Female artists had been largely neglected, and good paintings by them were still affordable.

“Wherever we went, we would go to the top commercial gallery and say, ‘What do you have by a woman?’ ”

Their collection grew to about 500 pieces and, throughout the 1970s, Nancy Hanks, chairperson of the National Endowment of the Arts, encouraged Holladay to establish a museum. The NMWA was incorporated in 1981, and in six years Holladay raised more than $20 million. She added to her collection, and opened her Georgetown home for public tours.

In 1983, she demurred at the idea of purchasing the old masonic building on New York Avenue. “It was a slum,” Holladay says. “My husband, who had great imagination, said, ‘This is going to be fabulous, look at the high ceilings, right close to the White House.’ There was a porno shop next door, but he said, ‘That’s just another kind of art. Calm down.’ He thought it had good bones.” The building purchase and renovations cost $15.5 million, of which just $7.6 million was borrowed.

The museum idea gained traction — and detractors. Holladay had been on the board of the Corcoran Gallery, worked at the National Gallery of Art and studied art history in graduate school. “I was all wrapped up in art. It just didn’t occur to me anybody would be against this,” Holladay says. But everyone, it seemed, had an objection. “The old dowagers said this is feminist. The feminists said this is some white-gloved establishment thing” and that they wanted to be in the museum with men. The clash of world views became part of the museum’s founding story.

When the NMWA opened in 1987, famed feminist artist Judy Chicago loaned them a painting. That stilled some of the criticism.

In a Time magazine article that year, critic Robert Hughes dismissed the museum as ghettoizing female artists. He called it “fatuous to talk as though women in 1987 formed an oppressed aesthetic class.” The NMWA, Hughes wrote, was “a grimly sentimental waste of money, an idea whose time is gone.”

But by this time, thanks to a direct mail marketing campaign, the museum had more than 50,000 members.

There were “some people who were quite supportive, and a whole lot of others who were not,” says Susan Fisher Sterling, who began as an associate curator in 1988 and became director in 2008. “When you put forward an idea that upsets the status quo, people get all crazy.”

The collection now includes more than 4,500 pieces from the 16th century to the present. It features well-known works: Elisabeth Louise Vigee-LeBrun’s “Portrait of Princess Belozersky,” Mary Cassatt’s “The Bath,” and Frida Kahlo’s “Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky.” There are sculptures by Sarah Bernhardt and Chakaia Booker, photos by Gertrude Kasebier and Louise Dahl-Wolfe.

It has an annual budget of $8.7 million and employs 41 full-time staff members along with 100 part-time workers and volunteers. In 1993, the museum purchased and renovated 5,300 square feet of adjacent property, which houses a comprehensive library and research center, for $3.05 million. In addition to private donations and some public funding through grants, it earns income through admissions, museum rentals (it is a favored site for weddings) and shops. Its success has been a convergence of smart choices and civic mindedness, Sterling says. “The real truth of it is, every year the museum ends in the black.”

A visionary

At her office, Holladay toggles between personal history and museum history, which she takes personally.

She recalls how her close friend, the storied New York health activist and philanthropist Mary Lasker, first told her to get incorporated. She recalls how Climis and Carol Lascaris designed the museum’s Great Hall with its marble balustrades and crystal chandeliers that have helped it to become one of the city’s most august rental facilities.

The museum has always been premised on women helping women. Men have been wonderful too, Holladay says, “and I don’t want to belittle that.” I never “call myself a feminist, but once I got into this I realized it wasn’t only in art — how many women music directors are there? How many women anything back then? I automatically did a lot of thinking until I became a feminist.”

With thousands of supporters, “we have been able to substantially secure the museum,” Holladay says. “And it’s wonderful knowing that it’s here to stay.”

She has not let her age stop her from continuing to contribute. She is still a major fundraiser and still presents as elegant and sharp. “I work at being preserved,”she confides. “Not with face lifts or anything. I swim every day.”

Wallace F. Holladay, who died in 2012, had called it a legacy. Holladay’s daughter-in-law, Winton Holladay, is president of the board and her granddaughter, Jessica H. Sterchi, is on the board as well. “I’m delighted the family is involved,” but family involvement is secondary to the museum’s legacy, Holladay says.

Sterling, the director, remembers how Holladay “took it on the chin” in the early days, even though today many people call her a visionary. “For all the slings and arrows early, all the things she hoped would happen slowly, slowly have come to be and make the museum strong. That must be wonderful for her.”

Holladay talked about an upcoming speech she had to make to the American Medical Women’s Association. She is feeling a little tired but agreed to do the speech anyway. “There are 1,000-plus women doctors throughout this country coming from every corner and now they know about our museum. When it comes to outreach like that, boy, I’ll make the effort, no matter what I have to do.”