The artist, Mrs. Holladay discovered, was Clara Peeters, a 17th-century Flemish painter. When she returned home, Mrs. Holladay was chagrined to find that her edition of H.W. Janson’s “History of Art,” a seminal text, contained no information about Peeters. The discovery of that lacuna yielded the discoveries of more gaps, as Mrs. Holladay gradually realized the near-total absence of women from art museums and art history books.
Having found what would become her focus as an art collector, Mrs. Holladay and her husband, architect and real estate developer Wallace F. Holladay, began amassing a collection of hundreds of works by female artists from the Renaissance to the modern day.
“Painting by painting, artist by artist, we set out to track down great women artists who had been forgotten or ignored,” Mrs. Holladay told the Chicago Tribune.
Those works would become the heart of the permanent collection at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, which she and her husband founded and which opened in Washington in 1987.
Mrs. Holladay, who received a 2006 National Medal of Arts from President George W. Bush, died March 6 at her home in Washington. She was 98. Her death was announced by the museum, which did not cite a specific cause.
The National Museum of Women in the Arts is located in downtown Washington, several blocks from the White House, in a former Masonic temple that Mrs. Holladay and her husband purchased and restored in the early 1980s.
The museum today contains more than 5,500 works by roughly 1,000 artists — among them Mary Cassatt, Georgia O’Keeffe, Frida Kahlo, Judy Chicago and Chakaia Booker — and describes itself as “the only major museum in the world solely dedicated to championing women through the arts.”
By all accounts, it would never have come into existence without the efforts of Mrs. Holladay, who collected its earliest holdings, exhibited them in her Georgetown home after incorporating the museum in 1981 and raised the funds to open the downtown location six years later.
The opening of the museum, which Mrs. Holladay had pursued on the suggestion of Nancy Hanks, a former chair of the National Endowment of the Arts, succeeded in prompting discussion about the underrepresentation of women in the arts. In an article about Mrs. Holladay’s initiative, the New York Times reported that 95 to 98 percent of works exhibited in art museums at the time were by men.
But the inauguration also occasioned debate about the proper remedy for the problem. Some detractors worried that the establishment of a national museum expressly for female artists raised the risk that they might be restricted to that institution, rather than integrated into the ones where they had been kept out.
The “old dowagers,” as Mrs. Holladay described a set of her critics, objected to what they perceived as the museum’s feminist bent, whereas feminists, she said, found the museum to be “some white-gloved establishment thing.” A particular point of contention was Mrs. Holladay’s view that an art museum’s role was not to be concerned with matters such as politics, abortion or homosexuality, but rather should be occupied solely with “artistic creativity.”
Responding to concerns about the dangers of artistic separatism, Mrs. Holladay said the museum’s mission was to make visitors aware “of the accomplishments of women artists so they can take their place in major museums.”
“There is no such thing as ‘women’s art,’ ” she told the 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.”
In 2017, the museum received the largest gift in its history, a $9 million bequest by investor Madeleine Rast. Its endowment today stands at $66 million, according to a spokeswoman. Mrs. Holladay continued coming to work at the museum into her 90s.
Wilhelmina Cole was born in Elmira, N.Y., on Oct. 10, 1922. Her father was a businessman, and her mother was a homemaker. She said her grandmother instilled in her a sense of beauty.
“As a little girl, I would say, ‘Look, Grandma, isn’t that flower beautiful?’ ” Mrs. Holladay recalled. “She would reply, ‘Yes, dear, but why? Is it the color you find beautiful? The shape? The smell? Does it remind you of something else beautiful?’ ”
Mrs. Holladay graduated from Elmira College in 1944, later studying art history at the University of Paris. She worked for a period in Washington, including as a social secretary at the Chinese Embassy.
She met her future husband when he was a Navy officer, and they married in 1945. She credited him with seeing the architectural potential of the Masonic temple that became their museum, which at the time was located in a run-down neighborhood of Washington.
“It was a slum,” Mrs. Holladay said. “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.’ ”
The museum is today a sought-after location for wedding receptions and other events.
Wallace Holladay died in 2012. Their son Scott Cole Holladay died in 1979. Survivors include their son Wallace “Hap” Holladay Jr. of Washington; four grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.
Mrs. Holladay once reflected on the riches that exist in museums to inspire young boys who hope to be artists one day — masterpieces by Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Rubens, Renoir and Van Gogh. Young girls, she said, should have the same role models available to them, and that was the mission she sought to fulfill.
“Seeing is believing,” she often said. “If people don’t believe that women can be great artists, we will simply show them. A picture is worth a thousand words and the museum should house hundreds of them.”
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