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To Bravos and Boos, a Daring Wilhelmina Holladay Brings Women a Museum They Can Call Their Own

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Like bright splashes of color in an abstract painting, hundreds of balloons floated skyward. It was only one of the festive send-offs during the gala opening earlier this month of Washington, D.C.’s new National Museum of Women in the Arts. With actress Helen Hayes and a clutch of ambassadors’ wives in attendance, Second Lady Barbara Bush snipped the bright red ribbon at the main doors of the $4.8 million Renaissance-revival building. “The museum will enrich our city, our nation and the lives of Americans for generations to come,” said Bush. “God bless the Museum of Women in the Arts.”

The building (formerly a male-only Masonic lodge) has been lavishly appointed, with $7 million spent on renovations, including walls of pink and gray brocade and gilded moldings. But for all the hoopla, not all women artists were convinced that an all-woman museum was a good thing. Many agreed with New York Times art critic John Russell: “A segregated museum is no more a compliment to women artists than a segregated bus was a compliment to blacks.” Scoffs postmodern artist Pat Steir: “This museum is no help at all. The top women are already showing at top museums.” Adds photographer Cindy Sherman: “A segregated museum makes it seem as if women’s art isn’t as good as, or the same as, that of men.” Woman sculptor Marisol has pointed out, “I’ve always been against isolating men’s art and women’s art. It doesn’t make sense to me because we should all be together.” But painter Elaine de Kooning, wife of Willem de Kooning, noted that while to be included 25 years ago in an all-women museum would have been patronizing, “now it does make a certain sense in that museums have neglected women artists.”

Which is just the point the new museum’s founder, Wilhelmina “Billie” Holladay, 64, hopes to make. Wife of a wealthy Washington, D.C. real estate developer, whose company prints Smithsonian and the arts magazine Connoisseur, Holladay says, “If we can heighten the awareness of great achievement by women artists so they will be included in major museums, and heighten the awareness of the inequities so they’ll be corrected, that’s a step in the right direction.”

There is no question that women have fared poorly in major museums. The National Gallery in Washington has a token 27 women artists in its vast permanent collection; the new 20th-century wing of New York’s Metropolictan Museum currently has a 236:20 male-female ratio.

A question is, how well does Holladay’s museum make the case for women’s art, and the reviews are mixed. Critics find her 500-piece collection, 25 years in the making and spanning four centuries, uneven in quality. The opening exhibit, “American Women Artists 1830-1930,” seems relatively staid and lacking in fireworks, although it does include outstanding works by Georgia O’Keeffe, Mary Cassatt and Sarah Peale. Says one woman art historian: “My secret horror is that women’s art will be given a very bad name on the basis of the art in her collection. In the darkest hole of my heart, I fear people will say, ‘If that’s the quality, no wonder women were kept out of institutions and books.’ ”

No such fears trouble Holladay. “Some people don’t agree with what we’re doing,” she says. “I haven’t heard them put forth a positive substitute.” She can point with pride to the fact that the museum had 62,000 paid members before opening and an impressive $15 million in contributions. “Maybe there was a time for abrasive-ness early on,” she says. “I think there was a time when blacks had to jump into swimming pools and so forth. But I hope women have reached the point of security where we can really celebrate and be proud and show off the contributions women artists have made.” And in her genteel way, Billie Holladay has gone about creating a magnificent showcase for just that end.