The co-collector of the most important female art collection in the world, and the co-founder of the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA).
Born as Wilhelmina (Billie) Cole to a wealthy family in upstate New York, she spent most of her childhood with her grandmother who lived across the road and who inspired her to appreciate aesthetics. She studied art history and business management at Elmira College and took classes or art history in Paris.
She had a short career as a social secretary, and following her friends, she took the civil service exam and was drafted during World War II to work for the Air Force Readjustment Division at the Pentagon. Holladay then moved to work for the Chinese Embassy and the wife of Chinese military leader Chiang Kai-shek. After she got married, the couple moved following his work as a successful real-estate developer.
While raising their children, and being bored since her husband was traveling away for business, Wilhelmina started working at the information desk of the National Gallery of Art. Later the couple started collecting art around the world, and their first artwork was bought at a school function in Arlington, Virginia for $100. They were advised by a collector friend to find a focus for their collection to stand out, and they found it in Austria when discovering artist Clara Peeters. They were disappointed to find no information on her in art history literature, a part of a greater gender-related void.
In 1981 they had the biggest collection of female art and art-literature in the world, which they turned into a museum in their own house. After a major fund-raising effort of millions of dollars, they bought a former Masonic Temple near the White House and opened the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) and its library, the first museum putting the spotlight on female artists. At the opening in 1987, Barbara Bush cut the ribbon. The museum was criticized as a “one woman show”, and for separating female artists from the male.
“I would be bored to tears to sit on a cushion and be supported”
More Interesting Anecdotes:
- In 2008 she edited and published ‘A museum of their own’ – a book celebrating her legacy towards the acknowledgment of female artists.
- She swims every day, a skill learned in childhood when her grandfather challenged her to swim across a lake for 2.5 miles near his holiday home.
- Both her grandmother and mother had cars, with the former keeping vases of fresh flowers in her limousine.
- When growing up all she wanted was to travel the world, which she eventually did.
- She plays golf and won several awards for it.
- During her year at the Air-Force, she had only one day off every two weeks.
- She met her future husband Wallace F. Holladay at a house-warming party while dating his roommate.
- She served as interior designer for the development section of her husband’s Holladay Corp.
- Holladay’s daughter-in-law is the president of the all-female board of NMWA.