Wilhelmina Holladay, 1922-2021

  • Wilhelmina-Holladay-WWP

Woman Category: Arts, Business & Entrepreneurship, and PhilanthropyWoman Tags: Art Collector and WDC Metro Area Women

  • HerStory

    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 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 began 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 the literature of art history, 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.
    Holladay passed away in her home in Washington, DC, when she is 98 years old.

    “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.”

    “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.”

    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 used to swim 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 an 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.


  • More About Her Legacy
    Creations By and About Her:

    * The book she published - A Museum of Their Own


    * 2006 National Medal of Arts Recipient

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  • One of Her Landmarks

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  • Wilhelmina Cole Holladay on founding a museum for women artists

    Buy the book: http://www.abbeville.com/bookpage.asp?isbn=9780789210036

    Wilhelmina Cole Holladay speaks about her memoir, A Museum of Their Own, which chronicles her journey founding and establishing the best-known museum devoted to women in the arts: The National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC.

  • Wilhelmina Holladay portrait in the entrance of the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Photo credit - WWP team.