The National Museum of Women in the Arts

NMWA_ExteriorWould you guess that the handsome, neoclassical home of the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) in Washington DC was once the headquarters of the Freemasons – an historic and powerful male secret society? (There are women Freemasons, but they are relatively few and somewhat of an oddity.) Moreover, your guess is that much more unlikely as Mrs Wilhelmina Cole Holladay, the Museum’s founder, appears to personify the perfectly coiffed, doting wife of a conservative financier or politician, someone married to a Freemason, rather than the champion of a ground-breaking institution devoted to reclaiming the role of women artists in art history – the only one of its kind in the world.

But, as one art critic commented when the Museum first opened in 1987: ‘despite her white-glove graciousness, hard-working Billie Holladay is a warrior and winner…No player in the art scene here has a deeper understanding of power and money and how our system works.’

Yes, Wilhelmina Holladay is a clever lady. For she employs a unique battle strategy: the steadfast thwarting of convention with convention’s own armoury.

Holladay’s quest began by chance in the early 1970s when she and her husband, Wally, came across ‘wonderful’ still life paintings by the Flemish artist Clara Peeters at both Madrid’s Museo del Prado and Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum. They wanted to know more about the artist but could find very little information about her. The couple were shocked to discover that no women artists were mentioned in H.W. Janson’s History of Art, the standard American art history reference work. (In my almost-1000-page, fifth and most recent edition there is a three-line index subject entry entitled ‘Women artists’.)

When they discovered Peeters’ work, the Holladays were also starting to buy ‘affordable’ art, hoping to assemble a distinguished collection with a focus. They were attracted to what was aesthetically pleasing, personally meaningful and unusual in the context of collecting art. What was ‘chic’ was of no consequence. Reasoning that there would not be much competition for great art by women, the couple determined, in a practical and heartfelt way, as Holladay says, to ‘draw attention to this neglected body of art through the ages, one that had been ignored by the critics and scholars of the history of art, the arbiters of intellectual taste for several generations’. Halladay was also enthused by her experiences working part time at the National Gallery of Art and serving on the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s board of directors for ten years.

Holladay’s perspective was certainly justified. Note the remark attributed to Bauhaus historian Hans Hildebrandt (1878–1957): ‘The fundamental characteristic of female creativity is already evident in childhood: the delight in color…the striving for pleasing effect…orderliness in smallness, the inferior talent for spatial representation, playfulness instead of overall planning…the tendency for the superfluous.’

In 1851, the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer considered: ‘instead of calling them beautiful, there would be more warrant for describing women as the unaesthetic sex, neither for music, nor for poetry, nor for fine art have they really and truly and any sense or susceptibility’.

As late as 1979, Janson stated, unsurprisingly, that no women were included in his standard text because no woman ‘had been important enough to go into a one-volume history of art’.

Holladay notes that she was not motivated by ‘women’s lib’ – although she remarks that at the time, ‘the women’s movement was gathering steam, and perhaps that helped us. But it was really coincidental…’ and although she ‘shared many sympathies with the sisterhood,’ she stresses that ‘it was divisive at a time when I was determined to establish an institution that would be uniting…I had no intention of letting politics entangle the young Museum and perhaps strangle it at birth’.

Chicago_2005This year (2012) the museum celebrates the 25th anniversary of a collection that has grown to hold some 4000 works – paintings, sculptures, ceramics, photographs – by 1000 women artists, and it is still growing. Its five floors of exhibition space feature just  under 60 per cent of art from the 16th century to the beginning of the 20th century, while the rest is modern and contemporary. Apart from displaying the permanent collection, the museum regularly hosts exhibitions, such as this year’s Royalists to Romantics, presenting more than 75 works on loan from the Louvre, Versailles and other major museums in France. Previous shows include WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution (2007); and Ten Contemporary Korean Women Artists  (1991).

Enterprising initiatives involve publishing scholarly books, catalogues, and the magazine Women in the Arts for NMWA’s 20,000 members, a research centre holding nearly 19,000 books and biographic files on about 18,000 historic and contemporary female artists, and the annual award – the Mellor Prize – of  $50,000 to someone undertaking to write a book about a female artist. Lectures, readings, films and concerts celebrate the contributions of women in both the visual and performing arts.

The museum involves members from all over the world. Domestic committees, 13 at present, and seven international committees work to increase awareness about the museum and women artists of the past and present, especially in their own regions. This network of ambassadors endeavours to donate works to the collection, organizes lectures, visits and symposiums and participates in the bi-annual ‘Women to Watch’ programme by identifying and nominating regionally based women artists to showcase their work in Washington’s headquarters.

My local UK branch recently donated a bronze sculpture by Elisabeth Frink, New Bird II, stalking its prey. Indeed, I recall attending the launch of the branch when the Committee was first established in 2006. The dynamic chair was then Harvard MBA and founder member Sarah Treco (now a Trustee of the Massachusetts branch). She admits though that, in common with many other arts-orientated women with a professional background, the issue caught her by surprise. Aware that women are under-represented in the male dominated fields of law, politics, the media and finance, somehow many people are ignorant about the under-representation of women in the arts until their consciences are pricked. The issue burns once the fire is lit, Sarah admits.

When Sarah Treco was establishing and chairing the NMWA UK, she was often challenged by people who were not artists or involved in the ‘business of art’: how relevant is the mission today?  ‘The assumption is that the UK possesses such a vibrant gender-balanced contemporary art community, and rock star – famous women artists like Tracey Emin and Sam Taylor-Wood,’ says Treco.

This prompted Treco to explain at the launch event in 2006 that while statistics reveal admissions to art and design schools for men and women are roughly equal, and this gender balance was about the same for prizes awarded at graduation, when she examined a popular publication widely consulted for its exhibitions listings, she recalls four times as many shows of men’s work than of women’s. Little has changed since then. Since its foundation in 1984 the Turner prize has had only three women winners. Of the Royal Academicians, only 19 per cent are women (up from 17 per cent in 2006), and fewer than 10 per cent of the artworks in the Tate Britain and Modern combined was created by women. What happens to the careers of women artists?

With regard to education, Ian Burke, Head of the Eton Drawing Schools, confirms that in ‘schools women don’t feature as much as men in art history and contextual studies’. Several of my friends studying art history at undergraduate level consider women under-represented in the curricula. One friend says, ‘despite going to a university specializing in more modern subject matters, I still feel as if my studies have been very male-dominated. For example, the module focusing on the representation of French modern life featured male artists only.’

In 2012, the future for women in the art world is much more promising, but still it’s far from ideal. One wonders if there is something biologically inherent, or culturally engendered, which makes women less likely to publicize themselves, partake in the glitzy celebrity culture, which can benefit an artistic career. One cannot rely on talent or networking alone to reach the top of the ladder.

Some people view collections of art only by women as ghettoizing – or tokenism – but as gender balance in the art world is not yet equal, perhaps the ghetto is a life-giving force: seclusion and exclusion breeding ‘justice’, equality of opportunity? As Patti White, the current chair of the NMWA UK branch notes, we still have to continue raising people’s consciousness about the under-representation of women in the art world, and encourage more women artists to compete and level the playing field. We have to make sure people never stop thinking and listening.


The Guerrilla Girls, established in 1985, are a group of feminist women who fight discrimination in the art world against women artists. They shock, ridicule and humiliate in a humorous context – self-admittedly.  They take the names of dead women artists as pseudonyms and wear gorilla masks in public when broadcasting their cause: for example, by demonstrating, outside museums where there is very little artwork by women featured, by giving interviews and attending talks, and publishing posters with such slogans as ‘Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?’…‘When racism and sexism are no longer fashionable what will your art collection be worth?’ The Guerrilla Girls believe they have made a ‘difference’ because as a subject they are part of ‘women’s and gender studies’ curricula ‘all over the world’ and tens of thousands of copies of their art history book have been sold all over the world; the book is used a textbook and has been translated into several languages. I can vouch that they are noted respectfully in the 12th and latest edition of Gardner’s Art Through the Ages.

Notable names (born pre 20th century) from the NMWA historic collection: Lavinia Fontana (1552–1614), Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1651), Clara Peeters (1594–1657), Judith Leyster (1609–60), Louise Moillon (1610–96), Elisabetta Sirani (1638–65), Rachel Ruysch (1664–1750), Angelica Kauffman (1741–1807) Élisabeth-Louise Vigée-Lebrun (1755–1842), Sarah Miriam Peale (1800–85), Sarah Bernhardt (1844–1923), Mary Cassatt (1844–1926), Suzanne Valadon (1865–1938), Kathe Kollwitz (1867–1945), Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1889–1943), Grace Albee (1890–1985).

For further information, see also the articticmiscellany article about the Murray Edwards College Collection of Art by Women,, and

The first photograph features the exterior of NMWA, ©NMWA. The second photograph is of Pasadena Lifesavers Red, No. 5, 2005, sprayed acrylic lacquer on acrylic, by Judy Chicago. ©NMWA. 

This article first appeared in Cassone: The International Online article Magazine of Art and Art Books in the July 2012 issue.