Women’s Art Museum Founder Wilhelmina Cole Holladay, 1922-2021


Georgetown resident and arts visionary Wilhelmina Cole Holladay died on March 6 at the age of 98.

Holladay helped female artists in museums and galleries worldwide. For four decades, she served as what National Museum of Women in the Arts director Susan Fisher Sterling called “the guiding light” of the museum. NMWA was the vision Holladay founded, knowing the importance of women in art and in the world as a whole.

She was affectionately known as “Billie” in her friends’ circle, according to daughter-in-law Winton Smoot Holladay.

Holladay’s interest in art by women began in the 1970s. She and her husband Wallace were drawn to a painting they saw in Vienna by Flemish artist Clara Peeters. Holladay was frustrated trying to find more information on Peeters and other female artists in an art history textbook.

Ten years later, the Holladay collection of art by women had grown to 500 works by 150 artists, from the Renaissance through the modern day. Nancy Hanks, chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, encouraged the Holladays to establish a museum. Thus, the idea for the National Museum of Women in the Arts was born.

After incorporating the museum in 1981, Holladay opened her residence to the public for tours during the six years that followed, gathering support for her idea and raising millions. In April of 1987, Barbara Bush, wife of the vice president (and soon to be first lady), cut the ribbon to open the museum at 1250 New York Ave. NW.

Born in 1922 in Elmira, New York, Holladay earned a bachelor of arts degree from Elmira College in 1944, studied art history at Cornell University and did postgraduate work at the University of Paris in the 1950s. From 1945 to 1948, she served as social secretary to Madame Chiang Kai-shek, but, after her son Wallace Jr. was born, Holladay only took on volunteer projects.

Her son Scott Cole Holladay and her husband passed away previously. She is survived by son and daughter-in-law Wallace Jr. and Winton Holladay, four grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. In lieu of flowers, the family is requesting contributions to NMWA.

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