National Museum of Women in the Arts Opens Amid Controversy

The opening of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, founded to celebrate and recognize women’s achievements in art, stirred some controversy because of the institution’s sex-segregated nature.

Summary of Event

The National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) opened in May, 1987, six years after its founder, Billie Holladay, began planning what was probably the first museum of its kind in the world. The NMWA was established to awaken the public to works by women artists and to serve as an educational center and inspiration for future generations of women. Holladay believed that women artists needed a separate museum to showcase their work and to celebrate their formerly unrecognized achievements. Museums
National Museum of Women in the Arts
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[kw]Museum of Women in the Arts Opens Amid Controversy, National (May, 1987)
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National Museum of Women in the Arts
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Holladay, Billie
Radice, Anne-Imelda
Tufts, Eleanor
Russell, John (b. 1919)
Rosenblum, Robert
Nochlin, Linda

For years, Holladay and her husband, Wallace Holladay, a Washington real estate broker and businessman, had been collecting works of art by women. The Holladays’ interest began in the early 1960’s, when they bought a still life by Clara Peeters, Peeters, Clara a seventeenth century Dutch artist. Their search for information about Peeters produced little, and they discovered that neither Peeters nor any other woman artist was discussed in the standard college art history text of the time, H. W. Janson’s History of Art (1962). History of Art (Janson) The Holladays’ amazement at this exclusion led to their interest in women artists, especially those neglected by art establishments both past and present. Over the next twenty years, they acquired a collection of artworks by women that was international in scope and spanned four centuries. The Holladays donated this collection, some four hundred items, to the National Museum of Women in the Arts to serve as its permanent core collection.

The National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C.

Billie Holladay envisioned the museum as a national center for research on women artists and as a leader in scholarship on women artists. She believed that the obscurity of talented women artists was primarily the fault of an art establishment that had always favored male artists and given them more support. In a 1988 article on the NMWA, art historian Anne Higonnet Higonnet, Anne recapped the statistics: In 1987, more than 95 percent of the works exhibited in American art museums were by men, although 38 percent of all American artists were women. From 1981 to 1987, only 12 percent of the artists exhibited at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art Museum of Modern Art (New York) were women. American women artists, Higonnet pointed out, earned thirty-three cents to every dollar earned by male artists. Holladay wanted to promote and publicize contemporary women artists, and she hoped the museum would give them the boost they needed to get noticed and become established in the art world.

Holladay and her husband had the connections and clout to launch a major museum. She was director of Holladay-Tyler Printing Corporation (her husband was its president), which printed the magazines Connoisseur, Smithsonian, the Metropolitan Museum of Art Quarterly, and parts of National Geographic. Holladay thus had the money and the business acumen needed to get a fund-raising campaign off the ground. She was also director of interior design for the real estate investment company owned by her husband and had served on several Washington, D.C., boards of directors, including that of the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

In 1981, Holladay established an independent, nonprofit corporation, and over the next six years she drove her idea to success almost single-handedly. Using money, social influence, and her knowledge of business and finance, she headed a fund-raising campaign that drew an extraordinary number of members to the museum, which was not yet even opened. By 1988, the NMWA had 83,000 members, compared with the 3,500 members of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, an established museum of roughly the same size.

Holladay was relentlessly vocal and enthusiastic about the importance of her project. Her personal contacts allowed her to attract both prestigious supporters and media attention. For example, Barbara Bush, wife of the vice president of the United States, cut the ribbon at the museum’s inaugural ceremony. First Lady Nancy Reagan served as titular head of three consecutive annual NMWA balls, and Caroline Hunt Scheolkopf, the richest woman in the United States, became a founding member and praised Holladay’s drive and dedication.

Holladay knew, however, that establishing a museum in the nation’s capital would be a risky undertaking. Using her understanding of the world of money, she launched a high-energy fund drive that targeted major corporations for big contributions. By July, 1988, a total of 128 corporations had each donated $5,000 or more. American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T) donated $100,000 for the museum’s library, and United Technologies contributed $500,000 to underwrite the museum’s inaugural exhibition, American Women Artists, 1830-1930. Corporations were unusually generous to her project, Holladay explained, because “I speak their language. And I’m not sure [museum] people always do.” To house the museum, Holladay purchased a former Masonic temple two blocks from the White House; the purchase price was $4.8 million, and an additional $10 million was spent in renovations and redecoration.

Holladay was extremely successful at fund-raising, but she was criticized for the quality of the museum’s collection and the credentials of its employees. Many critics argued that Holladay should have spent more time and money searching for an experienced director, top curators, and seasoned staff. According to some critics, the museum’s operation reflected great commercial appeal but little professionalism. The first show was assembled by a freelance curator, Eleanor Tufts, and many observers believed that the museum’s first permanent director, Anne-Imelda Radice, was too inexperienced to deal with major acquisitions and exhibitions.

The museum opened to mixed reviews in May, 1987. One senior Washington museum official called the collection “of marginal interest”; some critics declared it too uneven in quality. Others celebrated the museum as the first of its kind and noted that the Holladay collection was unusually adventurous. Among the most highly praised works were paintings by Lavinia Fontana, Rachel Ruysch, Angelica Kauffman, Suzanne Valadon, Lilla Cabot Perry, and Alice Neel.


Holladay believed that, historically, women artists had never been well treated. She and her supporters maintained that, even in the United States, the idea persisted that art by women was necessarily second-rate. They held this belief even though growing numbers of women could be found working as art museum curators, art dealers, art critics, and corporate art advisers.

The opening of the National Museum of Women in the Arts thus aroused serious debate over whether a museum should focus on gender at all. Conservative critics argued that an art museum should emphasize quality first and disregard the gender of the artists. Art critic John Russell of The New York Times compared the segregation of women’s art to the racial segregation in the American South that forced black people to ride at the backs of buses. Robert Rosenblum, a professor of fine arts at New York University, suggested that a separate museum of women’s art represented a “ghettoizing” of women artists and added, “If I were a woman artist, I would prefer to be in the National Gallery and not there.”

Others, however, supported Holladay’s stance. Abram Lerner, Lerner, Abram director emeritus of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, expressed his belief that the premise of a museum focused on gender was not really different from that of a museum dedicated to artists of a particular nationality, aesthetic movement, or period.

The debate continued. Feminist critics questioned not whether but how one should focus on gender in discussing art. Norma Broude, Broude, Norma a professor of art history at American University, represented the reservations of many feminists in the art world when she remarked that a separate museum for women’s art “trivializes the position of women as artists, reinforcing their artificial separateness and second-class status in a culture to which they have made central but unrecognized contributions.”

Miriam Schapiro, Schapiro, Miriam a leading feminist artist, added that a women’s museum should include women’s crafts as well as their fine arts. Holladay had frequently claimed that one of the museum’s goals was to heighten awareness that “women have painted great paintings”; this medium-specific bias, some critics felt, was inherited from a history of art written largely by men. Furthermore, women painters had been taught the techniques of male masters and for centuries had been judged by the standards of those masters. Schapiro and others held that the female experience is distinctly and uniquely expressed in crafts as well as in painting; often, they argued, quilting, ceramics, weaving, and other crafts are the chief forms of artistic expression available to women. Schapiro explained that women “want to be recognized for what they make. They want a history of their own.” A museum that displayed women’s crafts alongside their fine arts would truly address the social history and culture of women.

Many feminists wanted the museum to support their agenda. “A women’s museum of art that is not a strongly feminist project can only have a negative and conservative impact,” said Linda Nochlin, a professor of art history at the City University of New York. Nochlin argued that a women’s museum of art that does not actively challenge the male status quo and assert its intention to change the position of women artists is nothing more than a “pleasuring ground for the socially prominent.”

Holladay, meanwhile, insisted that the NMWA would include material on the social contexts for women’s art only if such contexts were historically significant. She stated that she intended to “accent the positive” and explained, “We are doing something else than the feminist art historians. We have not placed the emphasis on inequities but on achievements.”

Ironically, the museum’s most memorable achievement might have been its fund-raising campaign. Holladay’s funding drive was considered inspired and brilliant, and her successful membership drive for the NMWA seemed likely to influence how museums would conduct fund-raising in the future. The museum’s planning, from inception to opening, was carefully orchestrated to take advantage of the institution’s consumerist potential. Holladay used everything she knew about business and marketing and exploited the appeal of gender issues. Mass-mailing campaigns for membership targeted five main groups of women: women who had made purchases in other museums’ shops, female members of art organizations, supporters of cultural programming, feminists, and women who made purchases from upscale mail-order catalogs.

In addition, the museum’s lavish hall served as a sort of endowment; it was made available for rental for social functions at $7,500 per evening and was booked nearly every night. The focus on consumerist functions may have seemed foreign to those in the world of art appreciation, but the fact that the group of women who launched the National Museum of Women in the Arts used the worlds of consumer culture and corporate finance to forward their cause seemed almost revolutionary. These worlds might once have been an impediment to female self-expression, but Holladay used their resources—and her own considerable ones—for female empowerment. The founder of the NMWA claimed to represent conservative women, but in her use of power organizing—mobilizing women for a cause—she owed debts to the women’s movement and to the feminist left. Museums
National Museum of Women in the Arts

Further Reading

  • Chadwick, Whitney. Women, Art, and Society. 4th ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2007. Illustrated study provides a general introduction to the history of women’s involvement in the visual arts. Identifies major issues and new directions in the study of women artists and seeks to “reframe” many issues raised by feminist research. Includes bibliography and index.
  • Comini, Alessandra. “Introduction: Why a National Museum of Women in the Arts?” In National Museum of Women in the Arts, edited by Margaret B. Rennolds. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1987. Provides an overview of the museum’s collection and describes the institution’s purpose. Includes a rebuttal to arguments against the “segregation” of women’s art and discusses how, if at all, women’s art might be uniquely shaped by female experience.
  • Day, Sara. “A Museum for Women.” ARTnews 85 (Summer, 1986): 111-118. Reviews the genesis of the museum and the controversy that surrounded its opening, quoting critics, professors, and the feminist artist Miriam Schapiro. Discusses the collection and looks at key women behind the scenes at various stages of the museum’s planning.
  • Heller, Nancy G. Women Artists: Works from the National Museum of Women in the Arts. New York: Rizzoli, 2000. Illustrated volume reproduces and discusses the works of eighty-six artists who created an important portion of the NMWA’s permanent collection. A brief introductory chapter gives some background on the museum. Includes index.
  • Higonnet, Anne. “Woman’s Place.” Art in America 76 (July, 1988): 126-130, 149. Keen inquiry into the planning and purpose of the NMWA explains the reasons for much of the controversy between feminist and conservative forces surrounding the project. Provides an especially informative evaluation of the museum’s commercial structure.
  • Rosen, Randy, and Catherine C. Brawer, eds. Making Their Mark: Women Artists Move into the Mainstream, 1970-1985. New York: Abbeville Press, 1989. Catalog of an exhibition held at the Cincinnati Art Museum and other museums in 1989 reviews exhibitions held in the United States during a period of great political activity in the women’s movement. Discusses feminist principles of art theory and art criticism. Includes bibliography and index.
  • Tufts, Eleanor. American Women Artists, 1830-1930. Washington, D.C.: International Exhibitions Foundation for the National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1987. Catalog of the inaugural exhibition of the NMWA discusses the painters and features introductory essays by Gail Levin, Alessandra Comini, and Wanda M. Corn. Includes bibliography and index.

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