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Friday, April 6, 2012

National Museum of Women in the Arts

National Museum of Women in the Arts
One of the favorite hobbies of the rich is art collecting...thank God. This can entail everything from a Picasso for the den to whole museums. And while museums all over the world salivate over the collecting efforts of erudite wealthy, as they grow older and more bequest-prone, there are, in fact, so many major collectors today, seldom do any one of them make much of a lasting impact on the art world. However, in Washington, DC, at 1250 New York Avenue N.W., not far from the White House, there is today a major museum, built around the collection of a single couple that has had a very major and lasting impact on the national, even the international art world. It's not the National Gallery, the Hirshhorn, the Corcoran, or the Smithsonian. By historic standards, it a brash, young upstart, opening in 1987 in a 78,000 square-foot Washington landmark, formerly the Washington Masonic Temple. Despite its fairly recent birth, today, with over 200,000 members, the National Museum of Women in the Arts stands proudly next to all the other Washington museum giants in showcasing the best art the world has to offer.

Wilhelmina Cole Holladay,
Loryn Brazier
Wilhelmina Cole Holladay and her husband, Wallace, were not in any way unusual when they began collecting around 1960. The money came from real estate management and development, everything from rest homes to hotels and shopping malls all over the country. But their collection began at a time when scholars were just starting to discuss the missing feminine presence, as well as that of certain racial and ethnic artists, in museums around the world. As a result, the Holladays began collecting exclusively, art from all eras created by women. Their oldest piece dates back to the Renaissance, Lavinia Fontana, of Bologna, and her Portrait of a Noblewoman (below, right), from 1580, probably the first ever professional female artist; while works by 20th century artists include paintings by Elaine DeKooning, Audrey Flack, the Native American artist, Jaune Quick-To-See Smith, and most recently, Mickalene Thomas (bottom), a New York based artist who, in 2008, painted the first portrait of Michelle Obama as first lady. She wasn't even born when the Holladays first started collecting.

Portrait of a Noblewoman, 1580, Lavinia Fontana
The museum was founded in 1981 and for the first several years consisted of volunteer docents leading tours of the Holladay's home where the museum's collection was housed (principally paintings from the Holladay Collection which formed the core of the museum's offerings). The New York Avenue location was purchased in 1983 but it was almost four years later before financing and remodeling were completed and the museum truly became a reality. Since it's opening, the museums supporting membership has quadrupled in size; its collection has come to include such important women artists as Judith Leyster, Frida Kahlo, Dorothy Dehner, Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun, Angelica Kauffman,  Kathe Kollwitz, and Margaret Bourke-White. Its library and research center has grown to house more than 18,500 volumes and files on more than 18,000 women artists. Also, like any self-respecting art museum, in 1997, the National Museum of Women Artists sprouted its first wing with two new galleries sponsored and dedicated to Elisabeth A Kaser.

Mickalene Thomas, portrait painter and photographer
Today the NMWA has a collection of over 4,000 works by more than 1,000 artists. But the museum is more than just an art gallery. More recently, they've begun sponsoring and showcasing the work of women writers and musicians in addition to their continuing outreach program working in conjunction with many Washington area schools, universities, and the Girl Scouts of America. Every year the NMWA also organizes and sponsors a number of traveling art exhibitions which spread out across the country to older, more traditional museums and educational institutions. Part of the museums growth can be credited to being in the right place at the right time as the world of art struggled to answer the question first posed by Linda Nochlin in her groundbreaking 1971 article, "Why have There Been No Great Women Artists?" Part of the reason can be attributed to the feminist movement since the 1970s. Another factor has been the gradual rise in prominence of female artists themselves in the last thirty years. But in no small part, the success of the National Museum of Women in the Arts has come from the continued involvement and guidance of Wilhelmina Cole Holladay who, even today, at 89 years of age, continues to serve as chairwoman of the board of directors, visiting often the museum's art, much of which she chose herself.

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