Our History

The idea for the National Museum of Women in the Arts grew from a simple, obvious, but rarely asked question: Where are all the women artists?

NMWA’s founders, Wilhelmina Cole Holladay and Wallace F. Holladay, began collecting art in the 1960s, just as scholars and art historians were beginning to discuss the underrepresentation of women and various racial and ethnic groups in museum collections and major art exhibitions. Among the first to apply this revisionist approach to collecting, the Holladays committed themselves for over 20 years to assembling art by women. By 1980, Wilhelmina Cole Holladay began to devote her energies and resources to creating a museum that would showcase women artists, and the Holladay Collection became the core of the institution’s permanent collection.

The National Museum of Women in the Arts was incorporated in November 1981 as a private, non-profit museum. During its first five years, NMWA operated from temporary offices with docent-led tours of the collection at the Holladay residence. Special exhibitions also were presented. In 1983, the museum purchased a 78,810-square-foot Washington landmark near the White House, formerly a Masonic Temple, and refurbished it in accordance with the highest design, museum, and security standards. It won numerous architectural awards.

In the spring of 1987, NMWA opened the doors of its permanent location with the inaugural exhibition, American Women Artists, 1830-1930, a definitive survey curated by one of the country’s foremost feminist art historians, Dr. Eleanor Tufts.

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Susan Fisher Sterling
Alice West Director of NMWA