National Museum of Women in the Arts: An Extraordinary History

Esther Mahlangu, a member of Ndebele tribe of South Africa, arrived at NMWA to celebrate a display of the BMW she was commissioned to paint with tribal designs.
Image from A Museum of their Own, published by Abbeville Press

“In 1962, the major art history textbook by H.W. Janson did not include a single woman artist, not even Mary Cassatt or Georgia O’Keeffe,” Wilhelmina Cole Holladay observed, justifiably indignant, in her book A Museum of their Own, in which she tells the history of her founding of the National Museum of Women in the Arts. She goes on, “I was eager to challenge Janson’s assumption that women’s contributions to the history of art were negligible.” Holladay’s vision, her energy, and her dedication ensured that the NMWA—a project that she began in the 1960s as a personal collection of art by women—grew first into a “museum without walls” in the early 1980s, in which visitors could schedule docent-led tours of the collection at the Holladays’ home, and then, after the museum purchased a landmark building (what used to be the Masonic Temple, a few blocks from the White House in Washington D.C.) and renovated it, in 1987 the National Museum of Women in the Arts finally opened to the public. Now, the NMWA carries on its mission statement, to “bring recognition to the achievements of women artists of all periods and nationalities.” And that’s just the beginning.

The NMWA’s core collection includes pieces by now-canonical artists—from a wide range of backgrounds, time periods, and styles—such as Sofonisba Anguissola, Elisabeth-Louise Vigée-Lebrun, Mary Cassatt, Georgia O’Keeffe, Frida Kahlo, Lee Krasner, and Cindy Sherman. The collection also houses works from less well-known but no less visionary women, and includes many extraordinary pieces from contemporary artists. Abbeville’s A Museum of their Own includes 170 illustrations, representing the museum’s core collection as well as its momentous historical events and exhibitions, and Holladay’s stories and recollections provide a wonderful personal context for the museum’s history.

Holladay shares several extended anecdotes about the exhibition of a mural by South African artist Esther Mahlangu. In an unexpected pairing with BMW (Mahlangu was one of thirteen artists—and the only woman—invited to paint a series of cars), the NMWA hosted Mahlangu in Washington D.C. and asked her to paint a mural on the façade of a building annexed to the main museum. Holladay recounts how Mahlangu, as she painted the mural from the scaffolding, stopped traffic for hours. The exhibition attracted much attention, and Maya Angelou came to speak at Mahlangu’s opening. Even Nelson Mandela came to see the exhibition, a visit that Holladay recalls in detail:

The National Museum of Women in the Arts was the only museum he visited in Washington. I was preparing to take him on a tour of the exhibition when a member of his entourage pulled me aside and said, “Under no circumstances are you to take him up and down steps, on doctor’s orders.”

The show included some wonderful tapestries, handmade by the women of the Ndebele tribe, which had been hung at a lower level. As I was leading President Mandela through the exhibition he looked over the railing of our spiral stairway and spotted the tapestries. He became excited and said, “Come, Mrs. Holladay. I want to tell you about those tapestries.” He proceeded to march down the steps while telling me about the folktales that the tapestries depicted.

How could anyone stop Nelson Mandela from walking down the stairs when that’s what he wanted to do? Let alone when he was so eager to see the work and to share the folktales he knew? Holladay admitted there were a few gasps and looks at her, but that Mandela was just fine. What a relief—and an unforgettable story!

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Click here for more information on A Museum of their Own: National Museum of Women in the Arts, published by Abbeville Press.

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