There is a very special museum in Washington DC. One that collects and exhibits works of women artists and supports women in the arts not just in the U.S. but everywhere. It is the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA), the only museum of its kind the world over. But how come someone like me, a feminist and a museum person did not know about it? I wanted to learn more about it, how it came about, what it does, and how it can be changed, so that the museum becomes more significant, more up to date, and ultimately more visible so that it becomes the authority, the place to go to for exhibitions but also for all women to get a sense of belonging. I want this museum to work and I want all women to support it.
The NMWA is not located in close proximity to other museums. It is in downtown Washington, DC which could quite well be the reason why not many people from outside the DC-area know about it. Looking at the building from outside—with a 21st Century perception of design and aesthetics—quite frankly it looks rather un-inviting. I thought it to be a forbidding masonic temple which I found out it originally was.
National Museum of Women in the Arts Building in downtown Washington, D.C.
Photo: National Museum of Women in the Arts website
When my friend Elizabeth and I visited the museum I felt I was transported back in time, but not in a good way. I felt the museum was stuck back in time in the early 90s, if not the 80s. Are museums depositories of only old or dead objects? Of bygone times? A place for old people? I love museums, and I want more and more people to visit them. Old and young, and from all walks of life. There are certain people who would go to museums no matter what and I certainly am one of those but we need more people to care for and visit museums who are from outside the regular circle of people that do. I love history, I love old, things and people. Yet this museum was stuffy and old, not in a good way old. (I realize the DC-area stylistically is very different as every time I go there I say to myself in wonderment that I didn't think people still dressed that way). But even in the most conservative places, in general, art museums are where you see the people with the coolest outlooks, the quirkiest clothes, the more outlandish appearances, but well, not here.
Yet at the NMWA, like in all museums I go to, wonderful people greeted us, guided us; three young women working there complimented my skirt and asked who designed it and where they can buy it. So much so that they asked me to write the name of the online store down. This interaction with them led me to see that this museum could change and that it will be good and for good. Most of the time I can’t be as critical as I want to be when I write about so many museums because of the wonderful museum professionals who work in those institutions and do all they can but because of the Board or the director can’t contribute much to the dialogue about change. But in this case, when you have a museum, the only one in the world that aspires to be of all women artists the world over, you have a big responsibility. And while I hate to be critical about women anywhere I also wanted to find out its strengths and flaws and find out what can be done to make it better.
The biggest area of the museum on the first floor is a huge space, you might call it an atrium perhaps, called the Great Hall, which is not used for exhibitions save for the walls, which would be alright to have if you had a lot of exhibition space in the rest of the building. When you look at this museum building it is more in the style of a palace-turned-museum, or palace-like hotels of the old era, so this Great Hall area is then fine of course, but since there is no good exhibition space in the rest of the museum this makes it a waste of precious space that could be used for exhibitions.
After our return from DC my research of the museum led me to look into who made this museum, its mission and its Board, its programs and exhibitions, its financials. I looked at the people who gave to the museum first. The names of Alice and Ken Starr, and Lynne and Dick Cheney caught my eye and I figured this was an institution with Republican connections. Its financials were impressive. I found out most importantly that the museum was founded by Wilhelmina Cole Holladay, called “Billie” born in 1922, with a graduate degree in Art History married to a wonderful man, Wallace F. Holladay, an architect and businessman with whom she started building an art collection. I found this out after I checked out her book “A Museum of their Own” from the library in which Holladay recounts the whole journey of her life of building the art collection, the museum and the physical building.
In the book, Holladay, talks about a trip she took with her husband in Vienna, and how much they both liked a painting by Clara Peeters, a woman artist, which led them to realize that women artists were not recognized in art history. From then on they decide to build an art collection and were given the advice that “a collection, whether personal or even institutional, gains power through sharpening its focus”. They then focus on collecting works of art by women artists and start showing them off. Once they amassed more than 500 works of art all the while advancing women artists in general, she turned to making a museum of it. Ms. Holladay, as only a woman would, names the museum National Museum of Women Artists. She does not name it after herself or her family. It is the very smart thing to do. (Many male collectors fail to take their ego out the equation and name museums after themselves making it difficult to secure funds and donations, or public support or a sense of belonging from others because their very own name is attached to the institution).
The museum doesn’t have her name in the title, but it is all hers in the making. She faces many obstacles too. So many criticize her. Even the director of the National Gallery of Art and many journalists. Those criticisms would be unimaginable to make today. Despite that she is not deterred. She perseveres. And continuing to work to this day, it’s her life’s work. But having a collection and a building to keep and showcase are not what make a museum. She does one thing that is very important in making a museum successful: Networking. She was a member of many museums, took trips with these museum groups, and I am assuming through her family’s work and life in D.C. made many powerful and important people mostly Republicans. She worked tirelessly in getting funds, endowments and bequests all necessary to make any museum or any other non-profit organization successful. She got Helen Walton of the Walmart fortune and many others to make contributions. (In 2016 this amounted to more than $13 million).
She also found the museum building, a Masonic Temple, and imagined a great hall to hire for weddings and other receptions which shows her pragmatic mind, but overall makes the museum an event-venue for stripping the museum out of much-needed exhibition space.
Photo of an event at the Great Hall
Screenshot: instagram @bellwetherevent
Ms. Holladay has excellent negotiating skills and the book should be read by anybody who is in the business of museums. She also realized that all these endowments have to be invested intelligently to generate an income for the museum, a non-profit organization, and I was amazed how smart and profitable these incomes have been. The NMWA had a budget surplus in 2016, and here are some numbers that might interest you, taken from the IRS Form 990, which every not-for-profit organization in the U.S. has to file, for the year 2016 :
Gross Rental Income: almost $1.2 million. I am imagining this is from the rental of the Great Hall.
Investment Income, from dividends: more than $1.2 million.
Membership dues: more than $1.2 million.
Contributions & Grants: more than $13 million.
Also, the museum has a 40-member Board, and in 2016, employed 105 people and had 106 volunteers. Its net assets are almost $70 million, and, read this, its publicly traded securities were valued at more than $58 million. The museum director’s gross salary is more than $300K, and its two deputy directors each make around $150K.
My fascination with Ms. Holladay further increased as I kept reading the story of how she founded the museum when on page 42, she recounts, rather candidly, how a poor 12-year-old girl gets pregnant as a result of rape, and how a doctor would not terminate the pregnancy, only to have the girl die together with the baby at childbirth solely for having not been mature enough to carry out the delivery. She unequivocally stands firm in her being pro-choice. She is just amazing in the way she tells this.
The book was published in 2008 while George W. Bush was still the president, before the election of Barack Obama as president and even before the financial crisis. So it has to be read with that in mind. How did the financial markets' downfall affect the financial situation of the museum? (It looks good now.) How does Ms. Holladay feel about how polarized our world is now? She is 96 and her daughter-in-law Winton Smoot Holladay who is the Vice-Chair seems to be in charge nowadays. In the book, she states initially she never joined the Women’s Liberation movement but believes in equal pay, and that abortion should be legal. Towards the end of the written part of the book, on page 178, she states she realized without even noticing that she had in fact become a feminist, a label more than 10 years ago was not as commonly said as it is today.
So I want this museum to get better. Any criticism I make is only to make the museum its best self, and that they keep with times, so here goes:
- Relevance. Please read the book “The Art of Relevance” by Nina Simon. It is an excellent book for anybody who is in the museum field, or any other non-profit for that matter. You don’t have to even buy it; it is available for read online. You can do all of that, and more. Find out what you stand for. I would say what this museum specifically needs is, outreach to communities of DC, by providing educational programs, but also exhibitions.
- Exhibitions. I felt this was what needed improvement the most. If you have limited space, you have to make the exhibitions interesting for young people. Without exaggerating, you can make photography-worthy exhibitions. In our instagram-worthy way of living (If you didn't take a photo and posted it online did it really happen?), this is quite important. You have to incorporate technology and interactives for sure. Like I said, it has to be that people will want to come, to be able to say to others through the photographs they post, that they have been there, and that is worth a trip to the museum. Needless to say of course the exhibitions have to make a point, tell a story, inform the visitors of the subject and inspire them to learn more, and want more.
- Online presence. The website of NMWA is very outdated and not stylistically appealing at all. This is what you get now:
Screenshot of National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) website: https://nmwa.org
The NMWA has a facebook page, I don’t know who even looks at facebook, but it is named Women in the Arts and can be found here:
Its instagram account is difficult to find, because I searched it as Museum of Women in the Arts and nothing came up, just the Place, and from there I found its account
Screenshot of National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) instagram: womeninthearts
In both instances I would recommend to please do add the word “Museum” because “womeninthearts” implies all women that have to do with arts whereas a museum should emphasize that it is an institution. It's a good thing.
- Reach out. To more women. And to more powerful women. From everywhere. I am thinking Oprah, I am thinking Rihanna, I am thinking Sheryl Sandberg. And many more.
- Management. This museum seems to have a Board that is kind of micro-managing. I understand it is because of the great trustees and their powerful connections that the museum is doing so well financially, but management should be encouraged to do more too.
- Physical location. Very important: Renovation. I understand the building recently had its structure secured and damages to the roof and cornices were repaired and restored, and the museum is in the process of getting plans for its restoration and renewal. In its latest publication of the Women in the Arts magazine, Vice-Chair Winton Smoot Holladay writes that they are about to receive a report from architect Sandra Vicchio and her team. I am hoping they will propose to modernize the place while keeping the beautiful old elements. I love it when you juxtapose old and new and achieve harmony. Don’t be afraid, old and young are closer in our contemporary world.
The National Museum of Women in the Arts has to be a place for every woman from all walks of life to feel proud, to feel theirs, they feel welcomed, that they belong there, and that they also are inspired and entitled, and feel a camaraderie with every woman, all at the same time.And it can do so. All this needs is money but I am sure that won’t be a problem. Ms. Holladay who had a vision to create all this I am sure is also the type of woman who is on instagram, and plays bridge with her friends online, while sending WhatsApp messages to her other group of friends, and she would want the best. I sure hope she is in good health.
Holladay's book is titled “A Museum of Their Own” a reference to the 1992 Penny Marshall film “A League of Their Own” about the women’s baseball league founded during WWII when all male baseball players had gone to fight in the war. But reading it today, I feel that the title is distant, like from afar, from a “male” point of view, as it says “Their”. And I believe it is time we stop being labeled by male perspectives, or be identified by male terms. We are past that now, and we have to take it further. We all have to help and support this museum, The National Museum of Women in the Arts, to be a museum for women of all races, origins, ages, socio-economic status and level of education to call it theirs, and to say, that this indeed, is, a Museum of Our Own.