The National Museum of Women in the Arts has had six directors in the 14 years since founder Wilhelmina Cole “Billie” Holladay moved it in 1987 from temporary offices to a former Masonic lodge near the White House. The latest to leave is Ellen D. Reeder, who came from the Brooklyn Museum of Art and quit Oct. 3 after three months
Some in the Washington arts community think Mrs. Holladay looms too large at the museum, where the 79-year-old founder also is chairwoman.
When Mrs. Holladay hears adverse comments, however, she points to the staff some of whom have been with her more than a decade as the solid base of the institution. “They’re autonomous,” she says.
Some observers, such as artist and arts commentator Bill Dunlap, say it’s not unusual for a strong founder to run a museum. He mentions collector Norton Simon, who took over the Pasadena Art Museum in California and made it the Norton Simon Museum. Mr. Simon ran it while he was alive, and others continue his directives after his death.
An employee at the women’s art museum, speaking on the condition of anonymity, says that “There have been so many directors in so short a time because the museum wears them out, but at some time, the institution will have to change and get someone who stays a while in order to getthe funding.”
Another comments, “It’s an issue of governance.”
Miss Reeder, a Baltimore native and scholar and archaeologist who concentrates on ancient art, held the deputy director’s job at the Brooklyn Museum of Art for two years before coming to Washington. She previously was curator of ancient art at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, where she organized the highly praised “Pandora: Women in Classical Greece,” among several other exhibits. Miss Reeder holds a master’s degree and doctorate in classical archaeology from Princeton University.
When she resigned, a statement from the National Museum of Women in the Arts said in part: “While we have greatly valued her expertise, it has become clear that her goals are different from the ones of the board.”
Miss Reeder, 54, reached by telephone at her home in Baltimore, sounds a different note. “As an institution matures, it reviews issues of governance,” she says. “On the plus side, I thought the staff was terrific, and I can’t think more highly of them. Surprisingly, every one of them had great writing skills.”
Her predecessor, Nancy Risque Rohrbach, had a business background. Mrs. Rohrbach was vice president of US Airways and took over the museum after growing restless in retirement. She stayed two years. Her background included serving as an assistant labor secretary in the administration of the first President Bush and deputy assistant for legislative affairs in the Reagan administration.
The museum, she says, “has come a long way and has a great future.” She calls the staff “very professional and dedicated.”
Mrs. Rohrbach created the position of deputy director for art and programs, held by Susan Fisher Sterling; a post of institutional advancement and overseas development, filled by Elizabeth Howell; and the job of director of administration, held by Barbara Elky.
During her tenure, the museum also instituted “admissions as part of the cost-benefit analysis, and it helped with cash flow,” she says. “It’s important to remember the museum is in a city with other museums, both for-profit and nonprofit, and that it’s competing with these institutions for dollars.”
When Mrs. Holladay talks about valuable longtime staff members, she singles out Mrs. Sterling, 46, who holds a master’s degree and doctorate in art history from Princeton University. She came to the museum in 1988 as associate curator.
Mrs. Holladay also mentions Krystyna Wasserman, who joined her before the museum opened. Mrs. Wasserman directs the library and research center and curates unusual exhibitions such as last year’s “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, Let Down Your Hair” and a series on artist’s books.
The NMWA founder also praises Harriet McNamee, curator of education, who joined the staff in 1991.
The museum’s genesis grew from a 1960s trip to Europe by Mrs. Holladay and her husband, Wallace. Clara Peeters’ still-life paintings impressed them in Madrid’s Prado and at a museum in Austria. Yet on returning home they were unable to find information about the 17th-century Flemish artist. Subsequent research revealed Peeters as a successful still-life painter of fish, fruit and flowers.
The definitive art history texts made no reference to her, or to other female artists. The couple began gathering works by women in the 1960s, and their collection became the core of the museum’s permanent holdings.
“We had limited funds and had to narrow the field in our collecting. We found we could collect in many different mediums with women. In 1960, art by men cost a fortune in the same periods as quality art by women that was affordable,” Mrs. Holladay says.
The couple gave the museum most of the art exhibited in its permanent collection galleries on the third floor. They donated about 500 works of art when the NMWA opened, or about one-half of their collection; they gave the other half later. Everything in their home goes to the NMWA when they die.
The permanent collection holds art by more than 800 female artists. They include Judith Leyster, Mary Cassatt, Lilla Cabot Perry, Camille Claudel, Frida Kahlo, Elizabeth Catlett, Lee Krasner, sculptor Louise Bourgeois, Helen Frankenthaler and Georgia O’Keeffe.
In 1987, the NMWA inaugurated its elegant refurbished 70,810-square-foot, six-story Renaissance Revival museum at 1250 New York Ave. NW with the scholarly and handsome exhibit “American Women Artists, 1830-1930.”
The show documented the 100 years when women sought and achieved professional status. It spotlighted changes in women’s positions in the arts with 90 paintings and 25 sculptures borrowed from major public and private collections. The exhibit surprised everyone with the huge marble figures sculpted by women in the 1800s. The earliest breakthrough of these women came when they Edmonia Lewis, Harriet Hosmer, Margaret Foley, Vinnie Ream and Anne Whitney, among others went to Rome to sculpt.
The show later toured to museums in Minneapolis; Hartford, Conn.; San Diego; and Dallas.
Since its opening, the museum says it has sponsored more than 150 significant exhibitions, including the first U.S. retrospectives of Sofonisba Anguissola, Lavinia Fontana, Claudel and Remedios Varo. “We try to achieve a balance between historical, modern and contemporary, and national and international exhibitions, as well as women excelling in different media,” Mrs. Sterling says.
Important exhibitions included “Judith Leyster: Leading Star” in 1994, “Berenice Abbott: Changing New York, 1935-1939” in 1998 and “The Art of Nellie Mae Rowe: ‘Ninety-Nine and a Half Won’t Do’” in 1999.
“The Narrative Thread: Women’s Embroidery From Rural India” (1997), “The Legacy of Generations: Pottery by American Indian Women” (1997) and “Latin American Women Artists 1915-1995” (1996) were standouts in the thematic exhibitions category.
One of the most exciting shows to come to the NMWA will be a display of art in 2003 by female artists from the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.
Another will be devoted to what Mrs. Sterling calls “the women pioneers of the Americas,” a show of the works of Canadian Emily Carr, Mrs. O’Keeffe and Mexican artist Mrs. Kahlo beginning in February.
“Women artists were excluded from Western art historical shows and texts for so long that it’s wonderful to see the compelling, exciting and sometimes surprising shows the museum puts on. They even include men in some exhibits, as with the current extraordinary one from Brazil, ‘Virgin Territory: Women, Gender, and History in Contemporary Brazilian Art,’” Mr. Dunlap says.
Joann Moser, senior curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, comments: “The exhibits have been mixed, some wonderful, some disappointing, like all museums. They serve a real need for showing art by women but have been timid about their choices. Often they haven’t provided a context for understanding these artists. But one of the museum’s most important contribution has been mounting one-person shows by women who have been overlooked.”
Mrs. Holladay’s dream for the museum is to make it an international presence. She says the queen of Denmark helped underwrite an exhibition of Danish female artists. The king and queen of Norway inaugurated a show of Norwegian artists and brought their chamber players with them.
The museum’s members, she says, are from the United States and 28 countries.
When Mrs. Holladay started the museum she raised close to $15 million, bought the building, attracted more than 100 corporate contributors and a paid membership of nearly 50,000 and put together a staff.
The NMWA founder is proud of the variety and breadth of the shows that have been mounted but points to the conflict between art and money in museums.
“It’s difficult now. Originally, museums in this country started out with great benefactors who gave the money. Directors were scholarly,” Mrs. Holladay says. “Museums have to obtain both art and money. They want the highest level of shows, but it takes between $7 million to $8 million a year to keep the doors open. Directors now have to be fund-raisers, and this presents a potential conflict of interest. It’s not easy.”
One of Mrs. Holladay’s longtime associates at the museum is Carol Lascaris, president of the board of trustees.
Mrs. Lascaris says they met at an antiques show when Mrs. Holladay had just started the museum. “I’m used to strong women who have a strong mission. They don’t let little things get in their way,” she says. “I asked myself as an art history major in college why I didn’t ask the right questions. I should have asked about women artists.”
Mrs. Lascaris convenes the board once a month. She calls it “a working board” where everyone contributes what they can with “wealth, works and wisdom.”
She recruited Sheila Ffolliott, an art history professor at George Mason University, for the acquisitions committee. Miss Ffolliott says little money is available for purchases, and acquisitions come mainly from donors.
“We accept paintings, works on paper and original prints. The committee is selective. We don’t take textiles because presently we lack proper storage for them,” she says.
Mrs. Lascaris and her husband, Climis, lead the endowment campaign. They hope to raise $25 million during five years and obtain an additional $10 million from the planned giving program.
“We have to secure the future financially,” she emphasizes.
Mrs. Lascaris believes the new NMWA director will have to raise money just like any other museum director in town.
Mrs. Sterling, the deputy director, says the museum is coming of age. “We’ve had a steady trajectory. When we started, we focused on the collection and exhibitions. As a young museum, we had to get our bearings.”
Purchase of the museum’s adjacent property in 1993 was a significant accomplishment, she says. The Elisabeth A. Kasser Wing containing 5,300 square feet opened in 1997 after renovation.
“We’re in our adolescence as a museum and working towards several goals. One is accreditation by the American Association of Museums. The other is securing an endowment,” Mrs. Sterling says. “Another plus is the award from the American Association of Museums for the ‘2001 Publication Design Competition, First Prize for Best Book’ for our publication, ‘Women Artists: Works From the National Museum of Women in the Arts.’”
Wilhelmina Cole “Billie” Holladay (top right) is founder of the National Museum of Women in the Arts and takes a hands-on approach as its chairwoman. Alix Berenzy’s illustration for “Rapunzel” (1995, top left) is on loan from the artist to the museum. “Lady With a Bowl of Violets” (1910, above) is an oil on canvas by Lilla Cabot Perry and is in the museum’s collection. “The Imaginary Line of Tordesillas” (1995, right) uses iron, encaustic, lead, copper and cliche and is from the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro.