Wilhelmina Cole Holladay was traveling abroad with her husband Wallace when they first encountered still life paintings by Clara Peeters at Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna and then Madrid’s Museo del Prado. The art-collecting couple was shocked to have never heard of the Flemish painter, remembered as one of the few women artists working professionally in 17th-century Europe. This was the 1970s, and the era’s standard art history textbook, H. W. Janson’s History of Art, did not mention Peeters or any other women artists. The Holladays then focused on collecting women artists exclusively and soon amassed more than 500 works by women dating back to the Renaissance.
In 1981, they established the National Museum of Women in the Arts and spent six years transforming a Classical Revival–style building three blocks from the White House into a home for their collection. (It once housed the Masonic Temple of Washington’s Grand Lodge, which women coincidentally were barred from entering.) More than three decades later, the institution’s collection has ballooned to encompass 5,500 artworks. To house everything—and make room for even larger, more ambitious works—the museum recently wrapped up a two-year, $65 million renovation by Baltimore architect Sandra Parsons Vicchio that adds 2,500 square feet of gallery space.
The museum now reopens with the aptly named group show “The Sky’s the Limit,” in which boundary-pushing sculptors peel back the layers of their process. A striking red chandelier by Portuguese talent Joana Vasconcelos greets visitors in the ground-floor rotunda. Alison Saar depicts a blue-black female figure draped in a gauzy white gown. The Indian sculptor Rina Banerjee gathered ostrich eggs, a Victorian fixture, and porcelain doll hands into a show-stopping assemblage unpacking “colonial masculinity.” Thanks to the women involved—from Holladay to deputy director Kathryn Wat—perhaps history is less likely to repeat itself and fewer women will be excluded from the canon.