Wilhelmina Cole Holladay, who used her social connections, organizational acumen and personal collection of hundreds of works by female painters to establish the country’s first museum dedicated to women in the arts, died on Saturday at her home in Washington. She was 98.
Her death was confirmed by the National Museum of Women in the Arts, which she opened in 1987 and had continued to guide as chairwoman until recently, holding weekly meetings with the museum’s director at her home in Georgetown.
Ms. Holladay, known to her friends as Billie, was a skillful Washington networker, someone who understood how to use party invitations and seats on nonprofit boards to press an agenda. But where others might have used those talents to lobby for clients or accumulate power for its own sake, she had a different goal in mind: inserting women into art history, which she believed had too long ignored their contributions.
A patrician with impeccable taste and sense of decorum, she rubbed shoulders with first ladies, lunched with Mellons and Gettys, and drew on those associations and others in Washington’s cultural establishment over the six years it took to open the museum, housed in a former Masonic temple three blocks from the White House.
She moved to Washington soon after graduating from Elmira College in 1944. She got a job as a social secretary for the Chinese Embassy; for a time she worked for Madame Chiang Kai-shek, China’s first lady, who had temporarily relocated to the United States to lobby for international support against the Chinese Communists.
Wallace F. Holladay, an architect and real estate developer. He died in 2012. Ms. Holladay is survived by her son Wallace Jr., four grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. Another son, Scott, died in 1979.
Ms. Holladay left the embassy after Wallace Jr. was born and just before the Chinese government fell. The family moved to suburban McLean, Va., and later to Georgetown.
She worked at the National Gallery for a time and later joined several museum and nonprofit boards. She and her husband also began collecting art: Their first work was a painting they bought for $100 at a high school art fair.
On a trip through Europe in the 1970s, the Holladays were struck by a 17th-century still life by the Flemish artist Clara Peeters, which they encountered at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. They saw another Peeters work in Madrid, at the Museo del Prado. But back home they could find no mention of her in their many volumes of art history.
“If Peeters was sufficient to hang in two of the world’s great museums, how was it we did not know of her?” Ms. Holladay wrote in her memoir, “A Museum of Their Own” (2008).