Ask Heather Monthly Feature

Heather Slania

Heather Slania, NMWA’s Director of the Library and Research Center

Heather Slania is NMWA’s new Director of the Library and Research Center. Prior to joining NMWA she worked at Georgetown University as a Research and Instruction Librarian and an Art, Art History, & Museum Studies Bibliographer. She has also worked at the University of Maryland in the Special Collections department where she managed various types of printed material including broadsides, postcards, and other ephemera.

Want to know more about a lesser known woman artist? The history of NMWA? A history of fashion worn to NMWA Galas? Heather will dig through the NMWA Institutional Archives, the Archives of Women Artists, and the vast collection of books under her purview in the Library Research Center to answer your questions! Email your questions to hslania@nmwa.org and your question may turn up on a future blog post!  

With this first installment there are no questions asked to answer, but here’s a treasure from the Institutional Archives:

The aspect of research that I find most interesting is discovering the unpublished histories behind objects, art, and people. In the Institutional Archives, we have a small collection of NMWA Oral Histories that document the personal stories behind the museum. The first installment is a recording of a gallery talk given by NMWA founder Wilhelmina Cole Holladay in September 2006.

Wilhelmina Cole Holladay

Wilhelmina Cole Holladay

In her talk Mrs. Holladay talks about the history of the founding of the museum, the creation of the Elizabeth Kasser wing, the Library and Artist Book Collection, and some of the art in NMWA’s Collection.

Here are some of the interesting highlights from this talk (omitted is the amazing story of how Clare Boothe Luce acquired the Frida Kahlo painting, which was covered in an earlier blog post).

On finding philanthropists for the museum:

… I am convinced the museum was meant to be, because many many things happened. The museum is the result of the efforts of thousands of people. And in our country, as you know, we have a great tradition of philanthropy and volunteerism. Without that the museum could not exist. But there is one story I’ll tell you because it is one of these wonderful things.

There was a little woman, a young woman living next door to me with a three-year-old child and a gentleman with whom she lived. And she and her significant other were students at GeorgetownUniversity. And the little boy was adorable, and once in a great while my husband would talk to him. He said, “my name is Beau and you probably think it’s “B o” but it’s “B E A U.” And Wally said, “How old are you?” and he said, “Seventeen.” You know he was three. So anyway, this darling little boy one day fell and hurt himself quite badly, and his mother came running over with him, and I put them in my car and took them to a pediatrician and I got to know her.

… One day she said, “What are you doing Mrs. Holladay? You come, you go, you’re out, you’re in.” I said, “Well, I’m working on this museum.” And she said, “Well, I’d be interested.” And I said, “Well you come next Tuesday. I’m having a meeting at my house.” So she came, and when she got ready to leave she said “I’d like to help you.” And I said “Well, that’s so nice.” She had a class at Georgetown so we went to the door, I went to see her out, and she said, “I really meant that.”  And I said “Well my husband and I are going to the islands. When we get back we’ll get together and see what committee you’d like to be on.” So I went back to the group and this one said “Is that Getty as in J. Paul Getty?” And I said “Oh!” … She was Claire Getty to me, but it didn’t even occur to me that she was J. Paul Getty’s granddaughter, but she was.

On acquiring paintings:

Elisabeth-Louise Vigée-Lebrun_Portrait of Princess Belozersky

Elisabeth-Louise Vigée-Lebrun, “Portrait of Princess Belozersky,” 1798, Oil on canvas, 31 x 26 1/4 in., Gift of Rita M. Cushman in Memory of George A. Rentschler

I went to give a slide lecture inPhoenix, Arizona, and a woman came up to me and said, “I want to talk with you out in the hall. … I have a painting in my house I want you to see.” I said, “I’m sorry, I have to get back to Washington. I’m flying.” She said, “It’s Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun.” And I said, “Well, maybe I have time.”

So I went out to her house. She said, “My father gave me this when I made my debut in New York, and I’ve had it always. But I’m older and ill and I want it to go somewhere meaningful, and I want your museum to have it.”  And I said, “Well, it’s beautiful, and of course we’d love to have it, but I don’t accept anything like this … you have to come see us.” … So she did come to see us and she loved the museum and … she gave it to us. We had a little cocktail thing with champagne and she died very happily. She kept writing to me and saying “I’m so happy my painting is in the museum.”