Irene Leache Memorial Gift
Gifts to the Museum Include Masterworks of Medieval and Renaissance Art, Named Endowment for Curator of European Art
NORFOLK, Va. – (April 10, 2014) – The Irene Leache Memorial Foundation has donated its entire collection of European Old Master paintings, sculpture, tapestries, and decorative arts to the Chrysler Museum of Art. At its March meeting, the museum’s board of trustees voted unanimously to accession the Irene Leache Memorial art collection.
On long-term loan to the Museum since within a year of its 1933 opening, the Irene Leache Memorial collection comprises 27 works of art dating from the 14th through 19th centuries. Many of the works were among the earliest art on gallery view in the Norfolk Museum of Arts and Sciences, the genesis of the Chrysler Museum.
Accompanying the gifts of art is another substantial bequest—an endowed curatorship. The Foundation has created the Irene Leache Curator of European Art, a position currently held by Jeff Harrison, who is also the Museum’s chief curator. The named curatorship is designed both to memorialize and perpetuate the symbiotic 80-year history between the Irene Leache Memorial and the Museum, giving both a more active and ongoing influence in the future of the arts in Hampton Roads.
The Memorial also will transfer a trove of books and historical materials to the Jean Outland Chrysler Library for cataloging, conservation, and community access. The archival documents, photographs, and memorabilia provide solid research background into the early collections and history of the Museum.
This extraordinary set of gifts “marks the zenith of a long-standing and richly creative relationship between the Chrysler and Norfolk’s most venerable arts organization,” Leache Curator Jeff Harrison said. “It also marks the commencement of a new and exciting era for the Chrysler and the dawn of an active, permanent, and enduring legacy for the Memorial.
“How fitting it is that at that as we reopen as the new Chrysler Museum of Art, we will present a newly unified and transformed early European collection and celebrate the Memorial’s continuing commitment to it. I cannot overstate how grateful I am—we are—for these remarkable gifts. You have immeasurably enriched both the Museum and the community we all serve,” Harrison told the Memorial’s members.
The Memorial’s board, 25 women appointed for life, also applauded the gift.
“Our members are thrilled with this culmination of an 80-year partnership between the Irene Leache Memorial and the Chrysler Museum. It fulfills the founding vision of Annie Wood to create an art collection—and a museum in which to house it—in memory of Irene Leache,” said Vickie Bilisoly, ILMF president. “We hope that the art and the curatorial endowment will always serve as a living memorial not only to Irene Leache, but also to those she inspired to foster the arts in our community.”
About the Irene Leache Memorial
The Irene Leache Memorial was founded in 1901 by Annie Cogswell Wood in memory of her friend and mentor, Irene Kirke Leache, an inspirational teacher and cultural leader in Norfolk. In 1871, at the request of a Presbyterian minister, the two women came to Norfolk in hopes of filling a cultural vacuum left by the Civil War. Here they co-founded The Leache-Wood Seminary, which offered a rigorous and progressive education to young ladies across the city. Together, for the next two decades, the teachers educated a generation of women and helped to transform Norfolk from a cultural wasteland into an oasis for the arts. Their Saturday-night “open houses” became an integral part of community life with intellectual discussions, dances, and musical recitals. Miss Leache and Miss Wood, as they always were known, also hosted The Fireside Club, at which women and men discussed literature, philosophy, religion, and art.
In 1891 as Leache’s health began to fail, they sold the school, moved abroad, and traveled across Europe, Russia, and the Middle East. In 1900, when it became clear that Leache had little time to live, the pair returned to Norfolk. She died, probably of tuberculosis, in December.
In March 1901, Wood, heartbroken but determined, founded the Irene Leache Memorial to perpetuate the memory and mission of her friend of 32 years. Having as its aim “all true illumination,” the group would provide lectures, concerts, and musical instruction, as well as aid and encourage the fine arts, literature, and the study of mystic science. Among its loftiest goals was to gather works of art—and to establish a Museum for their display and preservation.
Wood enlisted the support of her seminary alumnae before returning to Florence to begin sending artworks back to Norfolk. Until Wood’s death in 1940 and in the years that followed, the Leache-Wood protégés not only formed an art collection; they also became allies and arts activists, fostering cultural activities across the city. The vision and pioneering efforts of the Irene Leache Memorial led not only to the creation of the Norfolk Museum of Arts and Sciences, but to the founding of the Norfolk Symphony Orchestra, the Little Theater, the Norfolk Society of Arts, and the Tidewater Artists Association, and support for a host of other leading arts organizations in Hampton Roads.
In addition to maintaining and enriching the collection on view at the Chrysler Museum, the Irene Leache Memorial has championed art conservation, stewardship, and the Jean Outland Chrysler Library. It also has provided important financial support and ongoing programming for the Museum. The group conducted the annual Irene Leache Memorial Literary Contest for 80 years, the biennial Irene Leache Memorial Art Exhibit for 34 years, and the Irene Leache Memorial Lecture Series for 62 years—all at the Chrysler Museum. Since 2001, the Irene Leache Memorial has awarded grants totaling more than $130,000 to 38 visual, performing, and literary arts organizations across Southeastern Virginia.
In the tradition of Leache, Wood, and the women’s activism they encouraged, “it is time that we move forward and redefine ourselves,” ILMF president Vickie Bilisoly said. “With this major gift we will discontinue our work as a foundation, but we will stay active as a group, working closely with the Chrysler to continue our mission,” she said. “How proud we are at last to have a permanent home for our collection at the Museum. Annie Wood would be deeply gratified!”
Highlights of the Leache Collection Accessions
From Wood’s first purchases in Florence and throughout its 113-year history of collecting, the Irene Leache Memorial focused most on European art dating to the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Harrison said this has given the Chrysler a rich heritage of important paintings, sculpture, and decorative objects that would be both difficult and costly to obtain today.
“Their early acquisitions of paintings by Nadda Ceccarelli, Francesco Botticini, and Cornelis van Cleve, among others, have proven to be shrewd and invaluable additions that any museum would love to have,” he said. Were it not for their distinguished sculptures of the Madonna, the Archangel Michael, and Saints Peter, Mark, and Margaret, the Chrysler would have virtually nothing in that medium to display in our galleries for those critical centuries, he added.
In addition to these medieval and Renaissance works, the Memorial’s art donation includes a group of small, but valuable, decorative arts objects; a splendid 19th-century marble evocation of the ancient Discus Thrower by Antonio Filli; and an Italian marble bust of Irene Leache that Annie Wood commissioned from sculptor Luigi Guglielmi upon her return to Florence.
The collection gifts also include a 15th-century illuminated French Book of Hours; three indispensible Flemish tapestries dating to the 16th and 17th centuries; and a 17th-century hand-carved Italian refectory table. By adding to those treasures a rare 15th-century Italian bone and ebony jewelry coffer and a delicate 16th-century wood sculpture of the Holy Family by the Austrian Master of the Holy Blood, the Memorial has used recent acquisitions to fill gaps in its collection while building on its strengths.
The majority of the Irene Leache Memorial Collection accessions will be on view in the Museum’s upstairs galleries when the new Chrysler debuts to the public on May 10, 2014.
About the Chrysler Museum of Art
The Chrysler Museum of Art is one of America’s most distinguished mid-sized art museums with a world-class collection of more than 30,000 objects, including one of the great glass collections in America. The Chrysler campus also includes a full-service Glass Studio adjacent to the Museum and two historic houses in downtown Norfolk—the Moses Myers House and the Willoughby-Baylor House.
The Chrysler Museum is located at One Memorial Place in Norfolk. After our Grand Reopening on May 10, the Museum will be open Tuesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. General admission is free.
The Chrysler’s Perry Glass Studio is right across the street at 745 Duke St. The Studio is open during all Museum hours, and offers free daily glass demonstrations at noon.
Both Historic Houses are located on East Freemason Street in Norfolk and will be open Saturday and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. (Willoughby-Baylor House will reopen in July 2014).
Recommended reading: Jo Ann M. Hofheimer, Annie Wood, a Portrait: The Life and Times of the Founder of the Irene Leache Memorial, Norfolk: Irene Leache Memorial, 1996
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