Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Homage to Leslie Cheek, Jr.

Leslie Cheek, Jr. (1908-1992)
“The peculiar value of Mr. Cheek’s work at the College of William & Mary has been in his perception

of the irreplaceable importance of art in college life today. Not art only as a field for amateurs, but art as a field for intelligent and trained appreciation; art as a medium of self-expression and, above all, in the long years of leisure that lie ahead, art as a source of fuller culture, and as a stimulus to continuous growth.”
-John Stewart Bryan, President of the College (1934-42)

Leslie Cheek, Jr.
As we prepare for the 12th exhibition of art by the faculty of the Department of Art and Art History at the Museum, I think it is important to take a moment to acknowledge the achievements of the person responsible for bringing a Fine Arts department to the College -- Leslie Cheek, Jr. Mr. Cheek dedicated his career to furthering and promoting the study of the arts at the College and in the greater community.

Leslie Cheek, Jr. studied art at Harvard University and architecture at Yale University. He graduated from Yale in 1935. After graduating from Yale, Cheek came to Williamsburg to paint landscapes. Shortly after arriving, he became friends with James L. Cogar, a curator at Colonial Williamsburg and with John Stewart Bryan, the President of the College of William and Mary. Cogar had also studied at Yale and taught in the History Department at the College of William and Mary. So, when Cogar left for a semester abroad, Cheek was offered his position. During his tenure, he utilized the first photographic slides ever used at William and Mary.

At the College, Cheek founded one of the first Fine Arts Departments in the south in 1937. Originally the Department was housed in Taliaferro Hall, a converted dormitory that was also the first air-conditioned building in Williamsburg. Andrews Hall, which currently houses the Department of Art and Art History, opened in 1968.

The 1930s was an exciting time in Williamsburg. Cheek hosted architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who presented a lecture based on select works that MoMA loaned to the College. He also brought Georgia O’Keeffe back to Williamsburg after a thirty-year absence. She received an honorary degree and the College hosted an exhibition of her work. Abby Aldrich Rockefeller donated a Georgia O’Keeffe painting to the College. This painting, White Flower (1932), is now an integral part of the Muscarelle Museum of Art’s collection.

Cheek also served as the Director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts from 1948-68. He was the second director and the longest-tenured director in the museum’s history. Meanwhile, in 1955, Cheek opened the Virginia Museum Theatre to bring the performing arts into a museum space.

As part of his legacy, Cheek created an endowment at the College in 1986 to establish a national award for outstanding presentation of the arts. The Leslie Cheek Jr. Medal is presented to a person whose achievements significantly contribute to the furtherance and promotion of the fields of museum, performing, or visual arts. The director of the Muscarelle Museum of Art in conjunction with the heads of the Fine Arts Department and the Theatre Department choose the recipients of this prestigious award. In 1983, Leslie and his wife, Mary Tyler, were instrumental in the building of the Muscarelle Museum of Art on the College’s campus. 

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