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American Magazine: November 2013

BY LEE FLEMING She

artist Claes Oldenburg as a temporary tenant in her basement. She turned a derelict opera house in downtown D.C. into a mecca for artists, curators, and collectors from around the world. And in the process, she almost single-handedly created a contemporary art scene in the nation’s capital. At 91, Alice Denney, the pint-sized powerhouse whom many call the doyenne of Washington art, remains a force to be reckoned with. Distinguished by signature giant sunglasses and striking headpieces—from a striped Cat in the Hat–inspired creation by couture milliner Philip Treacy to a crocheted beer-can number—Denney is still scouring galleries, museum exhibitions, performance spaces, art fairs, and artists’ studios in search of the new and the provocative. “I just liked talking to the artists,” she says about how and why she got into the art world. “That got me interested in doing things.” Denney has never been one to hesitate to engage people or experiences. Even as a child in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, she would enlist available talent to her projects. Gene Kelly was an 18-year-old counselor at the camp near her family’s summer cabin when Denney, then 12, saw him dance. “He was good, so I asked if he’d like to be in one of my shows”—referring to the productions she would mount with local kids. “He said yes, and he came to our house and had a great time, so he kept coming back.” While a student at Duke, Denney took art history courses, which she loved. But her passion really developed when, as a young bride, she and friends would visit New York galleries and hang out at the fabled Cedar Tavern in Greenwich Village, where Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Franz Kline, and other abstract expressionist artists held court. “It was so exciting hearing them talk about their ideas,” she says. By the time Denney and her late husband George moved to Washington in the 1950s, she was hooked on the New York movements that were transforming contemporary art. DENNEY’S EXPERIENCES WITH THE AU FINE ARTS FACULTY HAD A MAJOR IMPACT ON HER EARLIEST EFFORTS George had been recruited to work for then secretary of state Dean Acheson. That left Denney with time on her hands to explore the D.C. art scene. “There really was nothing,” she says. Culture, as it existed in Washington, consisted of staid museums whose collections stopped dead at the postwar period, a few music societies, and the mainstream Broadway shows that came through the old National Theatre. “We may as well have been in a time capsule,” says Denney. She set out to change all that. Along the way, she developed a reputation for her ability to recognize talent in emerging artists and her fearlessness to promote the new, the different, and the challenging. The late Walter Hopps, founding director of Houston’s Menil Collection and former curator of twentiethcentury American art at Washington’s National Collection of Fine Arts (now the Smithsonian American Art Museum), and himself no slouch when it came to discovering new talent, once called her “the best eye in the business.” Jack Rasmussen, director of the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center, counts Denney among his earliest art world mentors. “She told me, ‘Look for artists you don’t understand. If art by definition is something that didn’t exist before, then if you immediately get something, it probably isn’t art.’” Denney’s experiences with the fine arts faculty at AU had a major impact on her early efforts. Their work on exhibit at the Corcoran Biennial and at Franz Bader Bookstore and Gallery sparked her interest in what was happening at the university. In 1955 she signed up for a life drawing course taught by Ben “Joe” Summerford. “The course put me in touch with artists like Alma Thomas [noted African American abstractionist] and especially the AU faculty, who were really serious and trying new things,” she says. It became clear that Washington artists needed a place devoted to showing their art. “They wanted a professional gallery. So I said, why not start one?” LET’S TALK #AMERICANMAG 19

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