by Bernard K. Means Friday, February 26, 2016 found me at the Gari Melchers Home & Studio at Belmont located in Fredericksburg, Virginia, accompanied by Laura Galke, who brought her photographi…
On October 19, 1975, Mary Washington College President Prince Woodard presided over the public opening of the Gari Melchers Memorial Gallery, making the artist’s Belmont home and painting studio available to the public on a regular schedule for the first time.
The opening of the museum took over twenty years to accomplish, in the face of numerous governance decisions by the Virginia General Assembly, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the University of Virginia and finally Mary Washington College, all of which had involvement in the winding road of acceptance and implementation of Corinne Melchers’ wishes as outlined in her 1942 gift to the Commonwealth, which was effective at her death in 1955.
Gari and Corinne Melchers purchased Belmont in 1916, finding a pleasant country retreat similar to what they had enjoyed for many years in Egmond, Holland, where Gari was able to concentrate on his work away from the distractions of Paris, where his professional life was centered. After leaving Europe during the turmoil of the war years, Gari established a studio in New York City, but again longed for a rural retreat that he found at Belmont.
During his sixteen years in Virginia, Gari Melchers involved himself in the cultural life of his adopted state, eventually being named chair of the Virginia Arts Commission in 1932. From that post he oversaw the refurbishment of the state capitol building decorations and statuary, and began the development of what was to become the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. After his death later that year, Corinne was appointed to his position on the commission and became one of the founding trustees of the VMFA when it opened in 1935. She had developed a close relationship with Thomas Colt, the museum’s first curator and director, and spurred by a VMFA memorial exhibition of Gari’s work in 1938, by 1942 had worked out a plan to deed Belmont and its collections to the museum at her death.
By the time of Corinne’s passing in 1955, and the subsequent transfer of the property and art collections to the Commonwealth, the administration of the VMFA and the reputation of Gari Melchers in art circles had changed considerably. No longer was Melchers considered an important American artist, and his Falmouth home had become run down and in need of major repairs. The VMFA board almost immediately sought to be relieved of the burden of supporting what they saw as a white elephant fifty miles from Richmond. Fredericksburg’s Mary Washington College, then part of the University of Virginia, was approached and accepted the responsibility for overseeing the site, but could not provide funding for either staff or major improvements that would allow public use. It was not until 1975, under a new college administration that was committed to opening the site as a public museum, that Corinne’s wishes were finally carried out.
Since that autumn day forty years ago, the museum now known as Gari Melchers Home and Studio has kept alive Mrs. Melchers’ goal of preserving and celebrating the now revived artistic legacy of her accomplished husband, and providing a public setting in which to enjoy his art and the historic locale that they so lovingly maintained.
In the early years under Belmont’s first director, Richard Reid, only the first floor of the house and the studio were open a few days a week, staffed by volunteers. In 1984, under the guidance of Reid, an important illustrated reference book, Gari Melchers: His Works in the Belmont Collection, was published by MWC professor Joseph Dreiss. By the mid-1980s hours had expanded to seven days a week, and Reid’s successor Peter Grover leveraged state and private funds to restore the original house and modernize the utilities to both preserve the collections and increase the comfort of visitors. It was at this time that a major retrospective exhibition of Gari Melchers’ best work traveled the country, reviving public and critical interest in his place in American painting.
In the early 90s, under current director David Berreth, the formal gardens were restored with the help of the Garden Club of Virginia, which has continued to support the restoration of the estate’s landscape based on the voluminous photographs and records saved by Mrs. Melchers. In 1995 a former garage was converted into a visitor center and museum shop to welcome guests and increase revenues. The building now also serves as the official Stafford County Visitor Center, promoting regional tourism and the study of local history.
By 2001 the original studio building was fully restored to provide a safe, climate controlled facility in which to house a rotating display over 500 works by Gari Melchers. This thoroughly professional venue allows the museum to borrow major works and exhibitions from other museums around the country. And in 2006 a new public event pavilion and collection storage facility was completed, allowing the museum to host a wide variety of public educational programs, concerts, and workshops, along with private events like wedding receptions and business retreats. All of this work was accomplished through combinations of private and state funding, which demonstrated the depth of support from the now University of Mary Washington, and a cadre of local donors and private foundations focused on historic preservation.
Today, Gari Melchers Home and Studio hosts visitors from every corner of the world, and is a regular stop for local residents and regional guests. Corinne Melchers’ dream has been realized, and we celebrate her vision and dedication to art and its ability to endure and inspire, as it has for over forty years on the hill overlooking Falmouth.
Our 1790s historic house museum is fairly typical in not having an elevator to access its upper levels. For years, guests who opted out of climbing sixteen stairs to reach the second floor were given a printed tour with pictures and descriptions to peruse. Not a bad solution, but not great either.
While researching possible alternatives, I looked for an easy, elegant, and enhanced touring alternative/interpretive tool. I also hoped to provide a “beyond the stanchions” look at our collection, spaces, and views. An iPad video kiosk seemed to be the answer. The museum community regularly uses iPads to complement programming and engage people through the use of apps, music, digital labels, videos and zoom-able images, surveys, touch-screen kiosks, and even robotic tours. Why not use a tablet to show a second floor video?
I found a stand that works well in our tight space. It has a weighted bottom, a telescoping, adjustable pole and a bendable neck. The iPad can be locked in place so theft is not a worry.
The process of making the video was challenging and fun. Basically, I strove to highlight things our guests love best or wish they had access to. I secured project funding through Stafford County Tourism, wrote a script, worked with a local production crew on lighting and filming, and selected background music (not as easy as it sounds!). After editing and more editing, the video was ready to share with the public. Apple’s Education Customer Service representatives provided friendly step-by-step instructions on how to upload the video file to the iPad so WiFi wouldn’t be an required. Training staff was a breeze due to the iPad’s user-friendly interface design.
Initial feedback from guests has been overwhelmingly positive. One weary visitor who chose to watch the video instead of climbing the stairs ended up re-joining her group upstairs minutes later because it looked so interesting! An unintended consequence, but hopefully now you can more fully experience Belmont, even from the first floor.
In the August 2015 issue of Virginia Living Magazine, our site was touted as one of Virginia’s leading niche museums whose “dedication to their mission makes them well worth the visit.” We share this honor with the William King Museum of Art in Abington, The Marine Raider Museum in Quantico, the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection in Charlottesville, and the Essex County Museum & Historical Society in Tappahannock.
Pick up your copy today!
Spotlight Exhibition: Julius Melchers’ Captain Jack
September 12, 2015-January 3, 2016
For the first time at Belmont, one of the celebrated cigar store Indian figures carved by Gari Melchers’ father and mentor will be on view in the Studio, included with museum admission. Press Release
Director’s Tour for Members
Sunday, September 20, 2 p.m.
Behind the scenes tour led by Director David Berreth. Open to Friends of Belmont and guests. Space limited. Reservations 540/654-1840, free for Friends. To join: 540/654-1842
Art, Corks, Brews and Blues/UMW Alumni Night
Thursday, September 24, 5:30-7:30 p.m.
A casual evening for University of Mary Washington graduates and friends to visit Belmont and enjoy the offerings of Stafford County’s Adventure Brewing Company and Potomac Point Winery. Studio galleries will be open. Live music by The Acoustic Onion. Reservations 540/654-1830, Free Admission; Cash Bar
African American Gardens and Memories
Sunday, October 11, 2 p.m.
When the novelist Alice Walker wrote her essay “In Search of our Mothers’ Gardens” she was interested in both actual gardens and the ways that gardens symbolize the lives of the African American women from the past. Grey Gundaker, Professor of American Studies and Anthropology at the College of William and Mary, will examine the legacy Ms. Fannie Roots left through her garden in an illustrated talk that will discuss African American gardening traditions, the philosophical principles that underpin them, and the contributions of African American gardeners to the landscapes of the southeastern US.
The Roots house will be open for tours from 12-1:45. Free
Julius Melchers: Detroit’s Master Sculptor
Sunday, October 25, 2 p.m.
Ralph Sessions, Director of Special Projects at New York’s DC Moore Gallery, and former Chief Curator of the Museum of American Folk Art, will highlight the contributions to Detroit by Gari’s father Julius Melchers (1829-1908), and place his celebrated cigar store Indians in the larger context of 19th century American figure carving.
Julius Theodore Melchers, father of Gari, was an accomplished artist in his own right. Trained in Germany and France, he operated a workshop in Detroit for over forty years, creating a wide range of architectural sculpture, interior carvings for churches and other buildings, figureheads and maritime work, and shop and cigar store figures. This talk will highlight Melchers’ many contributions to Detroit, and place his celebrated cigar store Indians in the larger context of nineteenth century American figurecarving in wood. Free
Growing Great Spring Flowers
Sunday, November 1, 2 p.m.
Lisa Zeigler of The Gardener’s Workshop presents a workshop inspired by her new book, Cool Flowers. Lisa introduces the cool-season concept, when and what to plant, where to locate for the earliest blooming, setting it up for low maintenance and how to keep the blooms coming into summer. Free. Includes a pop-up shop with gardening and flower arranging tools, supplies and flower seeds.
40th Anniversary Celebration
Sunday, November 15, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
Join us in marking the opening of the museum 40 years ago with 1975 admission rates and refreshments, 75 cents for adults and 50 cents for children under 18.
Home for the Holidays 2015
November 27, 2015- January 3, 2016
Enjoy seasonal house decorations inspired by the Melchers’ stylish hospitality, included with museum admission. Although artist Gari Melchers divided his time between his commercial headquarters in New York City and his Virginia retreat at Belmont, neighbors could always count on finding him at home over the holidays, where he was sure to have dragged along friends and family from the city for an old fashioned Christmas feast, with fresh turkey, raised at Belmont and Maryland crab soup, specified by his Baltimore – born wife.
Friends of Belmont Holiday Reception
Wednesday, December 9, 6-8 p.m.
Enjoy holiday decorations, music, tours, refreshments and good cheer. Friends of Belmont free/Non-members $10; Reservations 540/654-1848
Can you think of a better way to enjoy time with friends than with a tour of Gari Melchers Home and Studio at Belmont? Often described as a hidden gem, our site has something for everyone ─ antiques, art, history, gardens, and a beautiful museum shop.
The ladies of Heart of Virginia visited us in late March for one of these outings. They began their day by watching our orientation film and taking a docent-led tour of Gari and Corinne Melchers’ historic home filled with all their treasured belongings. From there they moved to the Studio where they were introduced to Melchers’ art then allowed to explore the three galleries at their own pace. Belmont has the largest collection of Melchers’ artwork in the world so there’s always something new to see! A delicious catered, family-style lunch in our light-filled pavilion followed by an illustrated talk given by our curator topped off their day. Many in the group vowed to return with their spouses.
We offer group tours on Tuesdays and Thursdays beginning at 10:30 am and 1:00 pm and request a minimum of 15 people with a 21 day advance registration confirmation. Group tours are $10 per person; tour leader and bus driver are free. We also have several group tour enhancements to choose from: Guided Garden Tour, Curator Talk, and Lunch.
Book your group tour today!