Helen “Leni” Stern, an artist and patron who helped establish Washington, D.C., as a destination for contemporary art, died November 11 at a hospital in the District of Columbia. She was 89. The news was first reported by the Washington Post, who listed her cause of death as pneumonia.
Stern moved to Washington in 1957, after marrying her first husband Philip M. Stern, a journalist and heir to the Sears, Roebuck fortune (they divorced in 1972). There, she launched a company that rented artworks to businesses and individuals. In 1962, she cofounded the Washington Gallery of Modern Art. The gallery was short-lived—it closed six years later after a prolonged financial struggle—but its influence was immense.
The venture’s inaugural exhibition was the first major retrospective dedicated to Abstract Expressionist Franz Kline. That was soon followed by shows for artists such as Frank Stella, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Edward Kienholz.
As a member of the gallery’s board and eventual chairman, Stern was an early champion of artists such as sculptor Anne Truitt, painter Sam Gilliam, and Rockne Krebs, known for his laser installations. The gallery’s historic 1965 exhibition “Washington Color Painters” helped the area’s burgeoning visual art movement—led in part by painters Sam Francis, Paul Reed, and Kenneth Howland—achieve nationwide recognition.
Before the gallery merged with the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1968, Stern hired Walter Hopps as its final director; he would go on to be recognized as one of the most visionary curators of the era.
Helen Phillips Burroughs was born July 4, 1930, in Manchester, New Hampshire. She attended Wells College in Aurora, New York, and Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. After college, she moved to Montreal following a brief marriage to Henry Sedgwick in 1950. She was a trained pianist and pursued a lifelong sculptural practice, focusing on work with Plexiglas.
“Leni was a brilliant artist herself,” printmaker Lou Stovall told the Post, “and she did a lot for other people who were making art. But she never really received the credit she deserved.”
Leni and Philip Stern were also avid art collectors throughout their marriage. Their home in Washington’s Kalorama neighborhood was decorated with works by David Smith, Marsden Hartley, Josef Albers, and John Marin, among others. In 1978, she sold much of her art collection.
“As wise and generous and courageous patrons of contemporary art,” Post art critic Paul Richard wrote in 1971, “she and her husband, Philip, have no local peers.”