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Helen Stern, patron who brought contemporary art to DC, dies at 89

Artist and patron Helen Stern, affectionately called ‘Leni’, died on November 11 in Columbia. One of the pioneers in making Washington DC a hub of contemporary art, her death at age 89 was reported by the Washington Post.

Helen Stern was born in 1930 in Manchester. She attended colleges in New York and Masseauchhets, before moving to Montreal post her marriage. However, her marriage to Henry Sedgwick in 1950 was short-lived, and she later married Philip Stern. Her husband was a journalist and a political advisor. After the marriage, she moved to Washington and launched her first company that rented art to businesses.

In 1962, Stern founded the Washington Gallery of Modern Art. The inaugural exhibition itself was the first major retrospective for the Abstract Expressionist Franz Kline. Her tenure at the gallery was marked by similar patronage of such artists like Sam Gilliam, Anne Truitt and Rockne Krebs. Her 1965 exhibition ‘Washington Colors Painters’ was historic for giving a platform to the leading visual artists of the region.

The gallery closed in 1968 and was merged with Corcoran Gallery of Art. However, the impact it had in its short tenure was huge. Before the merger, Stern also brought Walter Hopps as the last director (Hopps would go on to contribute much to the art landscape for many decades).

Apart from a patron of art, Helen Stern was also a sculptor who likes working on Plexiglass. She also loved playing the piano. The Stern couple also loved to collect art and had an impressive collection, much of which was sold in 1978.

Lou Stovall, printmaker and one of the artists who worked under her, said after her death:

“Leni was a brilliant artist herself and she did a lot for other people who were making art. But she never really received the credit she deserved.”