Leslie Cheek Jr., museum director

December 08, 1992|By Staff Report

Leslie Cheek Jr., who began a career as an innovative museum director at the Baltimore Museum of Art and then spent 20 years at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, died Sunday at his home in Richmond after a stroke.

A memorial service for Mr. Cheek, who was 84, will be conducted at noon tomorrow at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Richmond.

He served as director of the Virginia museum from 1948 until his retirement in 1968.

When Mr. Cheek became director of the Baltimore Museum of Art in September 1939, he was an instructor at the College of William and Mary in Virginia who had started the fine arts department there but was without experience in museum administration. However, he quickly showed his aptitude for it.

Although Mr. Cheek was in Baltimore less than three years, he was able in that time to display the innovative ideas, the flair for the dramatic, the penchant for incorporating a number of arts into one project, which were to mark his years in Richmond.

A show titled "Art Begins at Home" featured a double maze, in which the visitor could proceed to either of two destinations -- a "wrong" one containing household items in "bad taste" and a "right" one with objects in "good taste."

An exhibit titled "The City" integrated the museum with the city by highlighting issues before Baltimore's Planning Commission. A multilayered project on "Romanticism in America" included an exhibition, a symposium, a ball, a musical and a stage performance.

Other events during the Cheek tenure included everything from lectures to Charlie Chaplin films, a ballet series, a sculpture competition, a sketch club and pottery-making demonstrations, in addition to an ambitious schedule of exhibitions.

As a result of Mr. Cheek's directorship, a BMA history states, "the museum had become a center of continual entertainment and instruction."

In December 1941, he started a program called Sundays for Soldiers, which provided movies, a lounge and refreshments in addition to tours of the museum for service people.

The next spring, Mr. Cheek resigned from the museum to become a soldier, entering the Army. During World War II, he served in the Corps of Engineers and the Office of Strategic Services.

At the Virginia Museum, his innovations included collections from Tibet and Nepal; a mobile museum that tours the state; the Virginia Museum Theater; movie series; and song, dance and instrumental music programs.

He built a new wing and planned another for the museum whose collection more than doubled in value during his administration.

Named director emeritus at his retirement, and given an honorary patron of the arts award by the museum, he also received a governor's award for the arts and a medal from four Scandinavian countries in 1954 for organizing an exhibit of RTC decorative textiles, furniture, glassware and other items that toured 20 American museums after opening in Virginia.

He also won awards for his work from the Old Dominion Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America, the Virginia State Chamber of Commerce and the Federated Arts Council of Richmond.

Born in Nashville, Tenn., he was graduated with great honors from Harvard College in 1931, earned an architectural degree from Yale University and did graduate work at Columbia University.

After his military service in World War II, he worked on the staff of Architectural Forum magazine before taking the Virginia museum post.

Also, he designed some buildings, including the interiors of the Fine Arts Building at the College of William and Mary and the Virginia Room at the 1939 New York World's Fair.

In 1939, he married Mary Tyler Freeman, whose father was Douglass Southall Freeman, historian and Richmond newspaper editor.

Surviving, in addition to his wife, are two sons, Leslie Cheek III of Arlington, Va., and Richard Warfield Cheek of Belmont, Mass.; a daughter, Elizabeth Cheek Morgan of Belmont, Mass; a sister, Huldah Cheek Sharp of Brentwood, Tenn.; and seven grandchildren.

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