Martha L. Parkhurst

Board member of Baltimore Museum of Art founded its development office and raised money for its expansion

April 05, 2010|By Jacques Kelly

Martha Leich Parkhurst, who founded the Baltimore Museum of Art's development office and was a voice for governmental arts support, died Tuesday of pneumonia at the Blakehurst Retirement Community. She was 97.

Born Martha Leich in Evansville, Ind., she earned an economics degree at Wellesley College and worked for a Wall Street investment firm. She married her boss, Martin Pfahler. After his death a decade later, she married Baltimore attorney George V. Parkhurst. The couple lived for many years in Roland Park.

She initially ran a small Guatemalan textiles import business, but beginning in 1952, she joined the Baltimore Museum of Art's women's committee and worked closely with Adelyn Breeskin, the museum's director who secured the Cone Collection for Baltimore.

In a memoir, Mrs. Parkhurst recalled being named to the museum's board in 1969. She began to worry that inflation was causing the BMA to run a deficit.

"In 1972, I went to Tom Freudenheim, the director, and said we really should be raising money to supplement the city's appropriation," she wrote. "He said, 'OK, you do it,' and I resigned the board and went to work. They found a desk and a phone for me on the third floor."

She said it was "lots of fun" selling the museum, writing persuasive letters, keeping accurate letters and "always saying thank you."

"By the end of the first year we could brag about $70,000 in unrestricted annual gifts and every dollar was a great source of joy to me," she wrote. She later helped raise money for a museum expansion and orchestrated a $20 million capital campaign for a new wing. She also led trips to Europe and Russia.

She supported the creation of the Maryland State Arts Council in 1967, where she was appointed a member and later served as chairperson.

"She was an elegant woman who was totally impassioned about the arts," said former state Sen. Julian L. Lapides, who worked with her on the state arts council. "She was an articulate advocate who believed in government support for her cause."

She retired in 1988 and spent time swimming, fishing and crabbing on the South River at Mayo. She planted Concord grapes and raised vegetables and chrysanthemums during the summer months. But she did not like retirement.

"She retired with some reluctance; she went home, cleaned out the closets, did all the mending and decided she had more to offer. She immediately went to work with a museum colleague, Ann Allston Boyce, in a consulting enterprise specializing in long-range strategic planning and fundraising for nonprofits of all types," said her daughter, Emily E. Parkhurst of Mayo.

She retired a second time in 1994 when her eyesight failed.

Her husband of about 50 years died in 1996. Shortly after, she moved to Blakehurst in Towson, where she went to work to fill what she thought was not enough cultural and intellectual stimulation. She worked with fellow residents and staff members to set up committees to bring musical performances, art exhibitions and lectures, and foreign affairs discussions to the community.

"She retained her lifelong interest in politics and current events. She was a Democrat who thought we should each be paying more in taxes, not fewer," her daughter said. "She enjoyed bridge, daily swims and the French language table at dinner."

She followed politics closely. On her 95th birthday at a performance of the Capitol Steps at Goucher College, she was saluted by the cast as hailing from the era of the William Howard Taft administration.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at Brown Memorial Woodbrook Presbyterian Church, 6200 N. Charles St., where she was a member.

In addition to her daughter, survivors include a brother, Dr. John F. Leich of Canaan, Conn.; three grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. A son, John L. Parkhurst, died in 1997.

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