The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Alice Denney, Washington’s impresario of the experimental, dies at 101

She invigorated a staid if not stodgy arts scene as one of the city’s first and most prominent champions of the avant-garde

Alice Denney founded the Washington Project for the Arts, among other institutions. (Courtesy of Denney family)
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Alice Denney, who invigorated the staid if not stodgy arts scene in Washington as one of the city’s first and most prominent champions of the avant-garde, died Nov. 20 at a hospital in the District. She was 101.

The cause was complications from a stroke, said her son-in-law, Roger Rosenbaum.

The wife of a government lawyer, Mrs. Denney settled in Washington with her husband in the early 1950s and quickly emerged as a formidable presence in the cultural life of the capital.

With only minimal formal training in the arts, she became an impresario of the experimental in a city where, as a writer for The Washington Post once put it, “a sculpture with a naked derrière is still considered terribly avant.” She looked beyond the classically beautiful and politically bland, challenging curators, collectors, donors and the public to embrace art that was new, daring and at times provocative.

“I want to see everything going on that’s creative, every painting, sculpture, every art form under the sun,” Mrs. Denney told The Post in 1966. “Nobody in town has really been in touch with these things, not even your big shot culture kings. It’s weird.”

Relying in large part on her personal charisma, Mrs. Denney set about opening galleries, organizing “happenings” and recruiting artists including Andy Warhol, Mark Rothko, Claes Oldenburg, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg to exhibit and in some cases perform their works in Washington.

She often hosted artists in her Northwest home, an arts scene all of its own, and recalled waking up after at least one soiree to find “Rothko draped over the couch and Rauschenberg sleeping on the living room floor.” She said Oldenburg once gave her a birdcage sculpture for allowing him to crash in her basement.

“She is a vital force here,” Walter Hopps, then curator of 20th-century work at what is now the Smithsonian American Art Museum, told The Post in 1976, describing Mrs. Denney as “the first person in Washington to respond” to the experimental art cultivated at the time in New York City.

“She turned Washington into a vanguard,” Hopps added. “She just presumed to do it.”

In 1957, Mrs. Denney helped found the Jefferson Place Gallery, where she displayed the works of a young Johns. He is now recognized as one of the most significant figures in modern American art, but at the time, she said, she “couldn’t give his stuff away.”

During its 17 years in operation, the gallery also promoted artists including Gene Davis, a leading figure in the Washington Color School, and Sam Gilliam, whose painted drapes proved a sensation.

Mrs. Denney also helped create the Washington Gallery of Modern Art. The museum, which opened in 1962 and later became part of the now-closed Corcoran Gallery of Art, exhibited works by artists from the postimpressionist Vincent van Gogh to the abstract expressionist Franz Kline, as well as a pop art show in 1963 that include works by Warhol, Oldenburg and Roy Lichtenstein.

Along with the exhibit, called “The Popular Image,” Mrs. Denney helped organize a festival of “happenings” that included Rauschenberg dancing with parachutes as he skated across a roller rink in the Kalorama neighborhood.

In a similar vein, she orchestrated the NOW Festival in 1966, which brought Rauschenberg and Warhol, among other artists, and composer John Cage to Washington for a week-long artistic spectacle.

“An audience of about 800 sat amused, fascinated, outraged or bored as they were exposed to Washington’s first full-scale demonstration of the so-called New Theater,” a Post journalist reported. “They watched artists and dancers parade a series of weird and often-spectacular images before them that included, at various times, a movable chicken coop equipped with six live chickens and one live performer lying prone, munching on chicken — the fried variety.”

Mrs. Denney’s most enduring creation was the Washington Project for the Arts, an organization that she founded in 1975 to provide workshop, exhibition and performance space for experimental artists.

Initially functioning from a condemned storefront space downtown that charged $1 a year in rent, the initiative received funding from the Cafritz Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts and the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities and remains in operation today.

Mrs. Denney stepped down as director in 1979 to become board chairman. The WPA, as the project is known, rose to national attention in 1989 when it presented a retrospective exhibit of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe, many of them sexually explicit, that had been canceled by the Corcoran amid a political furor over the exhibit’s partial federal funding.

“Imagine what we would have missed, imagine how much duller the art scene here would be,” Post art critic Paul Richard once wrote, “had there never been a WPA.”

Alice Merwin McCauley was born in Greensburg, Pa., on Nov. 8, 1922. Her father was an electrical engineer, and her mother was a homemaker.

In 1946, she received a bachelor’s degree in home economics from what is now Drexel University in Philadelphia. After her husband’s graduation from Harvard Law School, she accompanied him to New York, where he pursued graduate studies. She described herself as “all starry-eyed” when she frequented the Cedar Tavern in Greenwich Village, a haunt at the time of abstract expressionist artists.

Her husband of 64 years, George C. Denney, died in 2011. Their son, Christopher S. Denney, died in 1975. Survivors include a daughter, Jill Denney of Bolinas, Calif.; two grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.

Of the personal art collection that occupied much of her time when she was not helping build that of the city of Washington, Mrs. Denney once explained her philosophy. “You have to keep looking, always looking,” she said. “And have the courage to go with the things that speak to you.”