Leslie Cheek (28 October 1908–6 December 1992), museum director, was born in Nashville, Tennessee, and was the son of Leslie Cheek, a wealthy businessman whose family created the Maxwell House coffee brand, and Mabel Wood Cheek. The family's affluence and his mother's love for the arts enabled him to visit museums, enjoy the theater in New York, and accompany his parents on art-collecting trips to many parts of the world. Cheek attended Nashville preparatory schools and an Indiana military academy. Choosing not to follow his father into business but to gratify his own and his mother's inclinations, he switched from engineering studies to fine arts at Harvard University, from which he graduated in 1931. Four years later he received a BFA in architecture from Yale University, where he also studied stage, costume, and lighting design.

Arts Educator
Leslie Cheek Jr., as he continued to identify himself even after his father's death, joined the faculty of the College of William and Mary as an instructor in fine arts in 1935 and became chair of the Department of Fine Arts the following year. He renovated an old campus dormitory to house the department, exhibited the work of such modern artists as Georgia O'Keeffe, brought Frank Lloyd Wright to Williamsburg to speak at an exhibition borrowed from the Museum of Modern Art, and designed theatrical productions to show his students the wider applications of art. Cheek served on the Virginia Art Commission from 1938 until he left the state the following year. Under a tight deadline, he revised Virginia's design for its exhibition at the 1939 World's Fair in New York. The commission in charge of the exhibition had selected a plan in an open competition but then repudiated it, in part because the design focused too much on the restoration of the colonial capital at Williamsburg but perhaps also because the commissioners learned that the designer, the Hampton Institute architect William Henry Moses, was an African American. Cheek made free use of unique features of Moses's plan for the Virginia room and accepted full credit for its success.

Arts Administrator
On 3 June 1939 Cheek married Mary Tyler Freeman, daughter of the journalist and historian Douglas Southall Freeman. A Richmond civic leader and philanthropist, she helped found the Richmond Better Housing Coalition. They had three sons and one daughter. On 1 September 1939 Cheek became director of the Baltimore Museum of Art. There he staged inventive exhibitions and incorporated modern design into the museum's new theatrical offerings. Cheek also designed a modern house, Faraway Farm, in the mountains of North Carolina, where for more than a decade his family spent part of each year. In 1940 he took a leave of absence to prepare an exhibition on American civilization for the Museum of Modern Art in New York, but the prohibitive cost of mounting the show during World War II led to its cancellation. Cheek resigned from the Baltimore Museum in the spring of 1942 to work for the Army Corps of Engineers camouflage school at Fort Belvoir, and for several months in 1945 he worked in Washington, D.C., for the Office of Strategic Services. He moved to New York during the summer of 1945 and until April 1947 was an associate editor of the monthly magazine Architectural Forum. For several months in 1947 he wrote on architecture for House Beautiful.

Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
Cheek moved to Richmond after succeeding Thomas Clyde Colt as director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts on 1 July 1948. One of the first state art museums in the country, the Virginia Museum was a small institution that relied on donations and membership dues for most of its acquisitions and programming. Cheek energetically raised money, solicited donations of artworks, enlarged the museum and its cultural offerings, and introduced exciting but sometimes controversial innovations. He experimented with dramatic lighting techniques, used recorded sound in the galleries, and treated furniture and architecture as art. He acquired and exhibited paintings, sculpture, and decorative arts from different world cultures and different periods, ranging from antiquity to contemporary art. In giving the museum's collections a more cosmopolitan character, he reduced the institution's early focus on the work of Virginia artists.

Innovation and Controversy
Creativity and controversy were the hallmarks of Cheek's career. In the spring of 1950 he mounted a major exhibition of modern American art that drew strong condemnation from Virginians with conservative artistic tastes and generated a bitter public debate about the exhibition and about modern art that attracted comment in the New York Herald Tribune and the New York Times. After the museum began construction of a new wing in 1954, Cheek raised money to create the Virginia Museum Theatre (later TheatreVirginia). Drawing visitors to the museum for the performing arts as well as for the fine arts was part of Cheek's plan to expand the museum membership and reputation, and he hoped that visitors who attended for one purpose would stay to enjoy the other cultural offerings. In 1960 he created Arts in Virginia, a thrice-yearly illustrated magazine that disseminated information about Virginia artists and showcased the museum's collections. He made imaginative use of publicity opportunities and carefully monitored the museum's press coverage.

Cheek's passionate determination to introduce ordinary people to fine art was perhaps best demonstrated in 1953 when he initiated the Artmobile, a traveling museum housed in a large tractor trailer fitted out with works of art and educational materials. The first such program in the country, the Artmobile won national attention, and the museum added three more units during the 1960s. By the last year of Cheek's administration the Artmobiles had attracted nearly 130,000 visitors, and through the museum's affiliation with local arts councils and the formation of Virginia Museum chapters in many communities, the museum's programs reached 755,000 Virginians in all parts of the state. The Artmobile program continued until conservation concerns and operating costs forced termination of the service in 1994.

Cheek was an imaginative artist and a man of formidable talent. He was also a demanding manager and was never shy about borrowing ideas from other people or taking full credit for work to which other people had contributed significantly. Staff turnover during his administration was high, a rate attributable in part to low state salaries for the professional staff but also a consequence of the difficulty some people had in working with Cheek. He had as many vigorous critics as appreciative supporters. One admiring insider echoed the praise of Cheek as a "genius, pioneer, innovator, brilliant fund-raiser, charming host, untiring perfectionist" but acknowledged he could also be "a whip-cracker, a tyrant, an autocrat." A Richmond News Leader editorial after one public dispute in 1959 proclaimed what many people had come to believe, that Cheek was "a virtuoso in the art of controversy."

Neighborhood clashes, such as disputes with the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1954 and 1958 over the museum's plans to acquire adjoining property, strained Cheek's relationship with the community and with some board members, and early in 1958 he submitted his resignation as director. Less than a month later, however, he and the board patched up their differences and agreed that he should remain. In 1959 he unsuccessfully endorsed placing the headquarters building of the Civil War Centennial Commission in the Confederate Memorial Park adjacent to the Virginia Museum, even though the modern, domed structure would have harmonized poorly with the neighborhood architecture. In a major disappointment for Cheek, in March 1967 the Virginia Arts Commission rejected the museum's architectural plans for a new north wing because it deemed the modern design incompatible with the original building.

Cheek's creativity increased the museum's high reputation, and his achievements proved more durable than the many controversies that surrounded them. The Richmond-area chapter of the Public Relations Society of America presented Cheek its Thomas Jefferson Award for Public Service in 1966, and in 1985 the Virginia Society of the American Institute of Architects awarded him its architecture medal. He received honorary degrees from the University of Richmond in 1955 and from the College of William and Mary in 1967.

Later Years
Cheek retired as director at the end of October 1968. During his two decades in charge, the museum staff increased from about 25 to 150, and its membership grew from little more than 1,000 to more than 11,000. The museum more than doubled the value of its art holdings and more than tripled its floor space. State appropriations for operating the museum rose from $47,000 per annum in 1948 to more than $700,000 in 1968, while expenditures on operations and acquisitions rose from about $68,000 per year to more than $1,000,000.

During the first years of his retirement, Cheek operated a Christmas tree farm on Nelson County land for which he also designed and constructed Skylark, a vacation house that he and his wife deeded to Washington and Lee University in 1977. During the 1970s he assisted in designing the interpretive center at Stratford Hall, the Westmoreland County plantation of the Lee family. In 1985 the College of William and Mary mounted a major retrospective biographical exhibition, "Cheek and the Arts," in conjunction with the publication of Parke Rouse Jr.'s laudatory illustrated biography. The college also created the Cheek Award in the arts. Arthritis that put crippling pressure on Cheek's spinal cord increasingly incapacitated him after the 1970s and eventually confined him to his Richmond home. Leslie Cheek died there on 6 December 1992 and was buried in Hollywood Cemetery.


Sources Consulted:
Davidson Co., Tenn., Birth Certificate D-360255 (delayed); personal and family information verified by widow, Mary Tyler Freeman Cheek McClenahan (2003); autobiographical essay in David H. Stevens, ed., Ten Talents in the American Theatre (1957), 183–197; Parke Rouse Jr., Living by Design: Leslie Cheek and the Arts: A Photobiography (1985), with several portraits; K. Richmond Temple, Designing for the Arts: Environments by Leslie Cheek (1990), with several portraits; Mary Tyler Freeman Cheek McClenahan, Southern Civility: Recollections of My Early Life (2003), 95–119; feature stories quoting Cheek extensively include Nashville Tennessean Magazine, 17 June 1956, Richmond Times-Dispatch, 19 May 1957, 24 Sept. 1967 (first and second quotations), 5 Dec. 1971, 13 Sept. 1981, 4 Apr. 1982, The Diplomat (July 1957), 20–21, 52, and Richmond News Leader, 24 Jan. 1979, 11 Dec. 1985; major collections of Cheek's papers, drawings, and other personal and professional material in Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution (including 1982 oral history interview), Washington, D.C., in Museum of Modern Art, New York, in Queens Museum of Art, New York, in Robert E. Lee Memorial Association, Stratford Hall, in Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (including 1981 oral history interview and museum publicity scrapbooks), Richmond (VMFA), in Virginia History Society, Richmond, in Swem Library, College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Va., and in VMFA, Director's Office (including 1965 oral history interview), Accession 33863, Record Group 34, Library of Virginia; Southern Workman 68 (1939): 14–18, 102–105; Richmond News Leader, 18 Nov. 1959 (third quotation); J. Carter Brown, "The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts: An Essay" (1960 typescript, New York University Institute of Fine Arts), copy in VMFA; Mary Tyler Cheek, "'An Island of Quiet in an Ocean of Noise': The Virginia Room at the 1939 World's Fair," Virginia Cavalcade 35 (1985): 30–37; obituaries in Richmond Times-Dispatch, 7, 8 Dec. 1992, New York Times, 8 Dec. 1992, and Richmond Style Weekly, 15 Dec. 1992; memorial in VMFA Bulletin 53 (Mar./Apr. 1993): 1.


Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Brent Tarter.

How to cite this page:
Brent Tarter,"Leslie Cheek (1908–1992)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2006 ({url}, accessed [today's date]).


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