Interview: 2016 Visionary Award Recipient Phoebe Dent Weil

On April 25, The St. Louis Visionary Awards will celebrate the passion, determination, and imagination of six local women who daily dive into the trenches to improve our city’s arts culture by stimulating artistic ability via education, philanthropy activism and public engagement.

The honorees selected were chosen by a committee of prominent professionals who include co-chairs Sara Burke and Kim Eberlein, as well as Adrienne Davis, Alison Ferring, Renee Franklin, Melissa Howe, Cynthia Prost, Marilyn Sheperd and Donna Wilkinson.

Check back each week as we dive deep with all six honorees.

Phoebe Dent Weil. Photo courtesy of The Visionary Awards

Phoebe Dent Weil. Photo courtesy of The Visionary Awards

To say that 2016 Visionary Award winner Phoebe Dent Weil is a Major Contributor to the Arts is a bit of an understatement.  In addition spending over five decades preserving important works of art for future generations, she pioneered St. Louis sculpture conservation, trained docents for the Saint Louis Art Museum, taught her craft to a new generation and advanced the study of technical art history. She’s also sponsored operas and gotten closer to a Caravaggio than most people can only dream of.

In a field where the job is often about not having a work being noticed as being saved, Weil remains a vanguard, vigilantly caring for the preservation of some of the most important pieces of our cultural heritage. Her passion for the arts in St. Louis is relentless, underscoring her belief that the arts are for everyone at every level.

Although now retired, Phoebe has not slowed down. Still an advocate for our city’s arts, she’s been a featured speaker around the world, most recently this past December when she gave two lectures at the Blanton Museum of the University of Texas in conjunction with their exhibition of folios from the Louis IX Bible from the Morgan Library. She also has underwritten works for Opera Theatre Saint Louis and serves on the boards of several arts organizations.

Weil commented on her award, her illustrious career and how the arts have affected her life.

As we approach the Visionary Awards can you tell us how you got started with your career in Arts Conservation?

I came from a family of artists. My father was an artist and an architect. I grew up in Memphis and my mother started out as a puppeteer making puppets and doing performances around Memphis. Memphis had an arts academy and my parents met there when my father was teaching watercolor and my mother was teaching puppetry.

With puppetry you have to do a lot of carving and modeling, so for her that turned into being a sculptor. My father was also interested in history and architectural preservation. That was an aspect of his life that I drew on when I was drawn to the field of art conservation.

My first job was at the Gardner Museum in Boston. It was working in the conservation department part-time and as a secretary for the music programs. I was asked to take tours around too, which was fun. It was a wonderful place to start, a very sleepy institution, but it was fun because I was able to work on almost every type of material except paintings. I worked with somebody else who was more experienced in conservation than I was and so we self taught each other a lot of things. We had a great deal of luck because the conservation field was really in its infancy. It was a wonderful introduction to conservation.

What is your creative process with restoring artwork?

Well, it usually presents itself when people bring things to me. It’s become something like a diagnostic exercise, like going to a doctor. I assess all of the problems and the many factors that come into play on deciding what needs to be done.

Before conservation became a real field, it was mostly artists who did treatments of things and they didn’t always do the right thing. In fact they often did a lot of damage because they didn’t have access to microscopes or information on what solvents to use and how to do treatment in a safe way.

But now the conservation field now is very diverse and interesting. One thing that really drew me to it was that it involved left brain and right brain and that you had to both study and know how to deal with the chemistry of what’s going on as well as the art history, significance and aesthetics. Then you have to actually hands-on treat something and make those kinds of decisions based on everything you learned about the piece.

How can St. Louisans better champion the arts?

Presence. You have to go. You have to be curious. There are wonderful programs that both the St. Louis Symphony and Opera Theatre have for educating the public. You simply have to read the newspaper or go online to find out what these programs are.

What made you want to become more deeply involved in our arts community?

The arts community in St. Louis was wonderfully welcoming to me and I felt right at home getting to know everybody. The arts have a great deal to do with human relationships. I would say that a very high percentage of my friends and people that I know are somehow in one way or another related to the arts.

The arts have a way of crossing all boundaries. That’s what so brilliant about them. They have the possibility of being an immense gift to enrich the community. That has brought me to be a supporter in whatever way I can do it.

What can other artists and creative professionals in the region do to foster stimulation in the arts?

Be an active participant in the various cultural offerings that enrich your life in this community and talk them up at every opportunity. Teaching on any and all levels out of your particular expertise and enthusiasm is certainly important.

How does this award reflect the work you did in 2015?

It recognizes my being a big contributor to the arts. I was only doing what absolutely seemed totally natural to me. To me, the return was such a great pleasure. I feel kind of embarrassed that I should get something that’s so much fun to do.

I hope that it might inspire others to know what joy it is to support the arts in St. Louis.  It seems kind of ridiculous to get an award for something that’s so exciting and that has an impact on the community. It’s the real mother lode of life to share something that you find such delight in yourself.

For more information about Phoebe Dent Weil visit her website: northernlightstudio.com

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