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Helen Stern. Photo courtesy of David Stern.

Helen Stern (1930–2019)

The American art collector and philanthropist Helen Stern, who helped establish the contemporary art scene in Washington, DC, and buoyed that city’s school of postwar Color Field painters, has died at eighty-nine years old. The cause was pneumonia, according to her son and the Washington Post.

In 1962, Stern cofounded the Washington Gallery of Modern Art, near Dupont Circle, which opened with a major retrospective of the Abstract Expressionist Franz Kline and exhibited the work of Sam Gilliam, Arshile Gorky, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, and Anne Truitt over the course of its six-year run. As a member and chairman of the board, Stern championed the artists of the Washington Color School, including Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis, and facilitated the hiring of eminent curator Walter Hopps as the museum’s final director. In 1968, facing financial troubles, the gallery merged with the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

Stern met her second husband, Philip M. Stern—a journalist, political adviser, and Sears heir—in 1957, prompting her move to Washington, DC. During their marriage (they divorced in 1972), the couple amassed a significant art collection that included work by Josef Albers, Marsden Hartley, and David Smith. Stern, who was also a practicing pianist and painter before turning to sculpture, sold most of the collection in 1978, and beginning in the mid-’70s, lived part-time in Cuernavaca, Mexico, working as an art teacher and benefactor at a local orphanage, before returning to the capital in the early 1990s.

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