Judith Aronson: Patron of the arts and advocate for arts education
Judith Aronson, a leading St. Louis arts patron who called art “as essential to existence as food, water, air and love,” died of lung cancer Monday at her art-filled home in Clayton. She was 84.
She had been diagnosed with cancer last year, said her son James.
A memorial remembrance will be Wednesday, Sept. 5, at the Sheldon Concert Hall.
Over more than five decades, Mrs. Aronson maintained a fierce dedication to the arts, particularly the visual arts, and arts education, serving a legion of organizations at the local, regional, state and national level.
President Bill Clinton appointed her to the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities and she served on the board of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. She led the Visual Arts Committee of the Missouri Arts Council and was appointed during both Democratic and Republican St. Louis County administrations to serve on the Regional Arts Commission; she served five years as RAC chair.
“Judy was savvy and she clearly provided leadership,” said RAC’s Director, Jill McGuire. “Her advice, intelligence and vast knowledge of the community and the art community guided the commission and contributed so much to our success.”
During Mrs. Aronson’s tenure, McGuire said, the commission established several “amazing” grant programs, including one of the premier stabilization grant programs in the country.
Mrs. Aronson contributed to local arts education for more than 35 years through her work at several universities and the Metro Theatre Company.
Few names are connected to more cultural institutions than Judith Aronson’s. The one with which she is most closely associated, perhaps, is Laumeier Sculpture Park.
Love of Laumeier
Mrs. Aronson served on the Laumeier Sculpture Park’s board of trustees for more than 20 years and few organizations benefited more from her largess.
Little wonder. In 1976, her husband Adam was one of the park’s founders and together they donated artwork and established the Mark Twain Laumeier Endowment Fund. She and Adam, who also founded Mark Twain Bancshares, donated $1 million to the park in 2002.
“She certainly was a big supporter when her husband founded the park and for many, many decades,” said Marilu Knode, director of Laumeier. “Upon Adam’s passing, Judy stepped in and played a vital role in seeing the institution to the next place.”
Laumeier Trustee Barbara Eagleton concurred.
In a statement, Eagleton said, “(Judy’s) legacy in the St. Louis area will always be headed by Laumeier, to which (she) gave so much."
Outspoken and complex
Mrs. Aronson was the founder and president of KidsPlace, a program designed to help disadvantaged children in St. Louis better cope with their environment in a culturally sensitive manner.
She was also the founder of CARE-Cultural and Arts Resources in Education for St. Louis, and coordinator of the Metropolitan Educational Center in the Arts.
Her prolific support of cultural institutions included Opera Theatre of St. Louis, the Contemporary Art Museum of St. Louis and the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, the AIDS Foundation of St. Louis, Missouri Botanical Garden, the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis and Grand Center’s Grandel Square, home of the St. Louis Black Repertory Company.
She served on the Clayton School Board for six years, on the board of the St. Louis County White House Conference on Education, the National Education Board and the American Jewish Committee.
In 1988, Mrs. Aronson shared the Arts and Education Council’s lifetime achievement in the arts award with her husband. Both received honorary doctorates from the University of Missouri-St. Louis and Saint Louis University. In 2007, the University of Missouri-St. Louis and the Hellenic Spirit Foundation named her a woman of achievement. In 2009, she received Grand Center’s Visionary Award.
A woman of complex personality and strong opinions, Mrs. Aronson always had a keen interest in women’s issues and did not hesitate to express her sentiments.
One of her scholarly works was "Artists Look at Women" and, in 1989, she signed a public declaration of support for keeping abortion legal in Missouri.
“She was very outspoken,” said her son James. “She and our father were very involved in politics and they were lifelong, unwavering Democrats.”
The second phase
Judith Spector Aronson was born on March 16, 1928, in St. Louis, the oldest child and only daughter of Dr. Hyman “Chaim” Spector, a leading expert on tuberculosis at Saint Louis University, and Charlotte Koplovitz Spector Harris, a housewife and sometimes professor of literature.
After graduating from Clayton High School, she majored in French and sociology at Washington University, receiving her A.B. in 1948, the year she married Adam Aronson.
After time off with her children, she entered the second phase of her life, returning to school and to work. She earned a doctorate in education in 1967 and subsequently trained for five years at the St. Louis Psychoanalytic Institute, where she later taught for more than a decade.
"I'm a perpetual student,” she told the Post-Dispatch in 1998.
Her art education career included developing a master's degree program in aesthetic education at Webster University, serving as an evaluator for the National Endowment for the Arts and working on Metro Theatre Company’s teacher education program. She promoted the arts and arts education for decades at Washington University, Saint Louis University and the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
Her adventuresome spirit favored contemporary art and her “eye” preferred artists who took risks to create emotion-laden work. Two such artists whom she helped were William Kentridge, a South African whose work challenged apartheid, and the late African-American satirist and political cartoonist, Oliver Harrington.
She also encouraged talent close to home.
“Judy was a mentor to local artists,” McGuire said, “She would introduce them to gallery owners outside St. Louis and she would buy their work.”
Bound by art
Art didn’t bring the Aronsons together, but it quickly became their bond.
They married on March 25, 1948, just three months after meeting.
"On our honeymoon, we discovered art," Mrs. Aronson told the Post-Dispatch in 1998, joking that their mantra became “collect art, don’t part.”
They did not part until Adam’s death in 2006.
In 2009, in memory of her husband, Mrs. Aronson gave Laumeier Sculpture Park a David Rabinowitch floor piece.
In addition to her husband, she was preceded in death by her parents and her stepfather, Irwin R. Harris.
Mrs. Aronson is survived by her three sons, Jonathan Aronson (Joan Abrahamson), of Los Angeles, Joshua Aronson (Maria Bachmann) of New York City and James Aronson (Joelle Fischer) of Montpellier, France; four grandchildren, Adam, Zachary, Thibaud, and Perrine, and her brothers, Dr. Eugene (Barbara) Spector, St. Louis, and Richard (Karen) Spector, of Beechwood, Ohio.
A memorial remembrance will be held at 6 p.m., Wed., Sept. 5 at the Sheldon Concert Hall, 3648 Washington Boulevard, St. Louis.
In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the Laumeier Sculpture Park to support the construction of the Adam Aronson Fine Arts Center.