Mary Swift, dean of Washington’s art scene, dies at 95

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Mary Swift, a well-traveled military brat and CIA wife whose divorce marked her starting point as the doyenne of the Washington art scene for three decades, as a hostess, curator, photographer, writer and publisher, died April 24 in an assisted living facility. in Potomac, Maryland. She was 95 years old.

The cause was complications from dementia, her daughter Isabel Swift said.

During a childhood and early adulthood defined by adventure and dislocation, Ms. Swift grew up on military bases from New York to Hawaii as her father became a major general in the Army of the air during World War II. She married a few years after the war and accompanied her CIA officer husband on missions such as Baghdad, where she hunted jackals in the desert, and London, where she developed a strong attachment to the theater while raising four children.

In the late 1960s, she was a divorced mother living in Washington looking for ways to “re-create” herself, as her daughter remembered. Ms Swift earned a master’s degree in drama as well as art history and, as the heir to the national cash register fortune, mingled with the city’s thriving arts scene as a buyer and socially connected hostess.

His house, then on Reservoir Road in the district’s Georgetown neighborhood, became a gathering place for artists such as Sam Gilliam, William Christenberry and Jacob Kainen to mingle with prominent art dealers, notably his friend Harry Lunn Jr. She also offered rooms for artists visiting from out of town, including dancer Lucinda Childs. An overnight guest, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, accidentally (she assumed) left behind a cache of homoerotic images.

She sometimes appeared at the openings in jodhpurs and riding boots – a sartorial flourish that spoke of her equal fondness for the equestrian life. In 1977, she became a production assistant at The Washington Review, a publication which had sprung up two years earlier to provide in-depth coverage of the local arts scene and proved instrumental in boosting the careers of several local writers and artists.

Co-founder Clarissa Wittenberg described Ms. Swift as outspoken, with an invigorating candor and sense of mission about the magazine’s anti-commercial ethos, focusing on less-established but up-and-coming literary and visual artists working in the nation’s capital. “We’re not market minded,” Swift, who was quickly promoted to editor, told The Washington Times. “We prefer to identify talent and present those who we believe are about to start a successful career.”

Ms Swift made it clear to Wittenberg that she was not available to subsidize the perpetually cash-strapped operation – that what she wanted above all else was to work. In addition to her leadership role, she contributed as a (self-taught) writer and photographer.

With her Leica handheld, she peppered what she jokingly called her “victims” – including sculptor Martin Puryear and curator Walter Hopps – with quick questions about their art while taking close-up photos in black and white. Many of these images appeared in a 2005 retrospective of Ms Swift’s photographic work at the District’s Flashpoint Gallery, with artist Sidney Lawrence commenting on that she “perfectly captured the manic charm of the small towns of the ‘mutton chop era of DC art’.

According to Wittenberg, the magazine, which came out every two months, helped bring significant early publicity to artists such as Puryear and was responsible for including several local authors in literary anthologies. The Washington Review folded in 2001 as Wittenberg and Ms. Swift began to head into retirement.

Mary Howard Davidson was born in Mineola, NY on October 13, 1926, and was in Hawaii during the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. His father, Howard, was a key figure at Wheeler Field near Honolulu at the time and later commanded the 10th Air Force in the China-Burma-India theater. His mother was the former Mary Patterson, whose father and uncle founded the national cash register manufacturing business.

Having left Hawaii after the attack, Ms Swift graduated in 1944 from Madeira Private School in McLean, Virginia, and in 1950 from Vassar College. She received a master’s degree in speech and theater from Catholic University in 1973 and a master’s degree in art history from George Washington University in 1978.

Her marriage to Carleton B. Swift Jr. ended in divorce. Their daughter Lila Swift, 13, died in a plane crash in 1973. Ms Swift’s brother, Stuart Davidson, an investment banker turned restaurateur whose properties included Clyde’s of Georgetown and the Old Ebbitt Grill, died in 2001.

In addition to his daughter Isabel, of Washington, survivors include two sons, Byron Swift of Washington and Bill Swift of Bethesda, Md.; a sister; four grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

Beyond her work with the Washington Review, Ms. Swift occasionally helped mount exhibitions at area galleries and, in 1978, worked as a curatorial assistant for a Corcoran Gallery of Art retrospective on the painter Howard. Mehring, on whom she had written her art history thesis. .

She has also served on the boards of local arts institutions, including the Washington Project for the Arts; contributed art criticism to the Georgetowner newspaper; and was on the Corcoran Women’s Committee and other fundraising organizations. From her longtime estate in Upperville, she was a fixture in Virginia’s hunting country social scene and a champion rider until she left the saddle at age 85.


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