Joan Mondale, Who Merged Politics With Art, Dies at 83
Joan Mondale, whose promotion and advocacy of painting, sculpture and other fine arts earned her the nickname Joan of Art in Washington during the vice presidency of her husband, Walter F. Mondale, in the late 1970s, died on Monday in Minneapolis. She was 83.
Her family announced the death in a statement released by Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis, where the Mondales have long been members. The cause was not specified. The family said on Sunday that she had gone into hospice care.
Ms. Mondale learned the role of traditional political wife early in her marriage; only four years after Mr. Mondale graduated from law school, he was appointed attorney general of Minnesota. But she expanded her reputation as a supporter of the arts every step of the way.
When the couple moved to Washington in 1964 after Mr. Mondale was appointed to fill the United States Senate seat vacated by Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, Ms. Mondale gave guided tours at the National Gallery of Art. She wrote “Politics in Art,” a book for children and young adults, in 1972. She worked with the Department of Transportation to turn railroad stations into art galleries, talked the National Park Service into selling crafts at its gift shops and raised money for Democratic candidates by auctioning donated art.
When her husband took office as Jimmy Carter’s vice president in 1977, Ms. Mondale became Mr. Carter’s de facto arts adviser as honorary chairwoman of the Federal Council on the Arts and Humanities. She used the vice president’s official residence, on the grounds of the United States Naval Observatory, to showcase American art. It became an annual rite of spring for journalists to gather to see the new paintings, sculptures and crafts that Ms. Mondale had borrowed from American museums.
She was reluctant to name a favorite artist or artists, but she had a taste for the contemporary. Her 1980 collection included works by Willem de Kooning, Richard Diebenkorn and Edward Ruscha. A Frank Stella print hung over a fireplace in one of the Mondales’ homes. When she visited SoHo galleries on a 1977 visit to New York, she had lunch with Robert Rauschenberg (whose work was on the cover of “Politics in Art”), Louise Nevelson and Jasper Johns.
Not everyone in the art world approved of her activism. Some feared that her passion for crafts, graphic arts and new artists could result in less government support for the established fine arts. “Every time Joan Mondale opens her mouth to talk about the crafts, we get the shivers,” one critic wrote in Artnews magazine in 1978. “We feel a sense of declining standards.”
Ms. Mondale spoke openly on behalf of Democratic issues after Mr. Mondale won the party’s presidential nomination in 1984 and campaigned, unsuccessfully, to unseat President Ronald Reagan. She supported the Equal Rights Amendment, for example, which had been defeated two years earlier. The stance surprised some people, who saw her as a traditionalist, perhaps because she had stayed home to raise a family and do volunteer work while her husband worked and traveled.
“Maybe I wasn’t outrageous enough,” she told The Christian Science Monitor in the spring of 1984. “Maybe I should have been more sensational.”
When Bill Clinton appointed Mr. Mondale the United States ambassador to Japan in 1993, Ms. Mondale arranged for the loan of art from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles for the ambassador’s residence in Tokyo and promoted public art there. She persuaded McDonald’s Japan to commission art for a Tokyo subway station.
“Public arts say people who pass through the space are important,” Ms. Mondale told the English-language Japanese newspaper The Daily Yomiuri in 1994.
An amateur potter, she continued to make her own pieces, often presenting them as gifts to Japanese dignitaries. Her celebrity there may even have eclipsed her husband’s. Visiting an artist in Kyoto, a Mondale aide mentioned that he worked at the United States Embassy.
“ ‘Oh, do you know Joan Mondale?’ the artist said, his eyes lighting up,” the aide told The Star Tribune in Minneapolis in 1996. “The guy never asked a word about the ambassador.”
Ms. Mondale continued her work after her husband retired from politics in 1996. In her first two months back home in Minnesota, she created an airport arts program, introduced a film series and joined the boards of the Walker Art Center and the Minnesota Orchestra. She also published “Letters From Japan” (1998), a collection of essays about living abroad.
Joan Adams was born on Aug. 8, 1930, in Eugene, Ore., the eldest of three daughters of the Rev. John Maxwell Adams, a Presbyterian minister, and the former Eleanor Jane Hall. The family later moved to Wallingford, Pa., and then to St. Paul, where she attended Macalester College, majoring in history with a double minor in French and art. Her interest in art had been encouraged by an uncle, Philip Rhys Adams, who was director of the Cincinnati Art Museum.
After graduation, in 1952, she worked as a librarian at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, then returned to Minnesota, where she took a job as an education assistant at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. During that period she met Mr. Mondale, who was in law school after serving in the Korean War. Their first date was a photography exhibition.
Mr. Mondale’s father was also a minister, but when the couple married, in 1955, it was the bride’s father who officiated.
The Mondales made news with a social experiment in 1969, setting out to live for a week on the food budget of welfare recipients. “You begin to understand the desperation of people who must live like this,” Ms. Mondale told the syndicated columnist Carl Rowan. “It’s degrading.”
She also helped found a food co-op in her Washington neighborhood, taking Secret Service agents with her on early-morning shopping excursions for fresh produce. But she had to drop out after the chef at the official residence complained. “He had to know in advance what those vegetables would be,” she said.
In addition to her husband, Ms. Mondale’s survivors include two sons, Ted and William, and four grandchildren. A daughter, Eleanor Mondale Poling, died of brain cancer in 2011.
Joan Mondale was often described by friends, colleagues and journalists with homey adjectives like friendly, cheerful, down-to-earth, gentle, reliable and unpretentious, but it is doubtful that anyone called her naïve. In a 1978 interview with The New York Times, asked what books had whetted her appetite for the visual arts, she named S. N. Behrman’s “Duveen,” a profile of the British art dealer Joseph Duveen.
“Everything he did made me understand how important a professional person is in guiding a wealthy man’s taste,” Ms. Mondale said. “Wealthy men without good taste have to be handled carefully.”