The President’s House: A Look Inside

Lucas Weals ’19

Senior Art Critic

Art and decor from the President’s House. Photos by Olivia Forrester ‘22.

Earlier this month, on an unseasonably warm Thursday, Olivia Forrester ’22 and I walked the sunny path to the President’s House on Main Street. (It’s the old pretty white one across from the Cunningham Theater building, with the  big white columns in front of the door.) We’d been sent to shoot photos of the art inside the historic home;  President Quillen was kind enough to show us around and answer our questions, both about the work itself and about the chances and choices behind the impressive collection.

Some of the work belongs to the first family themselves—President Quillen’s husband, the medical research executive George McLendon, dabbles in discount art collection. (The trick, apparently, is to comb through estate sales that are hawking furniture: you can find plenty of fine art, generally undervalued by the Chippendale enthusiasts.) The rest of the art belongs to the college, on steady rotation from the VAC’s reserves with help from gallery director Lia Newman.

From the outset, Quillen stresses that the display should be fluid. With the exception of a beautiful piece by North Carolina artist Romare Bearden, which remains above the mantle in the study, these pieces—ranging from large, finished prints by Andy Warhol to sketches and studies by Kehinde Wiley, most famous for his official portrait of President Obama—are constantly on the move: one day reposed behind a piano in the sitting room, the next front and center in a large reception hall used for dinners and other functions.

Three ideas seem central to the President’s curatorial philosophy. The first is movement: “this is not a museum,” she says of her living room. When pieces stay in one place, you can forget they’re even there; “I want people to see them anew every time,” she says.

Next is process: since the President’s House “is a space for students too,” Quillen believes the works on display should show all stages of the artist’s process. Sketches, figure drawings, and the generally unfinished appear just as frequently as “finalized” works.

This dovetails nicely with the third (and maybe most important) principle: learning. Time and again President Quillen describes her home as “a learning collection,” meant to show depth and variety of medium, technique, geography and history. She hopes and plans to leave some of hers and George’s collection to the school-—when the time comes. 

Lucas Weals ‘19 is an English major from Bethesda, MD, and a former Arts and Culture Editor for The Davidsonian.

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