By CLINT SCHEMMER

Once again, the estate bequeathed to Virginia by artist Gari Melchers' widow ranks among the nation's top art museums, officials at Belmont say.

The American Association of Museums has re-accredited Gari Melchers Home and Studio for the third time in the site's history, giving it the highest national recognition.

That makes Belmont one of nine Virginia museums to receive such ranking. Of about 17,500 museums in the United States, only 775 are accredited by the AAM.

"With the support of the University of Mary Washington, Stafford County and the greater Fredericksburg community, our talented and dedicated staff have been able to maintain and expand the museum's public outreach and program quality, while properly caring for an important national historic landmark and its unique collections," Belmont's director, David Berreth, said.

Gari Melchers Home and Studio was originally accredited by the AAM in 1985, and re-accredited in 1998.

The association's rigorous process examines all aspects of a museum's operations.

To earn AAM recognition, a museum must conduct a year of self-study and undergo a site visit by a team of peer reviewers.

The AAM's Accreditation Commission, an independent body of museum professionals, considers both the self-study and the visiting committee's report.

The process, repeated every 10 years, varies by museum but generally takes about three years to complete.

AAM accreditation recognizes a museum's commitment to excellence, public accountability, high professional standards and continued improvement.

For 35 years, the association's accreditation program has been the museum field's primary means of assuring quality, self-regulation and the best possible public service.

Gari Melchers Home and Studio, a 28-acre estate, is the former residence of the American Impressionist and his wife, Corinne.

The prolific artist's works won international recognition and were popular with the public. Late in life, Melchers chaired the Smithsonian Commission to Establish a National Gallery of Art--today's Smithsonian American Art Museum--and was elected trustee of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. He died in 1932.

Today, his 18th-century house overlooking the Rappahannock River is both a national historic landmark and a Virginia historic landmark. The site is operated by the University of Mary Washington.

Right now, Belmont is hosting an exhibition of 11 original paintings by the renowned American artist Norman Rockwell. Drawn from the collection of drug-maker Pfizer Inc., the canvases explore the doctor-patient relationship, health and healing across generations, and the importance of physical fitness.

Organized by the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., the "Picturing Health: Norman Rockwell and the Art of Illustration" show ends Jan. 31.

The home and museum, a quarter-mile west of the intersection of U.S. 1 and U.S. 17, are open daily, with an admission charge.

Clint Schemmer: 540/368-5029

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