David Berreth

David Berreth, director of Gari Melchers Home and Studio, stands amid a collection of items at Belmont in Falmouth.

A longtime guardian of the Fredericksburg area’s cultural scene will soon depart his post.

David Berreth, director of Gari Melchers Home and Studio at Belmont, announced Saturday he will retire at the end of June after 26 years running the state-owned historic site and art museum. His tenure there makes him the longest-serving historic site administrator in the region.

On his watch, the Falmouth site managed by the University of Mary Washington has added facilities, found new audiences and donors, and grown its visitation.

Colleagues praise what Berreth, 67, and his staff have accomplished.

“David’s dynamic leadership has made Belmont one of the leading cultural and tourist destinations in Virginia,” said Richard Finkelstein, dean of the University of Mary Washington’s College of Arts and Sciences. “With their renovations of Melcher’s home and studio, garden restorations and new gallery spaces, he and his staff have set the standard for small museums and cultural centers.”

Belmont, which comprises 28 acres overlooking the Rappahannock River, was the last home of American Impressionist painter Gari and his wife, Corinne Melchers. Gari, who was well regarded by peers such as Mary Cassatt and John Singer Sargent, was one of the most successful painters of his era. Corinne, a key supporter of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, deeded their Stafford County property, its furnishings and their art collection to Virginia in 1940. It includes their early 1800s home and gardens, his artist’s studio and art galleries, and nature trails.

A national historic landmark, the Melchers estate was one of the first places the National Trust for Historic Preservation chose for its Historic Artists’ Homes and Studios consortium. Today, that program includes more than 30 of America’s most significant artists’ spaces.

Belmont is the region’s only historic site that doesn’t hinge on the Civil War or Colonial period, Berreth said in an interview; it is the only art-related place.

“People usually come here to see another nice, old Virginia house,” Berreth said. “They have no idea we are an art museum, because they don’t know of Gari Melchers. He’s not Winslow Homer or John Sargent, even though they were contemporaries. And during his time, he was at the top of his profession.

“... But once people get here, they say, ‘He’s the most wonderful artist I’ve ever seen. Why didn’t I come here before?’ ” he said. “Once we get people here, they want to come back, to see what they haven’t seen, walk the trails, stroll the gardens and grounds, attend an evening event, or hold a meeting.”

Berreth managed building projects that converted the Melchers’ carriage house into a visitor center and museum shop in 1995, restored Gari’s stone-walled studio and galleries in 2000, and added the Pavilion, a public-event space and collection-storage facility in 2006. The Pavilion has been a popular venue for weddings, retreats and meetings as well as music, history and art programs.

He and his staff gained the Garden Club of Virginia’s support in 1994 to restore the grounds and gardens as Corinne Melchers envisioned, an ongoing effort. Belmont also acquired and preserved the Fannie Roots House, a workingman’s cottage where an African–American activist who knew the Melchers lived, and restored Belmont’s smokehouse and cow barn.

Under Berreth’s administration, Belmont has been re-accredited twice by the American Alliance of Museums.

To attract more people and broaden support, the museum developed exhibition and educational programming. To foster financial stability and community backing, Berreth created the Friends of Belmont in 1992. Its nearly 400 members help provide funding for operations and special projects, including care of the hundreds of works by Gari Melchers and other artists that Corinne left to the state.

Since 2007, Gari Melchers Home and Studio has also acted as the official Stafford County Visitor Center, which draws more tourists and area residents to the site.

When Berreth arrived in 1990, the hilltop site welcomed about 8,000 visitors a year, nearly all of them for tours of the house and studio. Last year, it hosted 17,000 people coming for tours, special events, education programs and classes, facility rentals, the museum shop, hiking trails and tourism information.

Belmont’s staff has grown from two full-time and six part-time members to six full-time and 34 part-time members, the latter including the docents who lead most tours. Its annual operating budget rose from about $200,000 to $800,000 today, which doesn’t include building preservation and art conservation projects that are privately funded.

The low-key director is well-liked by volunteers, staff and colleagues. Berreth’s nature appeals to art experts as well as neophytes, including schoolchildren, said William Garner, president and CEO of The George Washington Foundation.

He makes it inviting and engaging for guests to explore Belmont’s unusual intersection of the art world, historic preservation, conservation and gardening, Garner said.

“David’s integrity, passion and sincerity are evident in everything he’s ever done professionally,” he said. “We thank him for his shining example.”

He is held in “the highest esteem” by regional leaders and the members of the Fredericksburg/Stafford/Spotsylvania Museums Council, Garner said.

“David is one of those people every community needs,” said John Hennessy, chief historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. “He sought no limelight, but was fully committed to making his part of our community, Belmont, the best it could be. He managed Belmont with vision, geniality and a mix of kindness and determination that we all admire. He suffered no half-measures, but ensured that Belmont became and remained one of the region’s great treasures—one of our most beautiful and important public spaces.”

After he retires, Berreth said he and his wife, Deanna, will continue to live on their small farm in the Hartwood area of Stafford.

UMW will soon launch the search for his successor, and hopes to install a new director by midsummer.

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Clint Schemmer:

540/374-5424

cschemmer@freelancestar.com