Roanoke College

Opening minds to the power of art

  • Opening minds to the power of art

  • 10/09/08
  • For Joanne Leonhardt Cassullo '78, art is a passion she needs to share with the world. But her enthusiasm isn't always met with the same zeal. When Cassullo's 11 godchildren visit her home in New York City, for example, she likes to take them to the Whitney Museum of American Art, where she has been a board member for the past 23 years. While they love the museum, she says, they usually tell her - with hands on their hips, in adolescent defiance - that they don't want to hear her critiques of artwork as they stroll through the gallery.

    "They won't let me stop in front of every piece of art anymore," she says with a laugh. But that's not holding her back. In fact, opening young people's minds to the power of art is an important part of her life.

    Since graduating from Roanoke, Cassullo has immersed herself in the art world through her service to the Whitney and other arts organizations as well as through friendships with numerous artists. Her passion for the arts is matched only by her deep affection for her alma mater. As a Roanoke College trustee since 1999, she has been committed to bringing to campus exemplary pieces of contemporary art - and the artists who create them. Cassullo also established the Joanne Leonhardt Cassullo Professorship in Art History, which allowed the College to offer a major in art history.

    "Her love of art and its world is threaded through the very substance of Joanne," says her friend and former Roanoke College roommate Jane Curran Mobley '77.

    In April, Cassullo was awarded the Roanoke College Medal in recognition of her many contributions to the College, particularly in the field of art.

    "Joanne brings the art world to Roanoke," says President Michael Creed Maxey. "To have someone with her background in the arts is a special gift. She has built an art bridge between New York City and Salem. Her training, her passion and her aesthetic sense are not just an idle interest for her ... She's enriched the campus and students for hundreds of years into the future. Our students will encounter art on a daily basis because of Joanne."

    An awakened sensibility

    It was at Roanoke College that Cassullo discovered her love for the world of art. During the spring semester of her senior year, Cassullo, who was on track to complete studies in elementary education, enrolled in an American art history class to fulfill a requirement for her bachelor of liberal arts degree. The class changed her life.

    "When I realized you could study art, it really awakened a passion in me," says Cassullo, a native of Oyster Bay, N.Y., on Long Island, where her family had lived next door to 26th U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt. "Art is a way of learning how to see things in a different way, to be more creative ... So art can be a transformative experience."

    After she graduated from Roanoke, Cassullo returned to her family's home in Fort Worth, Texas, where they had lived since she was 14 years old. In 1982, she relocated to Dallas to enroll in graduate school to study art at Southern Methodist University. As Cassullo was completing her coursework a year later, she was awarded a Helena Rubinstein Fellowship in the Whitney's Independent Study Program. After that experience, she made New York City her home.

    "I wanted to be engaged intellectually in the art world and to put my finger on the pulse of contemporary art," she says.

    And New York City was the ideal place. Later that year, Cassullo was hired as a gallery assistant at the Washburn Gallery Inc., in New York City, where she worked for three years. From 1980 to 1988, Cassullo also served as vice president of The Leonhardt Foundation Inc., a family-owned philanthropic organization. Over the years, she also has been a freelance writer, having been published in magazines such as Harvard Business Review, Artspace and Flair (not the well known fashion magazine, she points out), where she was love advice columnist "Sarita Says."

    When Cassullo joined the Whitney's board in 1985, she was the youngest member, and since then, she has devoted much of her time to the organization. As both an officer and as a member of the museum's five acquisition committees, she participates in the decisions about which pieces of art are added to the permanent collection. Though Cassullo never met Whitney founder Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, she closely identifies with her vision and the mission of the museum: to support the work of living artists in America.

    "I love that aspect of the museum's mission, that you can make a difference in [an artist's] life at a time when they need to be recognized," says Cassullo. "I've always been interested in things that are not tried and true. I like being on the edge, and I like being right there as things are being created."

    A passion for service

    One of Cassullo's greatest influences was her mother, Dorothea Leonhardt, who also was involved in volunteer work. The two were very close until her mother's death in 1985. It was her mother who encouraged her to find her passion and who supported her desire to go to Roanoke College, even though it was miles away from the family's Fort Worth home.

    "She always believed in me, which was so important," Cassullo says. "She always said, 'You're a smart, bright girl, and you can do anything you want.' "

    Cassullo's friends, who remember Mrs. Leonhardt by her nickname, "Mush," enjoyed her visits to Roanoke College. Amber Albini Hoye '78, a former Roanoke College roommate of Cassullo's, says, "Joanne's mother would be so proud of the person she's become. She's so confident, so driven, and one of the loveliest people I've ever met." Shortly after her mother's death, Cassullo reorganized her share of The Leonhardt Foundation to establish The Dorothea L. Leonhardt Foundation Inc., of which she now serves as president and director. The organization has been responsible for funding a number of projects, including contributing funds to endow Whitney's Independent Study Program and to establish the art professorship at Roanoke College. The foundation also has underwritten the costs of bringing artists to Roanoke's campus, as well as purchasing artwork to display throughout the College.

    "Her contributions in art are outstanding," says Robert Wortmann '60, chairman of the Roanoke College Board of Trustees. "Her taste is so good, and people have just enjoyed the art she has brought out for Roanoke. It's opened up their eyes, and this is what you want to do with art."

    Though Cassullo devotes countless hours to both the Whitney and Roanoke College, her service to the community doesn't end there. She also is a board member for Creative Time, a nonprofit organization that commissions and presents innovative art to display in public spaces. In addition, she serves on the council of Rockefeller University and the boards of the New York City Police Foundation and HELP USA (Housing Enterprises for the Less Privileged), a nonprofit organization that provides transitional housing, job training and social services for homeless people and victims of domestic violence.

    Giving back to Roanoke

    Cassullo's service to Roanoke College began in 1982, when she was appointed to a young alumnus position on the Board of Trustees. A lifetime member of the Roanoke College Associates, Cassullo also has served on the President's Advisory Board and the fine arts endowment committee. It was on this committee that she met a kindred spirit - the late fellow art lover Ann Weinstein, the wife of Roanoke alumnus Sidney Weinstein '42. Cassullo and Weinstein often commiserated that Roanoke students were not exposed to "real" art on the campus.

    "Ann thought Joanne had wonderful taste, and I think they agreed about most things related to art - one of which was that Ann thought Roanoke College had too many bare walls, and that they should be filled with art," Sidney Weinstein says.

    With her connections in the art world, Cassullo believed that was something she could easily accomplish. Among her contributions to the College's permanent collection is a series of John Margolies photographs of American roadside architecture, such as a restaurant featuring a giant Paul Bunyan and his blue ox as well as other interesting signs and buildings. These were given to the College in Weinstein's honor and are on display throughout the Colket Center. Margolies even recently donated additional prints to the campus.

    After Weinstein's death last year, Cassullo honored her memory with a commissioned painting by her friend Bob "Daddy-O" Wade. In the same fashion as his trademark postcard pictures of cowboys and cowgirls, Wade created a piece depicting Ann as a cowgirl riding on a white horse. The painting will be installed in the Commons. By bringing in such art with a quirky, fun side, Cassullo is highlighting works easily accessible to students and placing them on campus where they're seen every day.

    "Art doesn't have to be just an object on the wall," Cassullo says. "It can move you or amuse you, or you can have an interaction with it that will change the way you look at something."

    During the past few years, Cassullo also has arranged for numerous artists to come to Roanoke to exhibit their work and present lectures, such as Hunt Slonem, Alexis Rockman, Michael Byron and Jenny Perlin. Last fall, she sponsored prolific New York City painter Steve Keene, who was on campus for three weeks as an artist-in-residence. Working openly in the gallery, he produced about 80 paintings a day, which were easily available to students and others for mere $1 or $5 donations. Cassullo works closely with campus gallery director Talia Logan to coordinate these initiatives. She recently invited Logan to New York City to visit the studios of several well-known artists, including Jane Hammond and Margaret Evangeline.

    "Generally, you wouldn't be able to see a lot of this work unless you went to a major city and went into a fine art gallery or museum," Logan says. "These are artists who [students read about] in art history books."

    Forever a Maroon

    Besides having a generous spirit, one of the reasons Cassullo gives so much to Roanoke is simply because she loves the place. It was at Roanoke, she says, that she developed self-confidence, discovered herself and made lifelong friendships that continue to sustain her.

    Few of Cassullo's friends have forgotten the legendary bathing suit that Cassullo designed and made for the Sigma Chi Derby Week Bathing Suit Contest. Cassullo also made a matching cape, on which she hand-embroidered the entire Sigma Chi creed. The project, which Cassullo kept a secret from her friends, took her 11 days and nights, with very little sleep. When the ensemble was unveiled during the contest, Cassullo recalls, her friends were amazed and started chanting, "Cas-SU-lo! Cas-SU-lo!" Her outfit was declared the winner, and the cape still hangs in the Sigma Chi fraternity house.

    President Maxey says a "sense of festivity and family" seems to surround Cassullo. She has a knack for hospitality, making everyone feel invited into the swirl of activity around her.

    "When she brings the artists to campus, you get a sense that you're in her art family," he says. "She's quite talented in pulling people together."

    Cassullo's friends would agree. They recall her dorm room at Roanoke as the center of activity, where Cassullo often was surrounded by students who were captivated by her stories and antics. Thanks to those friendships, Roanoke College continues to have a special place in Cassullo's heart.

    "The reason I'm so happy as a trustee is because I'm helping to provide the same or better experience for a student that I had," Cassullo says. "I'm hoping to preserve or augment that experience. If everybody were to give back any way that they could, it would be a wonderful thing. Roanoke College deserves it."