Joan Mondale,Advocate for the Arts


During the years her husband, Walter, served as the 42nd vice president of the United States under President Jimmy Carter in the late '70s, Joan Adams Mondale acquired the affectionate moniker of “Joan of Art.” Her position as honorary chairperson of the Federal Council on the Arts and Humanities during her husband’s term in the White House was not mere window dressing. She was herself an amateur potter and filling the vice president’s mansion with contemporary American art. 

During her husband's service as ambassador to Japan from 1993 to 1996, Mondale reacquired the aforementioned nickname. Joyfully observing the Japanese custom of exchanging cards and gifts on every occasion, she once presented the Mayor of Kyoto with a ceramic bowl of her own making. She had created the piece in the rough-hewn Mashiko style, a Japanese folk technique that she had learned from Warren MacKenzie, a master potter in Stillwater, Minnesota.

She also called on her artistic abilities to help refurbish the ambassador’s residence, which had not received much attention since it was first constructed in 1930. To complement the $8 million renovation of the public spaces, Mondale selected art through the State Department’s Art in Embassies collaboration with the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Her choices included lithographs from Robert Rauschenberg’s Drawings for Dante’s Inferno (one of which features the image of Democratic politician Adlai Stevenson as Virgil); a fish lamp designed by Frank Gehry; a portrait of composer Philip Glass by Chuck Close; and Jim Dine’s Yellow Robe.

"Joan is exceedingly smart, and she knows the world, and she loves people and just loves being with people,” says Clevelander Barbara Robinson, a longtime chairperson of the Ohio Arts Council. Robinson met Mondale while visiting Japan as part of an Ohio Arts Council exchange. “She became so engrossed with the types of programs we were doing as cultural exchanges from Ohio that she decided to use our program as an example of good US-Japan relations, and she mentioned us in spots on her TV shows in Japan,” Robinson remembers. The two later shared the dais in Washington, D.C., when each received an award from the National Assembly of States Arts Agencies.

Born in Eugene, Oregon, in 1930, Mondale attended an integrated Quaker school in Wallingford, Pennsylvania; a public school in Columbus, Ohio; and later St. Paul Academy and Summit School in St. Paul, Minnesota. In 1952, she graduated from Macalester College, where her father, the Reverend John Maxwell Adams, a Presbyterian minister, served as chaplain. Mondale then took a job at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, before returning to Minnesota, where she worked at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

Several months after meeting on a blind date, she married Walter Mondale on December 27, 1955. The couple have three children: Eleanor, Theodore and William. In 1972, Mondale authored Policies in Art, a book for young adults.

Mondale has received wide-ranging recognition for her work. At its 1977 commencement ceremonies, Barnard College in New York awarded Mondale its highest honor, the Barnard Medal of Distinction, and in 1980, Dutch tulip breeder J. F. van der Berg named a flower for her.

In May 2004, in recognition of her tireless support of all art forms, The Textile Center in Minneapolis dedicated an exhibition space in her honor. The Joan Mondale Gallery stands as the premier showcase for fiber art in the Twin Cities area, the Midwest and possibly the US. The center established an endowment to support the gallery in perpetuity.

—Christopher Johnston


Cleveland Arts Prize
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