May 29, 2023

Joanna Catron: Home for the Holidays

Just up the road from UMW stands a house on a hill. Known as Gari Melchers Home and Studio at Belmont, the 18th-century Georgian-style structure belonged to the renowned American Impressionist painter. Beyond its quaint cream-colored siding and emerald green shutters, Curator and Interim Director Joanna Catron knows every inch of the house by heart. She should. She’s worked at Belmont – one of two public museums administered by the University of Mary Washington – for 34 years.

Joanna Catron, curator and interim director of Gari Melchers Home and Studio at Belmont. Photo by Alex Sakes.

Joanna Catron, curator and interim director of Gari Melchers Home and Studio at Belmont. Photo by Alex Sakes.

From Melchers’ celebrated naturalist paintings to the cups from which he and wife Corinne drank tea at their dining room table, Catron, an expert in American art, handles the time capsule with care. And at no other point of the year is Belmont more beautiful than Christmas, when Catron and her staff drape mantles with greenery, hang wreaths on the doors and gussy up trees.

They decorate as the couple would have back in the early 1900s, inspired by Corinne – her holiday letters, her love of gardening, even sentiments from relatives, like her brother, who dubbed the place “Bird-mont” on account of the Melchers’ turkeys, chickens and guineas. The theme is showcased in Belmont’s Holiday Open House, which runs through Jan. 5, with free admission for UMW faculty and staff.

Q: When did you begin working at Belmont?

A: In May 1983, right out of graduate school. I had interned at Mary Washington as an undergraduate student and I ran into [UMW Professor of Art and Art History] Joe Dreiss at a symposium of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., who led me to the position.

Q: As curator – and now interim director – what are your responsibilities?

A: People think of a curator as a glamorous job but, really, it’s not. I think of it as a keeper of the past. I care for the collections and do all the cleaning and polishing in the period rooms, which requires special handling. I also conduct research on the paintings and write interpretive information with our staff to share with the public. I’m juggling both roles, so budget and fundraising are also important. It takes a tremendous amount of funding to keep a place like this operating.

Q: How has the museum evolved since you first walked through its doors?

A: It’s changed dramatically over the years. Thanks to a talented staff of professionals, the stewardship of the bricks-and-mortar side of things is well in hand. And we’ve made other great improvements, particularly with regard to programming, and other amenities, so that we feel we have greater relevancy in our community.

Q: What’s your role in preparing for the Holiday Open House?

It’s a challenge decorating the place. It’s so large it seems we can never do quite enough to cast the desired magical spell. Besides, we don’t have any documentation of the place at Christmas, and no surviving ornaments. We have some idea from Corinne Melchers’ letters and journal entries that she decorated with greenery cut on the property, but that’s it. We try to keep it natural and appropriate to the 1920s, but the rest is a bit of a guessing game.