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Mary Jackson: The Director Behind Historic Athenaeum

Her original goal was to preserve an historical landmark but as executive director of the Northern Virginia Fine Arts Association, Mary Gaissert Jackson has been doing much more than that.

It was 1989, and the Northern Virginia Fine Arts Association had fallen on hard times. The group was in debt to the tune of $140,000 and their only asset was the Athenaeum. They planned to sell the 19th-century building to pay their bills. That is, until Jackson and some friends intervened.

“We found out what they were going to do and we went to the meeting at which they were going to sign the contract and asked them not to do it,” Jackson said. “We got them to agree, but many of the Board members thought we were crazy. One woman was so disgusted that she wrote her resignation in lipstick on a napkin.”

Jackson’s goal was to preserve the building. “The plans called for it to be made into apartments,” she said. “They were going to put a floor in the middle of the building and turn it into a downstairs and an upstairs apartment. I couldn’t even imagine making those spacious rooms with their 24-foot ceilings into apartments. We had to do something.”

LONG BEFORE 1989, Jackson was involved in the arts. Her mother graduated from Parsons in New York and lived in Europe for two years. Her father was an accomplished musician. “Even in our small town in Georgia, my mother found a way to expose us to the arts,” Jackson said. “She found books with pictures of statues and paintings and I still have the postcards that she brought home from her time in Europe. They were printed in the ‘20s and are wonderful.”

Jackson’s father was living in California, singing, when the Depression forced him to pack his bags and return home to help on the family farm. “If it hadn’t been for the Depression, I think my father would have been someone whose name everyone would know now,” she said.

Jackson accepted a full scholarship in theater at Wesleyan Female Academy in Macon, Georgia. “That was what the scholarship was in so that’s what I studied,” she said.

She took a break from her studies her junior year and married her husband Clay, a cadet at West Point who was in flight school. “We thought he might have to go to Korea and because we had grown up during the Second World War, we understood just how tenuous life can be,” she said.

Clay did not have to go to Korea, but did a tour of duty in Vietnam. “I went back to school and completed my degree in theater so that I would have something to fall back on should I have to support four children,” Jackson said.

THE JACKSON FAMILY SPENT MORE TIME in Alexandria than in any other place while Clay was in the military, so it was natural that they decided to settle in the area when he retired. They moved to Marlan Forest in 1979 and still live in the same house.

“I was always a member of the Northern Virginia Fine Arts Association but I didn’t do a lot for them,” Jackson said. “I went to the art shows and wrote their newsletter for a while but was busy with other things.”

Busy with a thriving real estate business when she decided to save the Athenaeum in 1989. “I’ll never forget that the day after that Board meeting two of the officers called me and said that since I thought it was such a good idea to keep the Athenaeum as a place for the arts, I should be the executive director,” Jackson said. “They also told me that they couldn’t pay me anything.”

It was a two-for-one deal because they also wanted Clay to be the business manager – also for a salary of zero. “I started receiving a salary after about four years but Clay still doesn’t get paid,” she said.

“The Athenaeum is a perfect setting for the arts,” Jackson said. “It is exactly the way that the Greeks imagined art should be displayed.”

The building was constructed in 1851-52 and housed the Bank of the Old Dominion. The bank was closed during the Civil War and the building was used as a commissary for Union soldiers. After the war, the bank reopened and functioned as a financial institution until around 1907. From 1907 until around 1925, the building was used as a talcum powder factory. “We are still vacuuming up powder,” Jackson said.

In 1933, the building was sold to the Free Methodists. Finally, in 1964, the Northern Virginia Fine Arts Association purchased it.

“Until that time, there wasn’t much going on in the way of arts on the Virginia side of the river,” Jackson said.

Today, the Northern Virginia Fine Arts Association offers three-plus art shows each year and two to three ballets each year. “We don’t do performances for grown-ups,” Jackson said. “We cater to children.”

Virginia Britton is the artistic director for the Alexandria Ballet. She is also Jackson’s daughter. “My mother talked the Board into including dance at the Athenaeum,” Britton said. “When she first approached the Board, one member told her that dance was not a fine art. Now we are really outgrowing the space and are looking for a facility of our own.”

One of the shows that Britton does each year with a troop of professionals is, of course, The Nutcracker. “I remember that I wanted to change the ending – just to make it a little different,” she said. “My mother watched the new ending for a few minutes and then walked into the middle of the room of dancers and asked anyone who didn’t like the new ending to raise their hands. She is very traditional.”

Britton also wanted to hire someone to be the “nutcracker lady.” “That would be the person who explained the story to the children,” Britton said. Her mother saw one of the actresses who was aspiring to perform the role and told her daughter that the woman simply wouldn’t do. “She told me that the woman wore Birkenstocks and that I didn’t know anything about children,” Britton said. “I’ve suggested that the two of us go to therapy (my mother and me, that is) but she thinks that’s a bunch of hooey. It’s a challenge but she really has been great and is responsible for our being able to introduce dance to Alexandria. We have grown from a small town dance troop into a professional company and she has made that happen.”

In addition to the ballets and dance lessons, the Athenaeum features shows that display the work of local and/or regional artists. Jackson is also very proud of the outreach programs. “We spend at least 15 percent of our income on outreach,” she said. “We work with recreation centers and have a partnership with Jefferson-Houston Elementary School. The Athenaeum is not a museum; it’s a place where art is very much alive.”

<bci>Anyone who is interested in ballet should call 703-379-8997. Those who are interested in learning more about programs at the Athenaeum should go to the web site at www.alexandria-athenaeum.org.