Joan Mondale: Self-described ‘traditional political wife’ who used her position of influence to promote fine art in the US

‘She relates to artists  and makes everyone feel good,’ the painter Frank Stella said of her

Joan Mondale became known as “Joan of Art” for her promotion of the fine arts during the political career of her husband, the former US Senator, Vice President and presidential candidate, Walter Mondale. A self-described “traditional political wife”, she was regarded as one of the most prominent political spouses of her era. She logged tens of thousands of miles campaigning for her husband, whom she, like many others, called Fritz.

A Minnesota Democrat, he was elected Jimmy Carter’s Vice President in 1976, and in 1984 he lost the presidential election in a landslide to Ronald Reagan. Joan, meanwhile, became known as a tireless advocate for the cultivation of the arts. During her tenure as “second lady” of the US, Carter named her honorary chairman of the Federal Council on the Arts and Humanities. She travelled around the country attending exhibitions, dedicating new works of art and directing national attention to artists whom she admired. For her own part, she was an accomplished ceramicist.

She met Mondale in 1955, when she was working as a librarian. As her husband’s political interests grew, Mondale found herself, she remarked, with two choices. “I could sit at home and weep, or I could become active in our ward club and have plenty to do on those long nights.” She chose the latter.

She and her husband were the first couple to live in the vice president’s residence on the grounds of the US Naval Observatory, and she turned the home into a showcase for American art. “She is generous and straightforward,” the painter Frank Stella said. “She relates well to artists and makes everybody feel good.”

Mondale also used her prominence to push for equal pay for men and women and for the Equal Rights Amendment. In 1984, when her husband chose Geraldine Ferraro as his vice- presidential running mate, making her the first woman to become a major-party nominee on a US presidential ticket, Mondale was resolutely supportive. “She doesn’t mince words, and I like that a lot,” she said of Ferraro.

Of her role promoting the arts, she said, “I was an appreciator. I was a consumer. I’m not a critic. I’m not an art historian. But what I could do was sort of say thank you to the arts community.”

Joan Adams, Second Lady of the US and artistic patron: born Eugene, Oregon 8 August 1930; married 1955 Walter Mondale (two sons, and one daughter deceased); died 3 February 2014.

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