Besides their love of the stars, the Meads shared a love of the performing arts. Beginning in the late 1980s, after years of quiet patronage of local playhouses, they established themselves as two of the most generous arts philanthropists in the capital. Together, they helped transform Washington’s cultural scene by donating more than $50 million to local theaters, including Studio Theatre and Arena Stage.
Their generosity is widely credited with helping complete the revival of D.C. neighborhoods, including the Southwest Waterfront and the once-crime-ridden area along 14th Street NW.
“It’s just like in ‘Hello, Dolly!’,” Dr. Mead once told The Washington Post in her rich North Carolina accent. “Money should be spread around, like manure. Dolly Levi says that, and I really believe it.”
Dr. Mead died Sept. 14 at her home in the District. She was 83. Her death, of congestive heart failure, was confirmed by her sister Mary Watts.
One of the playhouses the Meads liked to frequent was Studio Theatre, which was founded in 1978 and in its early years put on productions in a rat-infested abandoned hot dog warehouse on Church Street NW.
In the early 1990s, the Meads wrote a check for $1 million, placed it in an envelope and slid it across a card table to Studio’s founding artistic director, Joy Zinoman. The money helped finance the theater’s expansion at its current location at 14th and P streets NW.
“One could make the case that the theater wouldn’t exist without that moment,” Zinoman said in an interview. “It was a very bold moment.”
Thanks in large part to the Meads’ continued philanthropic leadership, Studio Theatre has continued to grow into an even larger complex, including the 200-seat Mead Theatre. The surrounding area, with its clubs and flower shops, condominiums and a Whole Foods grocery store, is today considered one of the swankier areas in the city.
“I remember that corridor when . . . people felt that they were taking their lives in their hands when they would go to their theater,” said Jennifer Cover Payne, the president of the Cultural Alliance of Greater Washington. “Now it is our showcase street.”
Gilbert Mead died in 2007, three years before the opening of perhaps the couple’s most dramatic project: the fully renovated Arena Stage, renamed the Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater in recognition of the couple’s $35 million in gifts and matching pledges.
With a new glass entrance and cantilevered roof, the Arena complex includes working space for artists and has been cited as a key element of urban revitalization efforts in Southwest Washington.