Life Stories

Life Stories: A life committed to the value of art

CorrespondentJuly 19, 2012 

Zoe Webster, right, with her son Christopher Webster. She died on June 23, 2012. In 2001 she was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award, by the NC State Art Society. In 2002, the Zoë S. Webster Fund - Life Enrichment through Flowers, endowment was established at the North Carolina Museum of Art by her family.

PHOTO COURTSEY OF THE NC MUSEUM OF ART

  • Zoë Webster Born: June 22, 1918 in Washington, D.C. 1918 to 1947: Grew up in Charlotte, N.C. (attended Queens College, worked as teller at Wachovia Bank and Trust) April 11, 1947: Married Christopher Rowland Webster 1948: Moved to Raleigh November 25, 1949: Son Christopher Rowland Webster Jr. born 1956: North Carolina Museum of Art opened in downtown Raleigh 1956 to 2007: North Carolina Museum of Art - Volunteer, Docent, Executive Director and Secretary, Board Member, North Carolina State Art Society 1959: Widowed 1976: Awarded Distinguished Service Award, NC State Art Society 1979, 1981, 1989: Grandchildren born 1983: Retired as state employee, NC State Art Society 2001: Awarded Lifetime Achievement Award, NC State Art Society (to date, only 3 awarded) 2002: Zoë S. Webster Fund – Life Enrichment through Flowers, endowment established at the North Carolina Museum of Art by her family Died: June 23, 2012 in Santa Fe, N.M.

When it comes to museums, the role of the volunteer is essential. It is people like Zoë Webster who keep these nonprofit establishments alive.

Webster was one of the most influential supporters of the North Carolina Museum of Art since its opening in 1956.

Webster, who died last month one day after her 94th birthday, was one of the museum’s first docents. She joined the membership branch of the museum, the North Carolina Art Society, the same year the museum opened, embarking on a 50-plus year legacy of promoting art throughout the state of North Carolina.

Among the more notable aspects of Webster’s life is that she was not an artist. Her son, Christopher Webster Jr., cannot recall his mother agonizing over brush strokes on her personal canvas. She did not obsessively collect any particular medium or artist, instead she deeply believed that art is of value to society at large. She was passionate about what art could mean to children, and organized children’s programming.

Her efforts at promoting art throughout the state began and ended with volunteerism, and probably would have remained so had she not been widowed when her son was 9 years old.

In 1959 her husband, Christopher Webster, drowned in an effort to keep his wife from perishing in the waters off the Outer Banks.

Rather than fall apart in the aftermath, Webster, now a single mother, threw herself into her work as executive secretary for the North Carolina Art Society.

The membership for the Art Society quadrupled over the next 30 years of her tenure.

Her son can remember the dining room table often strewn with notes from meetings, pamphlets she created to promote the museum, or paraphernalia regarding the numerous art trips she organized that brought North Carolinians all over the world to see great collections.

In 2001 she was given the Lifetime Achievement Award by the North Carolina Art Society, one of the three that have been awarded, Chris Webster said. She was a key player when the Society was responsible for funding the museum, long before the state awarded the museum its current building off Blue Ridge Road in west Raleigh.

She was known for being as friendly and caring toward the night watchman as she was the museum’s directors – and she knew every single director the museum as ever had.

“She became sort of the living memory of the history of the art museum,” said Larry Wheeler, the museum’s director since 1994 and a friend of Webster’s since the late 1970s. “She didn’t belong to any one particular era.”

When asked what sort of presence Webster had, Wheeler said she was “a force in the most civilized possible way. She was genteel and kind and thoughtful and always loved the museum and all the people around it.”

Webster’s true passion had much more to do with enriching the lives of people than it did admiring the colors found within an impressionist painting.

“Those were her arts,” Chris Webster said of his mother’s penchant for setting a table to host a dinner party, arranging flowers for a friend, and cherishing the family heirlooms she made sure survived for one more generation. When the end was near, he made sure she joined him and his family in Santa Fe so she could die with her loved ones around her.

Her friends and family were convinced there was not one single corner of the state where Webster couldn’t have found an old friend.

As her son said, art really mattered to her, but she loved people. “Every person that she touched will tell you that she made their life better,” he said.

This was something her friends and family appreciated long before her death. Her son and his family, to honor this attribute, created the Zoë S. Webster Fund – Life Enrichment through Flowers. Floral arrangements were something that always brought her pleasure, and now the numerous bouquets throughout the museum are there in honor of her.

“Zoë is always blooming somewhere in the museum,” Wheeler said.

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