The Legacy of Joan Olmsted Oates

Joan Olmsted Oates, founder of Partners in the Arts, died peacefully on Friday, April 3, 2020. A service in remembrance of her life and spirit will be held at a later date.

Joan Oates was an educator, artist, and philanthropist who believed that the arts have no boundaries, that arts are a universal language among all people, and that the arts are integral to learning all subjects. She was humble, kind, patient, and empowering, and as she worked throughout her life to make the arts accessible to everyone, she always had a twinkle in her eyes and a smile for all.

As Founder of Partners in the Arts, Oates developed the vision and mission of this unique arts-in-education program, leading the Arts Council of Richmond’s research project that would become Partners in the Arts (PIA). In 1993, under Joan’s leadership, the PIA plan received the highest non-museum grant awarded in Virginia from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). The first PIA summer institute was held in 1994 on the University of Richmond campus.

Oates was instrumental in obtaining an additional NEA grant for PIA in 2004, supporting teacher training and assessment and projects in schools. The impact of her vision continued in 2017 with the third national-level grant for PIA, a research project grant from the US Department of Education in partnership with Richmond Public Schools, supporting the development of the Arts Integrated Learning Certificate.

In 2009, Oates worked with then-Richmond President Ed Ayers to bring PIA to the School of Professional and Continuing Studies permanently. She endowed the summer institute, which became the Joan Oates Institute for Partners in the Arts, with the largest individual gift to SPCS.

Guided by Oates’ vision, PIA has trained over 1,200 teachers through the Joan Oates Institute and through the PIA Engaging Creative Thinkers (ECT) Awards. ECT awards have supported over 200 projects, awarding $1.2M to teams of teachers and local artists for projects in schools throughout our community. Her support and passion have impacted many of our regions’ best projects, such as the Richmond Ballet’s Minds in Motion program, which started as a PIA dance grant.

Through her leadership in the arts, Oates contributed so much to our community.

  • As an artist, she lived and supported the work of individual artists.
  • As a teacher, she trained the next generation of educators through the arts.
  • As a volunteer, she motivated others by giving back to the community.
  • As a philanthropist, she helped to make the dream of a community united through the arts become a reality.

Oates is one of those rare individuals who lived by example. Her name was rarely in the newspaper, except when she was asked to write articles on the arts. However, anyone who has anything to do with the arts in our community knows Joan Oates. She was a unique artist and educator who could easily help others to understand how the arts can be useful to all aspects of their lives.

She was as comfortable speaking with our political representatives or nationally known educators and artists, as she was sitting on the floor teaching first graders. Oates epitomized the “servant leader,” someone who exerts leadership through helping others.

The YWCA honored Joan in 2007 as one of Richmond’s Outstanding Women. She also received the Central Virginia AFP Chapter Individual Philanthropist of the Year award in 2013 and was selected among 2013 Women in the Arts by Style Weekly. Oates is a member of the University of Richmond Quatrefoil Society as a benefactor whose transformative philanthropy over time has helped shape the University.

The legacy of Joan Oates lives on in the Joan Oates Institute for Partners in the Arts, in the curriculums of hundreds of teachers trained through PIA programs, and in the educational experiences of thousands of local school students who have benefited from high-quality training in arts integration across the curriculum.