Alice Denney (b. 1922, Western Pennsylvania) intended to study medicine at Duke University, and later transferred to Drexel University where she completed a masters degree in nutrition. It was at Drexel where she began her interest and studies in the fine arts. Her studies would continue throughout her husband’s graduate studies after World War II, first at the Boston Museum of Art, and later more informally gallery-hoping and visiting the Cedar Bar in New York. After relocating to Washington, DC in 1950, it would be five years before she rekindled her education in the fine arts.
Encouraged by her professor, Ben L. Summerford, to stop painting, Alice instead formed the Jefferson Place Gallery as a cooperative galley supporting local artists working in “contemporary idioms.” With the buzz and interest the gallery generated, Denney left in 1961 to plan and open the Washington Gallery of Modern Art in 1962, and would serve as the museum’s assistant director under Adelyn Breeskin (formerly of the Baltimore Museum of Art.) As Assistant Director, she helped secure a memorial retrospective of the work of Franz Kline, and curated The Popular Image, one of the first museum exhibitions related to Pop Art and Happenings. She left the position in 1963 to become the Vice Commissioner of the American Pavilion, under Alan Solomon, at the 1964 Venice Biennale.
Denney would later go on to found the Private Arts Foundation, raising money for select events related to performance art, avant garde dance, and experimental theater. Eventually, her experiences would culminate into founding the Washington Project for the Arts in 1975.