Van McLeod, ‘a pillar of our cultural and historic institutions,’ dies at 70

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Monitor staff
Published: 7/19/2016 3:00:35 AM

Update: The services for Van McLeod have been rescheduled. A funeral will be held at 1 p.m. Friday at St. Paul’s Church. As previously announced, calling hours will remain from 4 to 8 p.m. Thursday at Bennett Funeral Home.

Years ago, as the artist-in-residence in Concord elementary schools, Van McLeod made a booklet for his young students titled No Stars.

“He taught the concept that every part was important, and that everybody does their part,” said Dr. Roger Brooks, then principal at Beaver Meadow School. “No matter if you’re backstage and never seen on stage, or you have a so-called lead role. There are really no stars. It is a group effort.

“Whatever happens, it depends on everybody cooperating and working together,” he added. “That’s been his philosophy throughout.”

In the arts community in New Hampshire, however, McLeod was a star. The longtime commissioner of the state Department of Cultural Resources died early Monday at Concord Hospital. He was 70.

A spokesman for the department confirmed the death Monday morning. Gov. Maggie Hassan directed flags to half-staff on the day of McLeod’s funeral later this week. She was among the many elected officials, civic leaders and community organizations to express their condolences.

“Van McLeod was a pillar of our cultural and historic institutions, and Tom and I join his family and loved ones, the arts and humanities communities and people across the state in mourning his loss,” Hassan said.

Friends and colleagues remembered McLeod as omnipresent and optimistic.

To McLeod, the arts were embedded in every corner of the state and every aspect of daily life. He attended film showings and museum showings and children’s theater programs. He memorialized the Old Man of the Mountain and testified at the State House. He wrote a grant to start theater programs in Concord elementary schools. He advocated for the arts as critical to tourism and the economy.

“Every writer, every craftsperson, every actor, every singer, every musician, they want to make a living,” McLeod told the Monitor last year. “So as we open up places where they can perform, where they can exhibit, and if we can help create a market for that, it will lift all the boats. So, restaurants will do better, shops will do better, our economy will do better.”

A Granite State native and Concord resident, McLeod studied theater in college and attended the Orson Welles Film School in the 1970s. For several years, he ran the North Country Center for the Arts in Lincoln.

Bob Shea, now the artistic director of Barnstormers Theatre in Tamworth, met McLeod when the two were young artists. When McLeod started First Night New Hampshire, a New Year’s Eve celebration of the arts in Concord, Shea participated with mimes and other street performers. In later years, they collaborated on the New Hampshire Professional Theatre Association.

“He was the guy who laid the cornerstone for all these arts organizations in New Hampshire,” Shea said.

In 1992, McLeod began his 24-year tenure as the commissioner of the Department of Cultural Resources. The department includes the New Hampshire Council on the Arts, the state library, the Division of Historical Resources, and the Film and Television Office.

“He always used to say that the Department of Cultural Resources is represented around New Hampshire,” state librarian Michael York said. “We’re in every single community. There are libraries and art councils and people who are doing film and television and of course historic preservation throughout the state.”

McLeod was the longest-tenured state agency head currently serving.

“He was the cultural sector’s biggest cheerleader,” said Nicki Clarke, executive director of the Capitol Center for the Arts. “He always wanted people to participate in the arts, make something, do something, build something.”

When the state House of Representatives considered abolishing McLeod’s department in 2011 as a cost-saving measure, he fought to preserve funding for the arts council and its beneficiaries across the state.

“In the arts, people dwell on the scarcity of funding or the scarcity of resources,” said Christine Dwyer, a past chairwoman of the arts council and current board president at the Currier Museum of Art. “Some people, that can get them down. Van never dwelled on that. Van was always looking for the opportunity and the way forward.”

McLeod hosted brown bag lunches across the state – roundtable discussions with cultural organizations and artists. He challenged guests at an annual awards dinner with cultural trivia questions. He organized a presentation to celebrate New Hampshire at the Smithsonian Folk Festival in 1999. He brought artists to New Hampshire from Canada and Ireland.

“He did more for the culture and the arts than anybody in this state, and I don’t know how you fill that void,” said Ken Burns, an award-winning documentary filmmaker and New Hampshire resident.

In his last project, McLeod was working to build a memorial for former New Hampshire governor John Winant. It was the brainchild of House Minority Leader Steve Shurtleff, but the Penacook representative called McLeod the project’s “heart and soul.”

“ ‘No’ was never in his vocabulary,” Shurtleff said. “I’d still be in the planning stages if not for Van.”

He counted their final conversation, which ended with a favorite saying of McLeod’s.

“I talked to Van last week on the phone,” Shurtleff said. “The last thing he said to was, ‘Don’t forget, my friend. Onward and upward!’ ”

McLeod is survived by his wife, Joan Goshgarian, and daughter Chelsea. Calling hours will be from 4 to 8 p.m. Thursday at Bennett Funeral Home. A funeral will be held at 1 p.m. Friday at St. Paul’s Church.

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