If you have been in the arts in Modesto over the past 40 years, you probably knew Grace Lieberman. Or, even more likely, Grace Lieberman knew you.
While her first name denoted the gentle artistry she devoted her life's work to in the Central Valley, behind it was tireless mettle that sustained her decades-long drive to improve the area arts scene. Lieberman passed away Wednesday morning while in hospice care in Modesto. She was 88.
"Grace was a person you wanted to know. Her personality was such you really wanted to be around her, you wanted to know more about her. And she wanted to know about you," said Paul Tischer, founder and general director of Modesto Performing Arts, where Lieberman was his most prolific performer over the years.
Lieberman was longtime executive director of the now-defunct Stanislaus Arts Council and made it her business to know people from across the artistic spectrum. Some she knew as a performer with almost every company in town — from Modesto Performing Arts to Townsend Opera and Prospect Theater Project — and others simply from being an enthusiastic member of countless audiences.
Lieberman was born in Rhode Island in 1929 and raised through much of her childhood in a suburb of New York City where her father worked as a chauffeur. She got into the arts a little later in life, at age 30, when she helped to start a children's theater company. But it wasn't until she moved to Modesto in 1978, after living for a while in New York and Beverly Hills, that she threw herself fully into performance.
She appeared in some 20 shows with Tischer's MPA and many with the late Erik Buck Townsend, founder of Townsend Opera Players. Up to 2017, she hosted and organized the annual Valentine's Day show as part of Congregation Beth Shalom's Sunday Afternoons at CBS concert series, her last public performance.
Her longtime friend and pianist Darrel Lingenfelter accompanied her during the show. They first met when she was acting in Merced some 30 years ago when, he said, he laughed at one of her jokes, and Lieberman told him she knew they'd be friends immediately.
"People would come to see Grace. There are just certain people I love to watch perform, and she was one of them," Lingenfelter said. "She really put herself into her music. She always knew she had another show in her. She just was unstoppable."
Lieberman's passion for performance was matched by her determination to support other artists. She helped to found the Stanislaus Arts Council, which she ran as executive director for almost 35 years. The council funded numerous area arts programs, including the Stanislaus Artists as Resources to Schools (STAR), Serenades on Sunday music recitals, Senior Spotlight talent shows and Excellence in the Arts Awards.
But in 2012, due to funding problems and an inability to pay her salary, Lieberman stepped down from her position and the council folded altogether shortly after. Lieberman had previously taken out a second mortgage on her home to help support the arts program. It's those kind of sacrifices, said her friend Tony Mistlin, that made her invaluable to the area arts community.
"Grace was absolutely selfless. Her whole life was devoted to giving to Modesto. It’s a big loss for Modesto," said Mistlin, the namesake of downtown Modesto's Mistlin Gallery and owner of Mistlin Honda. "I think we should celebrate the fact that we knew her."
She was friend to starving actors and community philanthropists alike, including Marie Gallo. Lieberman once famously served Gallo — who spearheaded the creation of downtown's Gallo Center for the Arts — dinner on paper plates at her house.
"Grace had a huge impact on the arts in this community. She was legendary. I have lost a beloved friend," Gallo said.
When times got tough financially for Lieberman after leaving the Stanislaus Arts Council, the community rallied around her. In 2014, friends including Mistlin and Louis Friedman helped to set up a trust fund in her honor. The fund paid her around $1,000 a month until her death. The remainder of the fund will now go to area charities.
In the last year, Lieberman's health had declined. She was in and out of assisted care and in the past month had suffered two heart attacks and a series of strokes.
Modesto actor and director David Barbaree has been close friends with Lieberman for almost 20 years. She lived with him briefly and he directed her in two plays for Prospect Theater Project. He said she drew talented people to her like a magnet.
"I think just about everybody who knew her can probably tell you a moment where Grace touched them in a very personal way. And they will tell you they hold that moment as significant and important; it will have mattered to them," Barbaree said.
One of those was California State University, Stanislaus, music professor Joseph Wiggett, who Lieberman introduced herself to soon after he moved to the area in 2001. He said she instantly became a booster for his program and wanted to know what he was working on.
"But she was interested in everything in the arts — music, painting, dancing, theater. Everything. She was remarkable in that respect," Wiggett said. "And Grace never lost an opportunity to follow up and thank someone for the work they did. She must have spent countless hours writing handwritten thank-you notes. You may not even know she was in the audience, and then you'd get a note saying how much she enjoyed your performance or presence in the community."
Prospect Theater co-founder Kathleen Ennis first met Lieberman just like that, after a play when she introduced herself and was instantly effusive with her praise and support. Ennis has also acted alongside her in two shows, "Beauty Queen of Leenane" and "Road to Mecca." She considers the former her favorite Prospect production because of Lieberman's skill and generosity as an actor.
But Lieberman's larger-than-life personality belied a innate understanding of the nuts-and-bolts of keeping arts afloat. In ways large and small, she supported area groups. Ennis said back in 2001 she handed the then-fledgling theater company the arts council's full mailing list to help them get started on their fundraising. To this day, Ennis said, many of their biggest backers became Prospect patrons first because Lieberman told them to.
"She was such a big fire. Every one of us who got to work with her has that little ember. By God, we are not the raging fire she was. But she lit us on fire," Ennis said. "So I really think her lasting legacy is us — the people who are creating art in Modesto right now. "