By JESSE McKINLEY
Of all the skills needed to be a successful museum director — curating collections, charming donors, keeping the lights on — perhaps the most crucial are having a good eye and knowing what you like when you see it.
So it was for Anne-Imelda Radice, the executive director of the American Folk Art Museum in Manhattan, when she walked into her birthday party in February and saw Stephanie Stebich, the executive director of the Tacoma Art Museum in Washington State, standing amid the revelers.
“I spent the whole evening staring at her,” Ms. Radice said, speaking alongside Ms. Stebich. “And I think you stared at me.”
The couple were married on Aug. 14 in front of about 100 guests, and a healthy contingent of museum trustees, in Plainfield, Mass. The ceremony was the culmination of a romance involving thousands of miles of air travel, a deck of index cards and a secret-society tchotchke drawn from the stash of a museum-store gift shop.
But their marriage won’t bring their peripatetic ways to an end: Ms. Stebich is some 2,400 miles west of Manhattan — and Ms. Radice and her home and job.
“I’m going to be spending a lot of time on Alaska Airlines,” Ms. Stebich said. “And Anne is a JetBlue fan.”
Such peregrinations aren’t completely new for the couple — both travel extensively for work — or their relationship, which evolved in a series of small steps from far away, even as friends wondered why they hadn’t found each other sooner. Both are successful; both are borderline workaholics; and both are intensely devoted to the arts, and the enjoyment of them. But despite years overlapping at conferences and museum meetings, the two were nothing more than acquaintances.
They had known each other as museum-world colleagues for more than a decade, and Ms. Stebich, 50, said that she had long admired Ms. Radice. And indeed, at 68, Ms. Radice had a long and esteemed career in New York City and Washington, D.C., where she has been an acting chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Arts and was the first director of the National Museum of Women in the Arts.
“I’d always respected Anne from afar, and from afar means I’m sitting in the audience, and Anne is speaking,” said Ms. Stebich, who got the top job in Tacoma in 2005, after stints at the Guggenheim Museum, the Brooklyn Museum and the Cleveland Museum of Art, adding that she had “made no noticeable impression on her in our past professional encounters, to my chagrin.”
Ms. Stebich said that when she did her very best to go up and speak to her, she didn’t really get a lot of attention. That only served to make the prospect of becoming friendly with Ms. Radice “a little more intriguing,” Ms. Stebich said.
But Ms. Radice chalked up that aloofness to her own awkwardness. “I was shy because I was smitten by her,” she said, calling Ms. Stebich “a natural leader but kind.”
“I also thought she was great looking,” Ms. Radice added, “and probably had a million admirers.”
Although there were, eventually, some signs that the attraction was becoming mutual, Ms. Radice was already resigned to spending most of her life trying to hide in plain sight as a gay woman.
In the summer of 2015, the two women met in Detroit for a museum directors’ meeting and had a cup of tea together. But while they started talking art and museums, the conversation quickly turned personal: Ms. Radice told Ms. Stebich about her frustrations about living in the closet. Only her close friends knew she was gay.
“I felt I could trust her because she had never hidden her sexuality,” Ms. Radice said. “I looked up to her for that.”
Although they found themselves constantly and frustratingly interrupted by other colleagues, “This was my first real one-on-one conversation with Anne,” Ms. Stebich said. “She talked about how her career dominated her life and how her personal life was always second and secret, especially as a government official. I had compassion for her as I benefited from a different and more open era. She also seemed relieved to tell me her story.”
Ms. Stebich sensed a spark between the two of them, suspicions that grew more concrete in November when Ms. Stebich — an avid runner — traveled east to run in the New York City Marathon. In passing, she mentioned the marathon to Ms. Radice and said she could watch if she was so inclined.
Sure enough, Ms. Radice showed up at 64th Street and First Avenue, a little more than halfway through the race. The sighting put a little kick in Ms. Stebich’s step.
“I thought, ‘Oh, that’s more than collegial,’” Ms. Stebich said. “And I had a couple hours to think about that while running.”
After the race, she invited Ms. Radice to a family dinner — pasta, that post-marathon staple — but again, bashfulness intervened. “She didn’t come,” Ms. Stebich said. Ms. Radice explained: “I thought I would make a jerk out of myself. I just decided I would take another opportunity to get to know her better. You know, without her entire family.”
Susan Russell Hall, a friend of Ms. Stebich who lives in Tacoma, said she believes that destiny would have eventually prevailed, but that the fates clearly needed some encouragement. “When they saw each other, always in a crowd of people, I’d say to Stephanie, ‘Don’t you think you should go on a first date?’” Ms. Hall said. “But they were always too busy.”
The next stop in their courtship was Los Angeles, in January, and the couple again mixed business with pleasure. Ms. Radice had traveled there for yet another professional meeting, and to celebrate Ms. Stebich’s 50th birthday. It was an intimate dinner for eight, all museum types, and as is their way, each had brought along presents from their institution’s gift shops: a notepad from Denver, a scarf from Kalamazoo, Mich.
“But Anne’s gift,” Ms. Stebich said, “was not anything like that.” It was a small painting of a heart in a hand. “It didn’t take an art historian or an iconography expert to decode this,” Ms. Stebich said.
A little more than a month later, Ms. Stebich flew east again, this time to join a group for Ms. Radice’s birthday. (As a Leap Year’s Day baby, Ms. Radice says she’s only 17.) It was at that dinner that they couldn’t stop staring at each other.
And when she was called on by a fellow friend to speak at the dinner, Ms. Stebich’s unalloyed affection became public. “All I could think of to say, ‘I just got to know Anne, and I’m enchanted by her,’ ” Ms. Stebich said.
What followed was “a kind of old 19th-century epistolary relationship,” as Ms. Stebich described it, involving letters and emails back and forth across time zones, often leading to late-night “goodnights” and early-morning “good mornings.”
Ms. Hall advised the pair: “You have to ask, ‘What is important in life?’ At this stage of life, why postpone joy?”
There were discussions of favorite architects, favorite cities and, yes, favorite museums. There was an official first date — in mid-May in Portland, Ore. — during which Ms. Stebich was so excited, and admittedly, so nerdy, that she put a series of discussion topics on index cards and brought them to dinner, completely nonplusing Ms. Radice.
“I couldn’t figure out what was going on,” Ms. Radice said. “I’d flown thousands of miles, and I’m nervous, I’m really nervous, which is not my nature. And here’s this person that I’m just totally crazy about, and she’s reading from 3-by-5 cards. I’m like, ‘What?’” (Ms. Stebich eventually dropped the cards, moving on to the first kiss.)
On their second date, in early June, the two women — independent of each other — had decided that they would like to get married. And then, finally, there was the proposal a few weeks later, when Ms. Stebich cooked the one dish she knows how to make — honey Dijon chicken — and presented Ms. Radice with a flashy pinkie ring (“gold and platinum and diamonds”) that was once owned by her grandfather.
The wedding, led by the Rev. H. B. Whiteside of the Plainfield Congregational Church, took place on a sweltering August afternoon, on a lush Massachusetts hilltop at Ms. Stebich’s family home, an 18th-century brown shingled Cape Cod. Ms. Radice wore a sleeveless white sheath and soft mesh jacket by Armani; Ms. Stebich, escorted by her brothers, Markus and Oliver, followed in a white Alexander McQueen dress with ruffles at the collar and cuffs.
Guests who had followed the midlife love story said they were inspired by it. ”Sometimes it happens early,” said Sylvia Wolf, the director of the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle. “And for them it’s happening a little later.”
The speed of the couple’s courtship — from first date to first dance in less than three months — thrilled old friends like Johnnetta Betsch Cole, the director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, who serenaded them in the Atlanta airport when she found out, doing her best Diana Ross. “I stretched out my arm to block their passing as I bellowed, ‘Stop in the name of love!’” Ms. Cole recalled.
Ute Stebich, Ms. Stebich’s mother, an art historian and the founder of Ute Stebich Gallery in Lenox, Mass., said that she had been surprised that the relationship hadn’t happened even earlier. “They just clicked,” she said. “You’d think being people who have to make decisions they would have decided sooner” on their own relationship.
Many of those decisions will now involve scheduling, it seems. The newlyweds plan on living apart for the foreseeable future, although they pledge to meet at as many art-world shindigs as possible.
“We’re both respectful that we are working, so we can kind of turn on and off and give each other space,” Ms. Stebich said. But she added that she is “suddenly looking at half-marathons on the East Coast.”
Ms. Radice agreed that their lives would remain busy, but said that falling in love had reinforced the notion that “time is the most precious commodity that one can have besides good health,” she said. “So I think that is how we are going to govern it.”
“But I think it’s a balance,” she added. “Everything that works, whether it’s work or play, has to do with balance. And I think we’re both capable of that.”