William Michael Vareika

Inducted: 2017
Born: 1952

In 1987, Bill and Alison Vareika opened a public art gallery on Newport’s Bellevue Avenue Casino Historic District block after seven years as private dealers of American art operating out of their Newport carriage house home. The Newport and New England art scene has never been the same. The gallery has grown into one of the country’s most prominent and respected galleries, specializing in important 18th, 19th, and early 20th-century works of art. The story is more remarkable because Bill Vareika intended to become a lawyer, not a gallery owner. 

Raised in Brocton, Massachusetts, Bill majored in political science at Boston College. He took a class in 19th-century art mainly to fulfill a school requirement, and that experience changed his life. One day, he visited Boston’s Trinity Church to research a topic for his art class. He saw the elaborate murals around the sanctuary, works by John LaFarge, who lived from 1835 to 1910, much of the time in Newport, Rhode Island. Vareika came to Newport in 1974 to expand his research on LaFarge. He soon abandoned law school plans to volunteer to help direct a six-year legal battle to save Newport’s Congregational Church, with its LaFarge stained-glass windows, from being bulldozed. Bill worked as a part-time janitor at a local art museum (now the Newport Art Museum), where he later served as trustee for 20 years), He began his art dealer career as a “picker,” trolling yard sales and thrift shops for items and reselling them to galleries. The church battle was eventually won, but Bill never entered law school. He met his wife Alison in an artist studio near the museum where she was modeling for a portrait painted by a mutual artist friend.

The Vareika’s primary interest has always been the rich artistic heritage of the Newport and Narragansett Bay region, and they continue to specialize in the influential American artists who were attracted to the Newport area in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. Two of the best-known of these artists are John LaFarge and William Trost Richards. Over the past 35 years, the Vareikas have owned and handled more works by these artists than anyone in history while creating one of the country’s largest and most respected art galleries.

Over the past thirty-five years, William Vareika Fine Arts Ltd has consistently presented scholarly exhibitions of museum-quality American artworks, catering to prominent collectors and museum curators worldwide, beginning collectors, and the public. Its recent 36th-anniversary exhibition, “Three Centuries of American Art: 1775 – 1980,” included over 350 paintings, drawings, watercolors, and original prints and photographs. Featured is an inventory that rivals most museum collections, including artworks by such American Masters as William Bradford (2), Alfred T. Bricher (6), James E. Buttersworth, William Merritt Chase, Thomas Doughty (3), Sanford Robinson Gifford (4), William Stanley Haseltine (2) Childe Hassam, Martin Johnson Heade (3), Hans Hofmann, Winslow Homer (3), John F. Kensett (8), John LaFarge (15), Fitz Henry Lane, Edward Potthast, William Trost Richards (50), Theodore Robinson, John Singer Sargent, Everett Shinn, John Twachtman, Albert Van Beest, Andy Warhol, Benjamin West, and Worthington Whittredge. 

From the beginning, the Vareikas defined the mission of their gallery as twofold. It would provide a public viewing space for influential historical American art and be the vehicle through which they could support charitable causes. From its opening day, the Vareikas used their gallery to raise awareness about various causes. They have also donated over one million dollars to multiple institutions, such as the Newport Art Museum, Hasbro Children’s Hospital, Martin Luther King Community Center, and the Newport Historical Society. They also established the William Vareika Award for Arts and Public Policy, conferred annually to a Salve Regina University graduate with a demonstrated appreciation for art and social conscience.

The Vareikas also led an effort to raise funds to acquire, restore, and install thirteen LaFarge stained-glass windows in Our Lady of Mercy Chapel on the Salve Regina University campus. Bill received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Salve Regina University for his contributions as a preservationist and philanthropist. He has served on numerous boards and has received many awards for his efforts. He was honored in 2017 by the Rhode Island Council on the Humanities with the “Honorary Chairs Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Humanities,” a tribute to his dedication to the preservation of historic art and architecture in Rhode Island.  

Alison Vareika is an arts advocate, community activist, preservationist, philanthropist, and choral singer. A native of Ada, Oklahoma, she has lived in Newport for over 36 years. Alison graduated Summa Cum Laude from the University of Rhode Island with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science. She is chair of the Board of the Newport Performing Arts Center, a trustee of Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, and a member of the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts. Alison also serves on the Advisory Councils of the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center and the Aquidneck Land Trust. She has performed with the Rhode Island Civic Choral & Orchestra for five years and the Berkshire Choral International for over fifteen years.

William Vareika was inducted into The Rhode Heritage Hall of Fame in 2017.  

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