The first major art exhibition opened in 1956 as what the student newspaper called “a highlight of the three-day festivities held in conjunction with the inauguration of Dr. Grellet C. Simpson as chancellor. Organized by a committee of art faculty led by painter Julien Binford and assisted by students, the exhibition featured fifty contemporary artworks borrowed from prominent New York dealers.
Though the organizers acknowledged the constraints of limited resources, their intentions were not constrained. Binford, in his introduction to the exhibition catalogue, spoke of Chancellor Simpson’s “conviction that the enjoyment of art in familiar surroundings is the daily need of civilized people.” Binford continued that he hoped the First Annual would be “remembered as a lovable show of small works by great men,” and that the paintings, “done in Roman houses, in Mexican and English villages, in Maine woods and under Texan skies, will meet here to say that the world is fair when nations, in wisdom and in peace, share the works of their artists.”
Certainly the roster of artists in the First Annual still looks impressive today. Included were Isabel Bishop, Milton Avery, Alexander Calder, Marino Marini, Marsden Hartley, and Joan Miró. A student member of the organizing committee, Carolyn Joanne Miller Rinaca ’56, recalls how pleased and excited everyone was as the crates were unpacked. After the show was installed, she says, “I’d go in and just sit and look and soak it up.”
Of course the educational aspect of the first exhibition was stressed, setting an example followed ever since. Students were involved in all aspects of mounting the show. Not only that, as Jane Shuman Steinbrunn ’57, reports, they also gave public tours, and were assigned, in their art classes, to study and even copy the works on display.
From the beginning, the plan was to form an art collection by buying one painting from each annual exhibition. Such a collection, Binford told the student newspaper, “will be as much of a step forward in the college’s development as was the founding of the library.” The first purchase was Milton Avery’s splendid Pink Pasture, still probably the most important artwork the university owns.
The galleries’ subsequent history has had its ups and downs. The Annuals continued through 1965, with some three dozen significant paintings entering the permanent collection through purchase or as gifts of the artists, faculty members, or graduating classes. Other important exhibitions of the early days included “Oriental Art of Fifty Centuries” (1958), “The Sculpture of Primitive Peoples” (1966), “Dada, Surrealism, and Today” (1967), and “Fifteenth-and Sixteenth-Century Prints from the Rosenwald Collection of the National Gallery of Art” (1971).
There followed a long hiatus. Between 1969 and 1991 no artworks were added to the permanent collection, and between 1973 and 1980 only one exhibition–other than student shows–was held. Why this is so is not entirely clear. The retirements of the founders (art professors Gaetano Cecere in 1964, Dorothy Duggan Van Winckel in 1968, Binford in 1971, Pauline King in 1979) must have been a factor. Also, in the 1970s, the University’s adjustment to going coed and separating from the University of Virginia brought many changes. Finally, during the summer of 1981 art professor Joseph Di Bella began to organize exhibits for the Fredericksburg Theater Company. These were displayed in the galleries and were open for the intermissions of the company’s productions. In the summer of 1982 the slate of exhibits included two that featured crafts artists of the Fredericksburg area. The community response was very positive and with it came a renewed public interest in viewing art at the University.
After twenty-five years of little maintenance the galleries in duPont Hall were in a tattered state: scratched floors, thousands of nail holes in the dark burlap walls, and dim lights marred the exhibition environment. When the Virginia legislature came to the University in 1983 for a meeting on the developing Fredericksburg area, the galleries were repapered and a new lighting system was installed. Di Bella organized exhibits of local artists and assisted in displays by local business, industry, and cultural organizations. With an improved facility and growing visibility of the arts at the University, Di Bella launched the next phase of the gallery program. Serving as the first gallery director, in 1983 he curated a retrospective memorial exhibition of works by Professor Emerita Dorothy Duggan Van Winckel and initiated a fund in her memory through the generosity of her brother, Ben Duggan of Chattanooga, Tennessee, and her friends and former students. In the same year he curated an exhibit of works by alumnae artists of local, national, and international reputation.
Increased student interest in exhibition practice prompted Di Bella to initiate courses in gallery management. Students assisted in the selection of artists and in all aspects of planning, publicity, and installation of exhibitions. Several gallery students went on to positions at prestigious museums including the Metropolitan and the Pierpont Morgan Library.
In the later 1980s the number of shows increased dramatically. Broad publicity brought submissions from artists around the country wanting their works to be included in the increasingly selective exhibitions. Highlights of the period were a major invitational fiberworks show by New England artists and competitive Mid Atlantic exhibits of contemporary realism.
Meanwhile, interest in the University’s dispersed and neglected permanent art collection revived. Classes under Di Bella, art history professor Joseph Dreiss, and Suzanne Arnold, gallery director in 1991-92, gathered records of the collections, researched the artists and their creations, and planned an exhibition of the permanent collection for the fall of 1991. To track down mislaid artworks, students and faculty began with an inventory made in 1981 by Frances Armstrong ’36, then snooped around the campus looking in closets and behind furniture. Eventually, most works recorded as belonging to the University were found, or the circumstances of their loss discovered. As many as possible were gathered in the duPont Galleries for safekeeping.
In the autumn of 1990 when he became chair of the art department, Di Bella was introduced to Phyllis Ridderhof Martin, a California painter, who had recently moved to the Fredericksburg area. Months of discussion and building relationships with Mrs. Martin, her family, and her financial consultant led to her donating the funds necessary for the construction of a small museum at the University. The building would provide high quality spaces for exhibiting contemporary and historical art, properly storing the art collection, and training students. Mrs. Martin gave over $500,000 for this project. The Ridderhof Martin Gallery opened in April 1992 with an inaugural exhibit of the benefactor’s paintings.
As the new museum project was under way, preparations began for the renovation of the University’s fine arts complex, including the art department’s studios and classrooms in Melchers Hall as well as th
e galleries in duPont Hall. The new duPont Gallery, now one large space rather than four small ones, reopened in January 1995 with an art faculty exhibit. This new gallery, with its hardwood floors, professional quality lighting system, unbroken wall expanses, and modern furniture, is a handsome and functional counterpart to the Ridderhof Martin Gallery.
Fine donations have greatly enriched the collections in recent years. The late professor of philosophy and religion Kurt Leidecker left to Mary Washington over 200 Asian and American artworks; Phyllis Ridderhof Martin bequeathed hundreds of her own works as well as a fine group of paintings and drawings by other significant California artists of her generation; the New York artist and intellectual Alfred Levitt donated thousands of works by the little known yet immensely talented and enigmatic avant garde artist Margaret Sutton ’26, and has promised a major group of his own works as well. Gifts from other generous friends have been too numerous to mention. This bounty brings a fresh challenge: the new building already desperately needs an addition.
Today, the University of Mary Washington Galleries have a sizable, interesting collection (all carefully housed and catalogued on the latest computers), good facilities, varied and substantive exhibitions, enthusiastic student visitors and workers, and an unwavering commitment, in the words of the mission statement, to “advance the educational goals of the University through the collection, preservation, exhibition, and interpretation of works of art in accordance with the highest professional standards.”
by Joseph C. Di Bella, Distinguished Professor, Department of Art and Art Hsitory and Forrest McGill, former director of the Galleries