Give Your Heart to Art

The Covington Center for the Arts

Prints of American contemporary artist Jasper Johns’ lithograph “Summer (Blue)” from his seasons series hang on the walls of some of the world’s most prestigious galleries.

The Museum of Modern Art in New York has one. The Pompidou Centre in Paris has one. The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York has one. And now, thanks to the generosity of its arts patrons, Radford University has one.

Image by Jasper Johns

Print from Jasper Johns' series "Summer (Blue)"

Gala brings patrons and fine art to campus
For the second Valentine’s Day in a row, benefactors sent a love note to Radford University at Give Your Heart to Art, a formal evening of socializing and celebrating the university’s rich arts tradition, all to benefit its permanent art collection.

This year’s Radford University Arts Society event was dedicated to the memory of renowned painter and sculptor Dorothy Gillespie, RU Distinguished Professor of the Arts. Gillespie, who died in October at age 92, made clear through words and actions through her long career that her heart belonged to Radford.

Her sculptures adorned dinner tables at the Feb. 14 benefit, and a documentary by filmmaker and friend Gerry McCarthy ‘93 described Gillespie’s legacy to the guests and explained how the arts community still feels her influence.

From Roanoke to the world
Gillespie was born in Roanoke in 1920. From an early age, she had the gift of seeing the world through an artist’s eyes, remembering specific colors and details vividly. Her early ambition was to study art after high school and go to New York City, a place she had heard about on the radio.

McCarthy’s documentary “Dorothy Gillespie: Creating Magic with Color” tells the story of how Gillespie’s parents objected to the idea of an art career for their daughter. Their wish was for her to attend what was then the State Teachers College at Radford and to become a schoolteacher. They asked their preacher to convince her that Radford was the right choice. To their surprise, the pastor instead encouraged the young woman to follow her dream and explore her God-given artistic talent.

Gillespie did so, traveling first to the Maryland Institute of Art in Baltimore and eventually reaching New York, where she found her place in its vibrant arts community. Through the years, she always came home to Roanoke and Radford, McCarthy said. It was during one of these trips home, in the early 1980s, that she and he met.

“Dorothy was going to be here, so I crashed the party and introduced myself,” McCarthy said. “We became fast friends.”

Over the next 30 years, the two worked together on four documentaries about her life, work and origins. “She never lost her affection for Southwest Virginia,” McCarthy said.

One of the ways she showed that affection was by getting involved with Radford University’s arts program. She volunteered to teach students in Radford’s classrooms and studios, and she launched a campaign to build a top-of-the-line gallery on campus and to establish a permanent collection of art by the world’s greatest artists.

Paul Frets, with wife Jeri, and Gerry McCarthy

Paul Frets, RU professor emeritus, with wife Jeri and filmmaker Gerry McCarthy ’93.

The new space
As early as the 1980s, Gillespie began talking about an on-campus gallery capable of displaying art masterpieces. Working with other patrons of the Radford arts community, she pushed relentlessly for a major renovation of the RU Museum of Art. In 2010, it finally happened. Cutting-edge climate-control systems, museum-standard lighting and enhanced security measures made it possible for the university to begin exhibiting exclusive artworks.

In January 2011, commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) in Richmond, Radford University hosted the opening of a touring exhibition titled “Van Gogh, Lichtenstein, Whistler: Masterpieces of World Art from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.” The exhibition was a success, drawing a record number of visitors, including local school groups, to campus to marvel at 30 works by Vincent Van Gogh, American impressionist James Abbot McNeil Whistler, pop artist Roy Lichtenstein and others.

In her remarks at the opening of the 2011 exhibition, RU President Penelope W. Kyle recalled the 2009 dedication of the Covington Center for Visual and Performing Arts, which houses the art gallery. “Suddenly we at Radford were getting stars in our eyes,” she said. “Now the stars are not just in our eyes, they’re on our walls.”

Roann Barris, chair of the RU Department of Art, can attest to the benefits of the renovated gallery space. Thinking back to the VMFA exhibition, Barris recalled seeing an etching by Spanish artist Francisco Goya and realizing the vast potential of an intimate proximity to art.

“The lines in etchings are so finely made, so close together that, when you see a reproduction up on a screen or in a book, you can’t really tell. It looks more like an area of gray or black or white. You can’t tell that the darker areas are actually made up of a lot of lines grouped close together, whereas the lighter areas are made up of fewer lines.”

“The skill is phenomenal,” Barris said, “and unless you view it in person, you can’t see any of that.”

Citing Dutch master Rembrandt van Rjin as another example, Barris said viewing artwork in person can aid students’ comprehension of an artist’s numerous contributing influences, such as how the materials an artist chooses have a profound effect on the direction and overall impression of a specific piece.

“Usually if it’s a portrait by Rembrandt, the forehead will not have thick paint, but the clothing will. He’s actually creating the texture of the object in the painting with the paint itself.” Such observation and appreciation are possible only by seeing the work firsthand, she said.

The collection
Besides advocating for a new gallery, Gillespie was integral in the early growth of Radford’s permanent collection. She engineered major gifts of hundreds of pieces of art from dealers and artists, including works by painters Betty Parsons and Adolf Dehn. Her campaign to bring new pieces to Radford was the Arts Society’s inspiration to honor her at the 2013 event.

The idea for Give Your Heart to Art grew out of a 2011 meeting of members of Arts Society and the Radford University Foundation to seek ways to partner benefactors of the university with the arts community, said Richard Bay, professor of art education. A goal was to expand the university’s permanent collection. “The only way the art world persists is through collection. We have a chance to put ourselves at the same level of collection as any other major institution.”

“We’ve got this amazing facility,” Bay said of the renovated gallery. “We should have an equally amazing art collection. We need a collection, though, that’s based on more than just donations. We need a collection that reflects contemporary trends, arts of stature. We should be proud to say, ‘We have a Picasso and a Warhol.’ To me, that’s what it’s all about.”

Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol are just two of the many famous artists now represented in the permanent collection at Radford, thanks in large part to Give Your Heart to Art. Others are French Expressionist painter George Henri Rouault, Spanish Surrealist Salvador Dali and contemporary American artists Tom Huck and Donald Sultan.

Faculty members can request dedicated viewing sessions of a specific piece from the collection by contacting museum officials, who will then display the selection in an environmentally controlled venue for students’ observation.

“None of these works should go in offices or behind closed doors,” Bay said. “I’m a teacher who loves his job, and the fact that our students have a chance to study from original artworks is immeasurable in the sense of what they can learn from it.”

Now that the university has the renovated gallery for exhibitions, the permanent collection can grow, Bay said. “We need more funds to continue to build our collection. We need to keep our eyes and ears open to art works that are available. If we can afford it at the right price, then we should consider such a purchase for the collection.”

Renie Price wears a dress inspired by the work of her dear friend Dorothy Gillespie.

Renie Price wears a dress inspired by the work of her dear friend Dorothy Gillespie.

The first Valentine’s gala
“A great university deserves great art,” said Kathleen Harshberger ‘80, director of advancement for the RU College of Visual and Performing Arts (CVPA), paraphrasing the National Endowment for the Arts’ motto: A great nation deserves great art.

A founding member of the Arts Society, which awards scholarships and for decades has been a CVPA champion, she was instrumental in organizing the first Give Your Heart to Art benefit on Valentine’s Day 2012. “The evening was a tremendous success financially, and it showed that people are willing to pay to come to a wonderful high-end event. It was an extraordinary experience.”

“People have a great chance to get dressed up and go out on Valentine’s, have a wonderful dinner and listen to an interesting speaker,” she said. “The profits allow us to make additions to the art museum’s permanent collection.” Her hope is “to see this art continue to be displayed publicly and permanently so everyone can enjoy it. We deserve it. We are hardly a wilderness here. Just because we’re tucked in the mountains of Southwest Virginia doesn’t mean to say that we’re not number one in the arts.”

Among those stepping forward at the 2012 gala were David and Pegeen “Pogo” Albig, who retired from the RU faculty in 2002. The couple donated two pieces to the permanent collection: American contemporary artist Jasper Johns’ “Summer Blue” and French Expressionist painter Georges Henri Rouault’s “Il Serait Si Doux d’Aimer” (It Would Be Sweet To Love.)

“We were staggered to know how low the prices were for some of these wonderful pieces, so we thought, let’s do it,” Pogo Albig said. “This is something really magnificent for the university.”

The couple are ardent university supporters. In 2003, the Albig Studio in Peters Hall was named in their honor. The couple also established two scholarships for dance students. The Albigs’ art donations were purchased through Jeffrey Hartz, a collector and dealer who has been instrumental in the university’s acquisition of prestigious works through his gallery in the St. Louis area.

RU English Professor Emeritus Myrl Jones and his wife, Lorene, also made a gift. “Radford has given me some really nice opportunities, so it seems right to give back,” Jones said. The couple donated a Georges Henri Rouault lithograph print to the permanent collection.

Jones said he is fascinated by Rouault, for whom the passion of Christ was an artistic theme. His “wish list” for the RU Art Museum in future also includes works from contemporary German artist Anselm Kiefer and French Post-Impressionist Paul Cezanne.

An annual event
Given the success of Give Your Heart to Art, its organizers hope to make it an annual Valentine’s Day celebration, believing, as Dorothy Gillespie did, that fine art belongs in Radford for the enrichment of students and the wider community.

Filmmaker Gerry McCarthy is more accustomed to documenting Gillespie’s story, rather than being part of it, but he jumped at the chance to discuss her legacy at this year’s gala. “I’m usually behind the camera, so to speak,” he said. “I’m more than happy to be a part of this. I had to do it. She’d love it.”