Arts & Humanities

Spirit Impact: Art For A&M’s Sake

From their sanctuaries in the Memorial Student Center, the Forsyth and Stark Galleries beckon passersby to experience the world of art.
By Monika Blackwell, Texas A&M Foundation April 21, 2015

art gallery
The University Art Galleries are uncluttered, serene spaces with high ceilings, white walls and the footstep echoes characteristic of museums.

(Texas A&M Art Galleries)

From their sanctuaries in the Memorial Student Center, the Forsyth and Stark Galleries beckon passersby to experience the world of art.

When most people think of crowd control, they likely picture unruly masses and perhaps even riot police. For Heather Ann Bennett, crowd control means something entirely different—for her it’s a cart filled with practically priceless artifacts, a pair of purple nitrile gloves, and an ability to tell students walking through the Memorial Student Center (MSC) to look out.

“I always make sure we move pieces using the buddy system—one person to push the cart and another to tell students to watch where they’re going,” said Bennett, the collections manager for Texas A&M’s Forsyth Galleries. “Most students are pretty good about paying attention to us, though.”

The cart—protected like a presidential motorcade—is on its way to “the vault,” a climate-controlled repository locked by fingerprint scanners and filled with various kinds of art. This space holds items from the permanent collection of the University Art Galleries when they are not displayed in either of Texas A&M’s main galleries, the J. Wayne Stark Galleries or Forsyth Galleries. In fact, only 10 percent of the collection is exhibited at a time, a setup that gives the objects a “rest period” in a controlled environment between exhibitions.

When not on a mission to transport pieces to their safe haven, Bennett handles pest monitoring and disaster planning—“We do have a panic button,” she emphasized—and keeps the exhibits clean.

She is part of an eight-person team that works full-time to curate exhibits, plan educational programming, photograph and measure objects, handle security, preserve artwork and increase foot traffic within the galleries. And while the galleries run like well-oiled machines, the latter of these initiatives has required extra effort in the last couple of years.

During the MSC renovation, the Stark Galleries were shut down for three years, and the Forsyth Gal­leries moved to a temporary location in Downtown Bryan. Because of these changes, the number of gallery visitors dropped from roughly 45,000 visitors annually to less than half that. Now, both spaces are back within the MSC, along with added signage to encourage students to pay them a visit.

Cathy Hastedt, director of the University Art Galleries Department, is focused on re-establishing the galleries, not only for the program’s sake but also for the benefit of Texas A&M students. “You can learn a lot just by walking around the art galleries and enjoying what you see,” she said. “By not coming in, students are missing out on that opportunity.”

Many students pass by the spaces without realizing the treasure trove they contain. But thanks to a team effort, that trend is slowly reversing. For Thomas Trinkl ’16, a sport management study abroad student from Austria, a happenstance stroll into the Stark Galleries one evening allowed him to discover some artwork from his native country. “I walked by a couple of times before, and thought I might as well stop by since I had a half hour to spend,” said Trinkl. “Coming from Europe and having visited art galleries there I have an appreciation for art, so it was nice to stop by and see what Texas A&M has to offer. There’s some beautiful art here.”

Napping Permitted

The University Art Galleries are uncluttered, serene spaces with high ceilings, white walls and the footstep echoes characteristic of museums. “We don’t even mind if students use the benches within the space to nap,” said Lynn McDaniel, communications specialist for the University Art Galleries. “It’s perfectly fine if people want to come here just to recharge their batteries.”

But even though napping is permitted, the gleaming glass and deliberate brushstrokes that fill the gal­leries are better appreciated with open eyes.

Forsyth galleries
Forsyth Galleries permanent collection.

(Texas A&M Art Galleries)

In the Forsyth Galleries, visitors can observe the delicate precision of English Cameo and Steuben glass—one of the world’s leading collections of such decorative art. They can take in brightly colored Tiffany vases and explore 19th and 20th century American paintings.

Established in 1989 through an endowment by Irma and Bill Runyon ’35, the Forsyth Galleries house the Runyon’s personal collection of art, a cache that consists of approximately 1,500 pieces. The gallery rotates its display of objects three times annually, and the space also hosts traveling exhibitions. A recent exhibition, “In Company with Angels,” displayed a collection of seven opalescent Tiffany stained glass windows depicting divine messengers. The current exhibition, “Winslow Homer and the American Pic­torial Press,” explores the work of the 19th century American landscape painter and printmaker known for his dramatic seascapes.

Downstairs from the Forsyth Galleries are the J. Wayne Stark Galleries. Here visitors will find works by Texas artists (also part of the university’s permanent collection) and traveling exhibitions ranging from traditional fine arts and crafts to history, anthropology and science.

J. Wayne Stark ’39, the founding director of the MSC, began the art collection. Exhibitions typically change within its two rotating gallery spaces every six to eight weeks, and a third gallery space within Stark displays items from the permanent collection.

In fall 2014, the galleries featured “Inspired by Nature: Graphic Design in the Art Nouveau Period,” works from the private collection of John and Cindy Delulio of Calvert, Texas. This spring, both the Stark and Forsyth Galleries are showing contemporary and historic representations of Native Americans in art as well as art by Native Americans in respective exhibitions. Previous exhibits have included Fabergé pieces and works by Edgar Degas.

The Stark Galleries are funded through the University Advancement Fee and bookstore funds. In addition, two internal galleries within Stark are named in honor of donors who made significant gifts to support the arts.

Believing that Texas A&M needed an art gallery to develop more well-rounded students, Sara and John H. Lindsey ’44 of Houston provided seed money to build the Stark Galleries. As a result, one of the gallery spaces within Stark is the Lindsey Gallery.

A second gallery space within the Stark Galleries is named for Mary and James B. Crawley ’47 of Norman, Oklahoma. Avid supporters of the arts at Texas A&M, the Crawleys created a preservation and maintenance fund for the art collections within the MSC.

Even with supporters like the Crawleys and the Lindseys, the staff still has aspirations for the galleries that will require additional outside partnerships. “We would adore having an acquisition fund to fill in the collection with pieces we don’t have and to help us with our educational mission,” said Hastedt, whose team is developing a plan to determine which artistic milieus could use enhancing.

“We’ve had times in the past where we couldn’t move fast enough to acquire a piece, and it was sold to another buyer,” added Amanda Dyer, assistant director of the galleries.

Additional support would also help the galleries host more educational workshops, store additional artwork, support an endowed curatorship, or invite other traveling exhibitions, which can be especially expensive due to the costs associated with transporting fragile artworks cross-country.

“I’ve had to pinch myself because I’m surrounded at work by so many amazing pieces of art, but we’re always interested in bringing in exhibitions that dovetail with our permanent collection to show how our pieces fit in the bigger scope of the art world,” said Dyer.

Art Is Not Boring

Because the galleries are located centrally on campus, they are in a prime location for classes and study groups to convene. Drawing and performance studies classes have used the galleries for interpretive work, literature classes have gathered there for inspiration, and floral design groups have used them to display their own creations.

The spaces are flexible not only in terms of the audiences to whom they cater but also in how they can be navigated. Viewers are invited to explore the open rooms any way they like—as McDaniel emphasized, “There’s no right or wrong way to go through a museum.” And they are welcome to experience a range of emotions, from inspiration to consternation.

Two springs ago, the Stark Galleries hosted the photography exhibition “The Absolute Truth and Nothing but Lies,” which juxtaposed the work of a documentary photographer with a Hollywood studio photographer. While the one artist’s images were very raw—a man on an autopsy table, for instance—the other’s were posed and highly stylized—a transvestite in full drag and a smoldering, Photoshopped celebrity. Needless to say, the pairings garnered attention.

“Art is not boring, and if it doesn’t make you think, it’s not doing its job,” said Hastedt. “Good art should stimulate conversation. Even if it’s, ‘I don’t get it,’ or, ‘My 3-year-old could do that!’ That’s a starting point.”

This article by Monika Blackwell originally appeared in Spirit Magazine.

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