A CAMPUS ART COLLECTION and gallery system contributes to the life of a university in many ways. It is a treasury of riches, a repository of knowledge, a source of wonder and inspiration. It is an open window to cultures and times distant from our own, and a signpost directing us to the things we hold in common. Through the objects it places on display, it exposes us to the dramas and complexities of the human condition, and reminds us of the creativity of which all of us are capable. Most of all, it asks us to pause and take a closer look, to sharpen our sights and reflect on the subjects and experiences before us. In the best of cases, it is a gateway to a form of visual learning as formidable and necessary in a university setting as reading or writing.
The idea that the visual arts enrich the university and college experience is about as old as higher education itself. Thomas Jefferson, who founded the University of Virginia, kept an extensive art collection that he made accessible to student and faculty visitors at his Monticello home. The oldest campus art museum in the United States dates to 1832, at Yale University. From early on in American history, art was widely understood to be an integral part of a college education. This view was shared by the founders of Lehigh University when they established the school 150 years ago. The university’s first president, Henry Coppée declared art one of the ‘elementary branches’ of education, as important to undergraduate learning as the study of math, science, history and language. His founding curriculum required all students to study drawing, and offered instruction in painting.
In those early years in Lehigh’s history, the walls of the President’s House were hung with artwork, and Packer Hall (now the University Center) housed a natural sciences museum. By 1926 the university was actively collecting and exhibiting art, ranging from the Old Masters to modern artists such as Gustave Courbet, Pablo Picasso, and later, photographers like Margaret Bourke-White. Preserved over of many generations, works by these and numerous other artists form the core of the Lehigh University Art Galleries collection. They are brought together today in the exhibition Object as Subject: The Lehigh University Art Galleries Teaching Collection, in celebration of the university’s long and extraordinarily rich legacy of teaching and learning through art.
Nicholas Sawicki is the Frank Hook Associate Professor of Art History in the Department of Art/Architecture/Design at Lehigh University. His main area of research is European modernism. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania.
More facts about LUAG
- Lehigh University’s permanent collection dates to 1865 and a museum of chemistry that gained national recognized opened on campus in 1889.
- The first gallery facilities were established in 1935. For much of the collection’s history, the library was its conservator. In the final decades of the 20th Century, the university began to transition from an institution noted primarily for excellence in engineering, business, and education to one which more strongly emphasizes the liberal and fine arts. With that transition eventually came the identification of the Lehigh University Art Galleries as a museum operation. LUAG’s approach to its permanent collection is widely recognized as a model for other institutions of higher learning nationwide.
- A significant milestone in LUAG’s recent history was the opening of the Zoellner Arts Center in 1996. The Zoellner building provides LUAG with two highly visible 2,500 square foot galleries. The Lower Gallery is used for rotating exhibits from the teaching collection as developed by Museum Studies students working with the LUAG curatorial team. The Main Gallery is LUAG’s principal gallery for changing exhibitions designed, prepared, and installed by the curatorial staff.