Art For Everyone’s Sake

Miami University campaign reaffirms art’s importance


iami University’s New Year’s resolution came in August, when it declared the 2011-2012 term the “Year of the Arts.” That’s good news for the rest of us making resolutions in January. Part II of Out of the Shadows: The Rise of Women in Art, opening Tuesday at the Miami University Art Museum, is an opportunity to reaffirm the importance of art in education, increase our appreciation of female artists and discover a first-rate venue outside of Cincinnati but close enough for a quick visit.

“Miami’s image is that of a big business school, but arts have always been part of the community and the conversation,” says James Lentini, dean of the School of Fine Arts, which has 1,100 students. 

As universities nationwide cut budgets, the timing is right to celebrate the arts as key in any curriculum, he believes. Lentini says that when he made his pitch, “Our president, within a minute of the conversation, was saying, ‘That’s a cool idea. What do we have to do?’ ”  

President David Hodge’s encouragement is a shift from the climate at Brandeis University, where in 2009 trustees proposed selling off the holdings of Rose Art Museum. (The plan was dropped after a lawsuit.) His support is also a switch from Miami’s attitude in the mid-1970s, when a proposal by university vice president John Dolibois for an art museum was met with indifference and hostility. The Miami grad and former ambassador to Luxembourg humorously recounts his struggle in his book Pattern of Circles. 

Cincinnati decorator Walter Farmer told Dolibois he’d donate his collection to his alma mater on the condition there be a museum to display it. But Miami’s then-provost wrote, “Museum-like activities have only indirect and rather small spill-over benefits to the classroom and to our major enterprise of educating students. … We must not divert dollars.” If Dolibois wanted a museum, it was up to him to find financing.

At the same time, Miami alum Fred Yager was prepared to bequeath part of his estate for a football stadium. But in a midnight meeting, an agitated Yager told Dolibois he was leaving his money for an art museum instead. Fearing he’d be run out of Oxford if Yager went through with the change, Dolibois by morning convinced the donor he could support both the stadium and the museum. 

Completed in 1978, the museum was designed by Walter Netsch of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, the architect behind the soaring Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel in Colorado Springs. The building is laid out in a row of five galleries varying in size according to Netsch’s Field Theory combining triangles and squares.  

The building’s modern lines, limestone and location on the edge of Miami’s grounds set it apart, aesthetically and physically, from the predominantly Georgian, red-brick campus. It’s up to curator Jason Shaiman to attract audiences by developing exhibits that present the 16,000-piece collection as “part of the university — not art for art’s sake.”  

With Out of the Shadows, Shaiman has highlighted connections to other disciplines at the university, the Oxford community and Cincinnati, too.

Shaiman, who arrived last summer from the McKissick Museum at the University of South Carolina, says that as a student he was struck by how little attention was paid to the history of women in art. Part II of the exhibit begins with a survey of female photographers, including Dorothea Lange and Doris Ulmann (Depression era), Margaret Bourke-White (World War II) and contemporary artist Carrie Mae Weems (African-American issues).  

Another gallery is devoted to textiles from around the world. Shaiman sees an opportunity here to talk to business students about the economics of textile production and the effect of the Industrial Revolution. For a local connection, he has included an antique “crazy quilt” with more than 100 names from a church in Seven Mile, a Butler County village. 

“People love to see these names and say, ‘That’s my family,’ ” he says.  

A gallery of decorative pieces will include discussion of how “we can’t apply the same gender definitions across all art forms,” Shaiman says. For example, in Native American culture, women traditionally are the potters, but in Appalachia, it’s the men. 

“I love to look at the social constructs of art,” Shaiman says. “We need to understand when, why, who and for what market it was created.”

Part I of the exhibition studied the transition of women from subjects of art to creators, first through landscape paintings and later abstract pieces free of societal constraints. We see “the glass ceiling permeating well into the art world, not just business,” Shaiman observes. “Can male artists be trusted to represent females physically and emotionally?”

Shaiman gives early credit for the rise of women in art to the Cincinnati Art Academy and painter/teacher Frank Duveneck, who was an advocate for women. His student Dixie Selden was among artists with local ties included in Part I, along with Annette Covington, who attended Western College for Women (now part of Miami). Anna VanMatre, who explores environmental issues, was among those representing today’s artists in Cincinnati.

Midway through the “Year of the Arts,” the university sees results. Performances are well-attended and Lentini says applications to the School of Fine Arts are up 26 percent. The goal, he says, is to shine a light on the 200 arts events scheduled for 

2011-2012 “and say, ‘Guess what? This happens every year.’ ”


OUT OF THE SHADOWS: THE RISE OF WOMEN IN ART, PART II is on view Jan. 10-May 12 at the Miami University Art Museum (801 S. Patterson Ave., Oxford). For more info, visit .