Monday, October 26, 2015

The Development of the Weatherspoon Art Museum: Bridging Art and Education

Elizabeth McIver Weatherspoon
Elizabeth "Lizzie" McIver enrolled at the State Normal and Industrial School at its opening in October 1892. She was the younger sister of the school's founding president Charles Duncan McIver. In fact, one of the drivers that led McIver to advocate for State Normal was the lack of reasonably priced institutions in North Carolina for Lizzie to continue her education after completing studies at Peace Institute in Raleigh (where her brother worked prior to the opening of State Normal). After completing a year at State Normal, Lizzie taught in the Greensboro city schools until 1900, when she marries James R. Weatherspoon of Sanford, NC. When her husband died four years after their marriage, however, she returned to Greensboro and teaching.

She served as a supervisor of the first grade classes at the Curry School, the teaching school on the State Normal campus. Mrs. Weatherspoon's abiding love, however, was art. While at Curry, she taught private classes in art. And, in 1906, she officially joined the State Normal faculty as an art instructor, focusing on art education for elementary school teachers. She was also a charter member and the first president of the art division of the North Carolina Education Association.

Mrs. Weatherspoon was also a strong advocate for the establishment of a Department of Art at State Normal. Finally in 1935, she saw that dream come true, and she was named an associate professor in the new department. Four years later, however, on May 25, 1939, Mrs. Weatherspoon passed away at her home on Tate Street after an extended illness.

The year following Mrs. Weatherspoon's death, the art department moved into its new home in the McIver Memorial Building. A small gallery space was opened in the building, and, in 1941, the gallery was officially named the Elizabeth McIver Weatherspoon Gallery.

One of the early exhibits in the Weatherspoon Art Gallery featured 24 lithograph prints showcasing modern English art. Reflecting Mrs. Weatherspoon's interest in art education for elementary school students as well as the art department's emphasis on the gallery as a teaching space, 10 of the 24 lithographs were specifically chosen because they were to appeal to children.

Weatherspoon Art Gallery space in the McIver Building
For the next 15 years, the Weatherspoon Gallery in the McIver Memorial Building featured a wide array of art from around the world. Exhibits included textiles, furniture, paintings, prints, sculptures, ceramics, and more. A particular emphasis was placed on contemporary art as well as the space as a source for the practice and teaching of art. A donation in 1950 of the million-dollar Cone Collection from sisters Etta and Claribel Cone of Baltimore, served as one of the gallery's earliest and most important acquisitions. This donation included six bronzes by Henri Matisse and over 100 works by Matisse, Picasso, and other modern French artists.

McIver Memorial was closed due to numerous building hazards and issues in 1956. But, the new McIver Building opened in 1960 and featured a special wing specifically constructed for the Weatherspoon Gallery.

The Weatherspoon Gallery continued to grow in its new location, collecting new pieces and building a large audience. In fact, when actor Vincent Price visited UNCG in 1977, his first request in the way of sightseeing was the Weatherspoon Art Gallery. In particular, he wanted to see one of the gallery's most valuable pieces, Willem de Kooning's "Woman," which Price declared to be "an asset to any gallery." He reportedly studied the painting for a full 10 minutes as part of his 90 minute behind-the-scenes gallery tour.

Director Ruth Beesch with de Kooning's "Woman"
By the late 1980s, however, the Weatherspoon Art Gallery had far outgrown its space in the McIver Building. In 1989, the Weatherspoon found its new (and current) home -- the Cone Building, named in honor of Anne Wortham Cone (Class of 1935) and her husband, Benjamin Cone, Sr. The $7.5 million building opened at the corner of Spring Garden and Tate Street and provided the Weatherspoon Art Gallery with nearly five times as much space as they had previously had in the McIver Building. Gallery director Ruth K. Beesch declared, "we've gone from rags to riches."

In 2001, the name of the Weatherspoon Art Gallery was changed to the Weatherspoon Art Museum to more adequately reflect its function and mission as the gallery had grown and expanded in size and scope. Today, the Museum continues to maintain a schedule of more than fifteen exhibitions each year as well as full roster of educational activities, publications, and outreach efforts.

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