A Lasting Legacy
January 23, 2018 | By Tim Pratt
On a recent afternoon, Kelsey Cumiskey (A19) stood in the Mitchell Gallery at St. John’s College as visitors peered intently at the art around her.
Pieces from renowned printmaker Stanley William Hayter hung on the walls, offering a peek into the world of some of the 20th century’s greatest artists.
For Cumiskey and other students, the Mitchell Gallery—and the artistic and educational resources it provides—is a valuable part of campus life. The gallery offers world-class art exhibitions, lectures, workshops and more.
“I think it really goes hand-in-hand with the curriculum,” says Sila Karabiber (A20). “It’s really important to me, and I’m sure to other members of this community, to be able to interact with great art while reading great books. This place (the gallery) really is a sign of how we take discussions beyond classroom walls.”
The Mitchell Gallery has enriched the lives of students and community members for nearly 30 years, thanks in part to the efforts of Eugene V. Thaw (Class of 1947). Thaw, an accomplished art collector and dealer who led efforts to establish the gallery in the late 1980s, died January 3 at the age of 90. Yet, his legacy will live on through the gallery.
“Here (at St. John’s), we investigate human nature and order and elements of the soul,” Karabiber says. “It would be lacking if we didn’t have access to art like this.”
The gallery attracts more than 12,000 visitors a year. While much of the year the gallery displays exhibitions featuring some of the world’s most influential artists—pieces by Rembrandt, Matisse, Miro and Andy Warhol, among others, have adorned the walls—it also exhibits student work at the end of each academic year.
Cumiskey, a member of the sailing team, says the presence of the gallery factored into her decision to attend St. John’s. She had a strong interest in art, but wanted to study the great books, too.
“I remember it standing out when narrowing down which college to go to,” she says. “I remember thinking, ‘That’s really cool.’”
The college’s first semblance of an art gallery opened in the 1970s, more than a decade before the Mitchell Gallery, says tutor emeritus Tom May. The former gallery, located in what is now a laboratory classroom in Mellon Hall, was formed largely due to the efforts of then-Dean Curtis Wilson and the college’s artist-in-residence, May says.
“It was a classic, small art gallery, but I was amazed by the quality of the shows that came,” May says.
In the late 1980s, Elizabeth Myers Mitchell, an art collector, philanthropist and member of the Board of Visitors and Governors, donated money to St. John’s to build a gallery. May, director of the Graduate Institute at the time, sat on the college’s finance committee and recalls the discussions.
Former Vice President of Development Jeff Bishop was an avid supporter of the project, May says. The gallery would attract visitors to campus, build relations within the city’s art community and give the college valuable exposure.
Then came Thaw.
Thaw first came to St. John’s as a 15-year-old freshman in 1943. His interest in art developed during his formative years in New York.
After Thaw arrived in Annapolis, his interest in art grew, and he began taking trips to museums and galleries in Washington, D.C.
Thaw returned to New York after graduating from St. John’s and, within a few years, opened his own gallery and bookstore above the Oak Room in the Algonquin Hotel. It was the first step in a long and prosperous career.
In 1988, as the college discussed plans to build what would become the Mitchell Gallery, Thaw offered to help. He soon arrived on campus with two prominent museum figures, one from the National Gallery of Art and one from the Cleveland Museum of Art.
“He was very passionate and very interested in what the college was doing,” May recalls.
The group worked with the college and provided valuable guidance throughout the Mitchell Gallery planning and building process, May says.
May reconnected with Thaw in the fall of 2016, when Thaw won an Alumni Association Award of Merit. May recalls speaking with him about how the arts have “thrived” at St. John’s in the years since the Mitchell Gallery opened.
The pair reunited in 2017 when part of Thaw’s collection, called “The Lure of Nature: Landscape Drawings from the Thaw Collection,” was displayed in the Mitchell Gallery. Thaw and his wife, Clare Eddy Thaw, had an extensive collection of drawings, paintings and artifacts that are now shared with a number of institutions, including more than 400 drawings with the Morgan Library and Museum in New York.
May calls Thaw “a most impressive man in the breadth of his interests and knowledge of art and history, and in his dedication to the institutions he had known and helped.”
The Thaws established the Eugene V. and Clare E. Thaw Charitable Trust to support their shared appreciation of the arts, the environment and animal rights. They also were active in the Santa Fe art scene. The couple lived in New Mexico for more than 20 years and compiled an extensive collection of Native American art. Clare died last year.
The Mitchell Gallery today continues to thrive under longtime director Hydee Schaller and art educator Lucinda Edinberg. The pair met Thaw last year when “The Lure of Nature” was on display. They describe Thaw as intelligent, sensible and pragmatic. He also was creative and ambitious.
“He was a visionary,” Schaller says.
For Ethan Pellegrin (A19), the result of Thaw’s vision has helped him develop a greater appreciation of art, including a strong interest in photography. He also enjoys the workshops, talks and other educational events offered by the Mitchell Gallery.
“One of the big reasons I came to St. John’s was the intimacy between the students and the tutors, and that’s replicated in the workshops here,” Pellegrin says. “You’re able to get a lot of value out of the workshops you’re in, whether it’s clay or painting or photography. I like how with a lot of the things St. John’s does as a school, the Mitchell Gallery is kind of a replication of that.”
Nationally accredited by the American Alliance of Museums, the Mitchell Gallery draws more than 12,000 visitors each year to view its diverse, museum-quality exhibitions and participate in its numerous programs, including lively opening receptions, insightful lectures and discussions with curators and collectors, creative workshops, and much more. The gallery’s modern design won a Citation of Merit from the American Institute of Architects.