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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth


The new Baron and Ellin Gordon Art Galleries at Old Dominion University will have their public grand opening at 2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 9. The galleries comprise the Baron and Ellin Gordon Self-Taught Art Collection, whose inaugural exhibit, "Collective Wisdom," features a portion of the Gordons' collection, and the University Gallery, which will display works by members of the ODU art department faculty. Admission is free.

"Collective Wisdom" will continue through the summer of 2008, and the faculty exhibition will be up through Oct. 21.

Located at 4509 Monarch Way in the University Village, the Gordon Galleries are situated between the Stables Theatre and the ODU bookstore and café, currently under construction. The bookstore and café, as well as a nearby Marriott SpringHill Suites hotel, are expected to open in January.

Pioneering folk art collectors Baron and Ellin Gordon, of Williamsburg, Va., announced last year their plans to donate a significant portion of their collection of 20th- and 21st-century American folk art to Old Dominion. Their private collection is counted among the handful of top collections in the world of recent American art by self-trained artists. The Gordons have previously donated pieces to the Museum of American Folk Art in New York and other prestigious institutions, including the Visionary Museum in Baltimore and the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum in Colonial Williamsburg, and have loaned pieces for many groundbreaking exhibitions. In 1997, works from the Gordon collection comprised the first exhibition of 20th-century folk art to be displayed at the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller museum.

The largest art donation ever received by the university, the Gordon collection consists of more than 300 pieces by over 70 artists, including paintings, sculptures, jugs, canes and carvings. Among these are works by artists Howard Finster, Geneva Beavers, Mose Tolliver, Leroy Archuleta, Thornton Dial, Inez Nathaniel Walker, Miles Carpenter, Israel Litwak and many others from across America.

"Thanks to the generosity and vision of Ellin and Baron Gordon, Old Dominion University students and staff and the Hampton Roads community will have the opportunity to learn from and enjoy this unique and diverse genre of art," said ODU President Roseann Runte.

The Gordon Galleries offer an opportunity unique in Southeastern Virginia to see works by contemporary artists from the field variously referred to as self-taught, intuitive, visionary or outsider in regularly scheduled exhibitions. Old Dominion is one of very few academic institutions to feature and focus the identity of its permanent collection on this widely diverse and avidly debated style of contemporary art.

The Gordons' gift is complemented by an equally generous donation of $500,000 from long-time arts advocates and enthusiasts Susan and David Goode of Norfolk. They were recently honored by the Virginia Association of Museums with the Ann Brownson Award, given to those outside the field who best exemplify service to the museum community. Their gift was matched by funds from a university endowment from Landmark Communications founder Frank Batten. These resources will be used to develop academic programming, community outreach and exhibitions.

Gordon Galleries director Katherine Huntoon enjoys the paradox of building academic study around a collection of works by self-taught artists. "This presents stimulating opportunities for pedagogical research and for recontextualizing contemporary art. Internal exploration, process and invention are at the heart of self-discovery," she said. Huntoon underscores the potential for scholarly investigation of the Gordon collection from many perspectives: sociology, anthropology, psychology, African American studies, American history, Southern studies, religion, folklore and women's studies, to name just a few.

Essayist and gallery owner Randall Morris, of Cavin-Morris Gallery in New York City, has focused on self-taught artists for more than 20 years. According to Morris, "There are many worlds represented in the Gordon Collection. We take for granted that we are looking at art, but there are no 'movements' in this art, no 'art about art,' and yet these works participate fully in the experience that is art. They are a form of communication to be perceived and interpreted and in this process evoke the experience that is art. They provide us with profound insights on the human condition. Each of these works convey to us the essence of the culture in which they were produced and the substance of the shared human experience. Within every narrative whimsy, there exists profound meaning, and within the narrowly personal, there are universalizing truths.

"Aside from the sheer visual pleasure these objects provide, there is much more to be considered in the work of self-taught artists. It could be said that the process of what the art historian Esther Pasztory calls 'thinking with things,' or working out ideas through the process of making these objects, is of paramount importance. The artist typically uses the work to convey meaning - in a very personal fashion: preaching, warning, remembering, seducing or protecting. Self-taught artists such as we see in the Gordon Collection concentrate on a dizzying range of messages.

"There is genius here, albeit made by artists who are from non-traditional backgrounds and all walks of life with no connection to the academy, and who express themselves through these amazing objects. Often their work emerges in response to personal tragedies or arises from compelling visions in which they seek better worlds than they face daily. Most of this work would have disappeared had it not been for a cadre of avid collectors with understanding and vision, men and women like Herbert Waide Hemphill Jr., Abby Aldrich Rockefeller and Henry Francis Dupont, whose seminal collections were opened to the public in museums devoted to America's history. A broad variety of objects made by these self-taught artists, enlivened by individual creativity, imbued with a spark of the human spirit, are being shared with a public increasingly attuned to this kind of 'thinking with things.' "

The Gordons' generous gift to Old Dominion University joins these collections in the public domain, to be seen, studied and experienced for years to come.

Barry Moss of Tymoff+Moss Architects designed ODU's Gordon Galleries, guided by American Association Museum standards. The new temperature- and humidity-controlled facility includes a 2,500-square-foot gallery for the permanent exhibition of selections from the Gordon collection, a similar-size University Gallery for changing exhibitions of contemporary art, a reception area and a study area for scholarly research.

For more information about the Baron and Ellin Gordon Art Galleries, visit www.odu.edu/al/art/gallery/calendar.htm or call 757-683-2355.

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