Multimillion dollar gift jumpstarts new program

Lina Moon|Graphics Editor The above quote was made in a statement by Edith O'Donnell for The Dallas Morning News. She also noted the connections between science and the arts as a main focus in her philanthropic efforts.

Edith O’Donnell donates $17 million to support creation of art history institute

On May 19, Edith O’Donnell donated $17 million to fund the creation of an art history institute on campus.

According to Richard Brettell, distinguished chair of art and aesthetic studies, the endowment will support five new distinguished chairs in art history, 10 simultaneous research graduate fellowships, as well as a programming fund for visiting scholars, symposia and lecture series. 

The donation will double the course offerings in art history as all faculty members will teach both graduate and undergraduate courses, Brettell said. 

 “A lot of people who I know in the art historical community, both in museums and universities, have said it really is a transformational gift,” Brettell said. “It’s a gift that will forever change the way that art history is experienced both in universities and the metropolitan area.”

Brettell will head the institute as its founding director, and plans to hire new faculty and create a physical space for the institute in the Arts and Technology Building have already begun. 

He hopes the institute and its place within the context of UTD’s focus on fusing art, technology and science will inject new vitality into the field of art history. 

“The fact that (O’Donnell) chose UTD is really interesting and adventurous because usually, art history is associated with the humanities rather than with the sciences,” Brettell said. “To have it be in a university which is filled with brilliant people who do independent and collective research in the sciences and technology was something that was the most exciting thing about the university to her.”

Associate professor of aesthetic studies Charissa Terranova expects the institute to play on the strengths of the existing art history program: cartography, art conservation and big data among them. 

The ultimate goal is for the institute to be one of the only art history programs in the American South of Ivy League caliber, Terranova said.

“We don’t want to necessarily repeat what the Ivies have done,” she said. “We want to stay on being in the heartland and in the unique strength of being an important school for science and technology.”

Dean of the School of Arts and Humanities Dennis Kratz said Brettell’s plans for the institute will fit well into the school’s grand plan. 

“The vision for the School of Arts and Humanities is to integrate the arts into the overall vision of the university,” Kratz said. “Obviously, the creation of an internationally renowned art history institute will advance that purpose.”

UTD faculty recently spearheaded a new coalition named the DFW Art History Network, or DFWAHN, that offers a database for art historians and a point of collection for all the research and education in the DFW metroplex.

The institute will act as a physical base for DFWAHN and the art historical community in North Texas, Brettel said. 

Debra DeWitte, a doctoral candidate in aesthetic studies and an adjunct professor, said the institute and the study of art history in general has value for students outside of art history.

“I think the methods we use to study art are really valuable no matter what you’re studying,” DeWitte said. “We use a lot of careful analysis and critical thinking that’s really useful in other fields.”

She hopes the development will bring exposure for the field throughout campus and wants to see funding go towards aiding doctoral students and their research. 

O’Donnell, after whom the Arts and Technology Building was named after, has been a longtime supporter of UTD. The O’Donnell Foundation has donated over $600 million supporting education and science research in the United States since 1984.  

“One of the goals of Edith O’Donnell in giving the money was to recognize the many links between the visual arts, technology and the sciences, which are, of course, so strong at UTD,” Brettell said. “We will be an institute, not a department, of art history within a university that’s directed toward science and technology, engineering and management. Our whole idea of art history will be inflected by our place at UTD.”

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