Old Artistic Cityscape

Lehigh University Art Galleries Teach and Inspire

Ricardo Viera and his team at the Lehigh University Art Galleries teach and inspire with a world-class art collection that serves as a visual laboratory for the entire campus and surrounding community.

Story by

Kelly Hochbein

Videography by

Stephanie Veto

When Ricardo Viera arrived at Lehigh in 1974, the university’s art collection included around 2,500 pieces. Today, Lehigh University Art Galleries (LUAG), the university’s teaching museum, boasts a collection of more than 14,000 pieces. Viera, a professor of art and director-chief curator of LUAG, has also established a nationally recognized collection of Latino and Latin American photography and video at the museum, thanks to his expansive network of artist relationships.

His passion for art is obvious in both his demeanor and the exhibitions he oversees. But Viera becomes particularly enthusiastic when he speaks about the educational aspect of LUAG’s work.

“We don’t collect objects. We collect ideas,” he says. “We are not here to preach one thing, to interpret things one way. We are here to expose [people] to things that in our judgment have a certain kind of quality.”

Ricardo Viera

Ricardo Viera holds a diploma from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; a BFA from Tufts University; an MFA from Rhode Island School of Design and a Certificate of Museum Management from the University of Colorado Museum, Boulder.

That quality was on display in a recent exhibition titled “The Art of Collecting,” located in four of LUAG’s campus galleries. It featured works by Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, Georges Rouault, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Camille Pissarro, Irina Ionesco, Luis Gonzáles Palma, Joel Meyerowitz, Andy Warhol, and many others, all acquired by the museum between 2011 and 2016.

“[This show demonstrated] the full cycle of donors investing and reinvesting in the collection and the university, and the other end of that cycle is us activating the collection to use with students, to use with groups,” says Mark Wonsidler, curatorial associate for exhibitions and collections. “We see it as kind of an interesting, complete story.”

The LUAG team hopes that exposure to such a wide variety of high-quality art will serve as a launchpad for meaningful thought and conversation among students, faculty, staff and members of the surrounding community.

“The collection is relevant to just about any department on campus,” says Wonsidler. “We’re always trying to get outside the reputation of being decorators, which is not what we’re doing. It’s education, not decoration.”

The Teaching Museum: A Different Kind of Classroom

“We are a teaching museum, we are a teaching collection. That is the focus. And we’ve been doing that for a long time,” says Viera.

Viera teaches his classes, which have included Museum and Curatorial Studies, Photography as Contemporary Art, Visual Thinking Strategies, and Latino: Visual Art and Culture in the USA, right in the museum. In the museum studies concentration, Viera instructs students on the conceptual framework of a museum and how it functions, and students then work with LUAG staff to complete practicums behind the scenes.

“They learn to be junior art handlers,” says Wonsidler.

Faculty from departments across the university, from art history to psychology to creative writing, hold classes in the galleries or send students to visit the exhibits to learn, reflect or be inspired.

Susan Kart, assistant professor of art and Africana Studies, uses the museum as an important resource for her courses. For the introductory surveys of the history of art, she has students complete a traditional “formal analysis”: Each student visits the galleries and selects a work of art, studies its visual elements and discusses the meaning of those elements for the work of art. Kart also has asked students in these courses to find an object in one of the LUAG galleries that does not have a descriptive wall label. Students must then research the artist, work of art, time period and any other relevant data to write a descriptive wall label for the piece. Kart submits these descriptions to the LUAG curatorial staff for use in future exhibitions as they see fit.

For courses of all levels, Kart requires students to use works in the LUAG galleries to form the basis of their research papers. She shares the papers, when appropriate, with LUAG staff, and student writings, including one on Khaled Hafez and another on Cloud by Luis Cruz-Azaceta, have been featured on the LUAG art blog.

“I am an art historian,” says Kart. “It is nearly impossible to teach art history without direct access to art objects. I can only convey so much with digital images. When it comes to understanding the weave of a Japanese textile, the texture of an Impressionist painter's impasto, or the size of a miniature bronze from the ancient Etruscan culture, this can only happen in the presence of the original object. Thankfully, all of the examples I just cited are available at LUAG.”

Access to the galleries, says Kart, is easy for students, and the staff and volunteers are extremely helpful. If a work isn’t on view, LUAG staff will arrange for students to see it, either in the galleries or at the university’s storage facility.

… Having LUAG on campus is a tremendous help, because it means that students can see original works without having to travel.

Susan Kart

“… Having LUAG on campus is a tremendous help, because it means that students can see original works without having to travel,” says Kart. “They can experience them in a true museum setting, and if they are lucky, they receive an additional education from a docent, volunteer, and sometimes from LUAG director Ricardo Viera himself as he passes through the gallery. It is an amazing resource.”

Stephanie Powell Watts, associate professor of English, uses the gallery as an inspiration and prompt for her writing students. With her introductory fiction writing class, for example, Watts had students tour the gallery and choose a piece that in some way spoke to them. They then had to translate the emotional response they had to the piece into a vignette that might eventually become a scene in a story.

The Lehigh University Art Galleries (LUAG) maintains and develops the university’s world-class art collection of over 14,000 objects, presenting exhibitions in galleries located throughout Lehigh’s three campuses.

“It was really interesting what they came up with,” she says. “One student found a realistic representation of New York and he recognized where his grandparents would have lived in their young adulthood. He wrote this beautiful, moving piece about the everyday lives of his young grandparents. It was emotional and used the baseline of that feeling, but it pushed beyond the emotional response and became the nugget of a narrative. When we are able to put those kinds of mediums together, we can often get something that’s surprising and possibly transformative.”

Watts notes the “conversations the arts have with each other”: “Sometimes we think about that intuitively, but to experience it is another thing. And so to see where you’re having this sort of feeling, and because we’re writers we’re translating it onto a page, but how did other artists have that same kind of emotional reaction and how did they translate it? It’s one thing to feel that, and it’s another to kind of know it and it’s another thing to experience it.”

An Invaluable, Hands-on Museum Experience

Matthew Fainor ’20, an IDEAS major focusing on biomaterials engineering and design, was already interested in art when he arrived at Lehigh and enrolled in one of Kart’s courses during his first semester.

Matisse piece (the face)

Henri Matisse
French, 1869 - 1954
Tête de Femme, 1952
Brush / Ink on Paper
Gift of the Gary M. Bloom Estate in Memory of G. William Wolfston '43
LUG 2016 1105

“I knew the gallery was here but I hadn’t gotten the chance to come over,” says Fainor, an artist in his own right—he’s a traditionally trained metalsmith and jeweler.

Fainor visited the gallery to complete his formal analysis assignment for Kart. He noticed the opportunity to volunteer at LUAG and contacted Patricia McAndrew, coordinator of visitor services and museum education. Now Fainor greets gallery visitors every Thursday evening, assists with special events and helps with data entry for collections management on the Mountaintop campus every Tuesday morning.

“[The job involves] getting to handle a lot of works up close, inspecting the markings on them, putting that into the system. All of that’s been really awesome. Especially when you have a whole box full of one artist and you can just see all of their work in one place, inspect it all… It’s really quite awesome,” he says.

Fainor appreciates the exchanges he has with others at LUAG. He’s had substantive conversations with exhibiting artists and lecturers, which he says is an amazing opportunity available to students at a university with an on-campus gallery. Visitors, too, provide valuable opportunities for interaction.

“It’s really nice when people have questions to ask and they’re really engaged. That’s probably been the most formative part of the whole experience: getting to engage with visitors and answering their questions and having an open discussion with them about what’s on view.”

Jonathan Kriney ’20 , an IDEAS major studying a combination of math, architecture and computer science, ventured into the museum for the first time early this past spring, talked with McAndrew and began volunteering at LUAG on Saturday mornings.

“I’ve always really liked museums,” says Kriney. “I’ve always been kind of interested in art, and one of my biggest problems with museums is that you can never spend enough time in them. I never feel like I’m giving the art the attention it deserves.”

I’ve always been kind of interested in art, and one of my biggest problems with museums is that you can never spend enough time in them.

Jonathan Kriney '20

His volunteer position, he says, gives him several hours each week to do just that. So far, he says, he’s learned about Latin American art from the “Of the Americas” exhibit and through conversations with Viera, and, through interactions with the curators, he’s discovered how museums work.

“It’s really interesting,” Kriney says. “I get to talk with them about how they chose the color for the wall or how they chose the design for [the] “Art of Collecting” exhibit, which was really cool.”

Kriney wishes more people on campus knew about the gallery and its contributions to the larger community.

“In my opinion, this is one of the coolest things at the university,” he says.

Art and ESL: ‘The Ultimate Teaching Tool’

Detail of Space Fruit: Still-Lifes (Apples)

Andy Warhol
American, 1928-1987
Detail of Space Fruit: Still-Lifes (Apples), 1979
Silkscreen, Extra / Out of the edition
Gift of and © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.
Designated for research and educational purposes only.
LUG 2014 1027

LUAG has worked with Lehigh’s English as a Second Language (ESL) program for the past several years. In 2011, Mary Newbegin, an ESL instructor, was attending an event at the gallery and met Viera and McAndrew. Newbegin was teaching a writing class in the intensive English program at the time and saw the galleries as an opportunity.

“I see art as a bridge between the first and second language,” she says. “You have a reaction to art on a soul level. … If you’re talking about a multi-sensory approach to teaching English, what you have [at LUAG] is an involvement of all the senses. You’re seeing, you’re discussing, you’re evaluating. There’s a lot of higher-order thinking that happens: analysis, evaluation, comprehension… natural extensions to language learning and writing.”

“Art [makes]the perfect jumping-off place for conversation because it’s neutral territory,” says McAndrew. “You can have your opinion. It may not be right or wrong, but it’s a way of getting people to talk in the language they're going to learn. And then they have to write about it. … It’s the ultimate teaching tool.”

Newbegin once taught an intensive English program comprised of male students from Iraq. The group met artist Khalil Allaik, LUAG’s preparator, who took them on a sculpture tour. The students, Newbegin says, “come back and tell me that not only did they feel that it really enriched and enhanced the quality of the writing they were trying to accomplish at the time, but it's something that they’ll remember in 10 years, 15 years.”

LUAG, says Newbegin, is a place for everyone: “Everybody belongs, everybody’s allowed to come and appreciate what we have here. … For every single discipline that’s offered at Lehigh, there’s a connection to the art gallery.”

Alternative Experiences: The Accessible Art Initiative

The 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) brought about a new dimension to Lehigh’s art galleries. McAndrew and the team began exploring how they might provide access to visitors with visual impairments and other disabilities through audio descriptions and tactile diagrams. The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York invited the team to participate in a tour they offer for blind visitors. They spent some time in the MOMA staff lounge and discussed different approaches to accessibility with the staff there.

“They said [Lehigh is] ahead of where some of the big museums are because we’re small,” recalls McAndrew. “They have the staff, but too much to do. We have a team of volunteer audio describers [to get it done].”

This team of volunteers—which has included McAndrew, Newbegin, Delia Chatlani, Diane DeBaune, Jane Desnouée, Linda Ganus, Vince Gentilcore, Laura Fay, Barbara Kozero, and Denise Stangl—has been trained to look at a piece of art, analyze it and describe what they see in writing. Steve Lichak of Lehigh’s Digital Media Studio records the reading of the descriptions, and LUAG makes them available via a “guide-by-cell” program. Visitors simply call a special phone number using a mobile phone to hear information about a particular piece.

A Space for Reflection, Opportunities for Growth

“We live in this visual culture,” says Wonsidler. “We’re being bombarded with images through our phones, through television, media, billboard, in every direction. But we have a remarkably visually illiterate culture in a certain way. We’re kind of swimming in it, but we don’t always know what to do with it. The museum creates a space of reflection where people can come and look at some really good examples of people thinking really hard about images and what they do and how they function in culture and feeling.”

The amazing thing about art, says Viera, is that there are many different ways of looking at it.

“You just need a point of entry,” says McAndrew. “It’s a way of connecting you with the whole history of humanity.”

Augustine Ripa, professor of theatre, has provided his voice for a number of recordings.

“I was happy to serve as a voice for the accessible art project,” says Ripa. “I'm a theatre person. When acting, we teach a process that begins with an image—a picture in one's imagination. We then let that image move us; we react to it. Only then do we express the text vocally. Acting, not reciting. It was fascinating to use this very technique with the paintings and photographs in question. Vivid images, emotional response, and only then—speech.”

Many fully sighted visitors take advantage of the audio recordings as well. McAndrew says that one visitor told her that before hearing the recordings, “I looked, but I never really saw.”

“This is helping them to see,” she says.

LUAG’s efforts are also helping visitors to feel—quite literally.

In 2015, Brian Slocum, managing director of Lehigh’s Design Labs and Wilbur Powerhouse Prototyping Lab, worked with art, architecture and design students in his 3-D Design Foundations class to create tactile 3-D representations of several artworks in LUAG’s “Of the Americas” and “Object as Subject” exhibits. Those works are now used as part of an accessible art tour.

You just need a point of entry ... It’s a way of connecting you with the whole history of humanity.

Patricia McAndrew

Wonsidler agrees: “The museum is a space where several people can stand in front of the same artwork and talk about it. The stakes are different than they would be arguing in a political science course or something like that. There’s a possibility of coming together in a certain way to learn how to talk about something you’re seeing and feeling. That can build bridges between people who are trying to understand. Every object is a jumping-off point into a world, into a conversation, into a philosophy.”

Art is an opportunity to provide students with a rich learning experience, says Lehigh trustee Anne Kline, chair of the cultural affairs subcommittee.

"The university's remarkable collection, and our distinctive efforts to use it in a teaching capacity, allow us to raise awareness of the Arts one painting, one photo, or one sculpture at a time," Kline says.

Viera likens their work to that of a nutritionist, fully aware that not all art is for everyone, but that the experience has great value.

“It’s up to you. If you like rice, you like rice. If you don’t, you don’t. There are people who like abstract art, there are people who don’t. There are people who grow and learn to love it. Basically we do something that we have a passion for. Not everyone shares our enthusiasm. Therefore, we welcome those who have passion, but [for] those who don’t, we try to expose them to the finest, to the best, to the most nutritious kind of art that we can find. And that is what we do here.”

shorter version of this story originally appeared in the 2017 Lehigh Research Review.

Story by

Kelly Hochbein

Videography by

Stephanie Veto