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Dr. William Camfield and Dominique de Menil, c. 1970. Courtesy of William Camfield.

A 1.3 mile exodus

In the fall of ’69, the de Menil group came to Rice. I had never planned to stay long in Texas, and had actually almost signed a contract at Brown University. I had bid the de Menils goodbye, and we were about to move to Rhode Island. But unbeknownst to us, there were already difficulties between the de Menils and the University of St. Thomas. They split ways in the spring and summer of ’69, and Rice was interested in picking up the people in the Arts [Department] at St. Thomas…a whole troop of us came over. The de Menils, without pressuring us, just asked if we would stay to help the transition, and Rice did too. We did—and we are still here. Rice had to find places for us, and the de Menils proposed a building that would fit in with the campus in terms of the type of brick work and historical reference and design, etc. But there wasn’t time for that, or people didn’t think there was time for that. So the decision was made to put those two buildings out there: the buildings that now house the Media Center and the Continuing Studies Program.

They were meant to be temporary buildings—yes!—but they are still there. And one of the arguments from a crusty old guy at Rice was, “Goddamn, I remember The University of Texas when they brought in these Quonset huts after WWII, and they were supposed to be temporary, but they are still there, and I won’t stand for this!” They’re not Quonset huts, but…they are corrugated metal, so they are squared-off Quonset huts. But they were very elegant inside, and they are not only still here, but they are highly sought-after spaces. There are people on this [Rice] campus that would kill to have one of those buildings now.

Rice University had…for years James Chillman, who as you know was Director of the Museum of Fine Arts, and a part-time teacher at Rice. He had been here since 1916. He taught history of architecture and other history courses and from time to time Rice had had someone else doing a little academic work in history of art and architecture. But there wasn’t an art department until 1965. Katherine Brown was hired in 1963 at Rice to do some art history courses, and she knew so much more about art history and history of architecture and so forth, that the School of Architecture said, “Hey, keep her!”

The de Menils left St. Thomas a small collection of books and other things, too, but St. Thomas developed a stronger art department in terms of studio art. And Earl Staley had been let go at Rice previously, and he was hired as the Chair at the University of St. Thomas, and built a very lively little department there with Jack Boynton and a classicist who dealt with classical Greek and Roman art—and I believe she is still there.

Academic art in the seventies

The 70s became richer early on, right away. Certainly at Rice, where things changed radically in terms of the arts with the de Menils’ shift—because finally there really was an art department, and since there were five art historians and five artists, it immediately became sort of a balanced department. But it was a complex department, too, which nobody recognized—because in addition to the department per se, the media center, being physically separate, tended to become an entity of its own. Both Winningham and Blue were empire builders out there, so the Media Center was part of the art department technically, but practically it was out there—and they had lots of money and lots of ambition, lots of energy and lots of talent. Then unbeknownst to most people, drama was part of the department.

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Source:  OpenStax, Houston reflections: art in the city, 1950s, 60s and 70s. OpenStax CNX. May 06, 2008 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col10526/1.2
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