On Friday, May 12, I took my 9-year-old daughter to visit the Rice Gallery one last time before it closed. She has been going to see exhibits there before she was old enough to walk, and later as she got older, marveling at every interactive installation that allowed you to walk through, or even (gasp) touch the work of world-renowned artists. And, long before she was born, as an undergraduate and later as a graduate student on campus, I always found my way to the Rice Gallery. As I often had classes at Rayzor Hall or Sewall Hall, I’d make it a point to take the long way back and peek into the gallery. What truly made the Rice Gallery special was its location in the heart of campus. As such, you were sometimes privy to the artist at work. It was always a thrill to watch a work slowly come to life, as you went about the business of classes and the more mundane aspects of life.
One of those works that I got to see come to life was “Dots Obsession” by Kusama. As everyone in Houston (and later the rest of the U.S.) was tirelessly Instagramming her exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, I was among the lucky that had a memory of first experiencing her work at the Rice Gallery. As a freshman I got to bathe in the yellow light and marvel at a brilliant work that covered every inch of available space in the gallery — in between classes. In the Rice Gallery farewell video made by Walley Films, the blurb reminds us, “For more than 20 years, Rice University Art Gallery has been the only university gallery in the nation devoted to commissioning site-specific installation art.” In a world in which universities are increasingly more concerned with adding lazy rivers and ubiquitous rock walls, the Rice Gallery was truly sui generis.
As my daughter and I were leaving the Sol LeWitt show and the gallery for the last time, I had the chance to chat with two students majoring in visual and dramatic arts. We shared our dismay at the fact that this special space would soon become, of all things, a welcome center for Rice. I don’t doubt the urgent need for a new welcome center (actually I do), but did it seriously need to come at the expense of the only university site-specific installation gallery in the country? The two students lamented the fact that the new Moody Center for the Arts by the stadium, where the gallery is supposedly being “relocated,” lacked a dedicated space for site-specific installations, let alone a space for students to exhibit their work. This concern was echoed by Kelly Klaasmeyer in her article for the Houston Press, in which she states, “One still wonders why university leaders wouldn’t allow a dedicated art space and a cross-disciplinary space to exist simultaneously on campus.” I couldn’t agree more.
Lately, whenever I think of my alma mater, I come back to the words of Maya Angelou: “When people show you who they are, believe them.” What Rice is showing me these days is that it does not care about art. Perhaps Rice University would be well served by being reminded of its own crest: Letters, science, art.
Felisa Vergara Reynolds, PhD
Will Rice ’00, M.A. ’02
Assistant professor of French
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign