Thomas Haas Interview
Transcript of July 7, 2015 President Thomas J. Haas Interview
By Mary Isca Pirkola
Art at Grand Valley
What first impression did you have about art at Grand Valley State University when you became president in 2006?
I love this place. The Gordons have done such a great job in supporting our mission at Grand Valley to shape students’ lives, professions and society. By providing artwork, whether the Alten collection or through the other art that we have, we are really fulfilling our mission. I want to start out by saying that what we have here at the university is a gallery of a whole. I know credit is due to President Emeritus Don Lubbers who had the notion that art would create the environment that students in the liberal arts studies would not just appreciate, but maybe tweak their imagination a little bit. I think that vision now has been realized and continues to evolve at the same time. We have many pieces of art throughout the entire university, displayed in their original format, and that now in my tenth year, I have not seen nor heard students doing anything but appreciating the art around them. I think it’s a blessing really to have the art that we have, displaying it appropriately and moving it around and fulfilling our mission.
Do you think this is typical of a university campus, or unique?
Absolutely unique. I’ve been on a number of campuses, sometimes visiting or in working on accreditation, over the past couple of decades – just to give a story: we had some original art of the former presidents at my former institution and I wanted to display them in an atrium that we created, and the curator, so to speak, said, “Well, we can digitize them and put up the digital versions of them and then we’ll store the originals.” I said, “No, that really doesn’t reflect well. We need to show the originals and have the students understand that they need to learn to respect their environment.” And that’s a value that we have here, that students really respect their learning environment in so many ways. Just go around the campus, you get that feel. So, it’s very unique that we have demonstrated our desire to create this learning environment so that students can succeed, and the art provides that opportunity.
George and Barbara Gordon
In 1999, prior to your arrival at Grand Valley, George and Barbara Gordon gifted 36 Mathias Alten paintings from their private collection to Grand Valley which, in appreciation, established a gallery in their names devoted exclusively to works by this important Grand Rapids artist. How has their initial and subsequent gifts influenced other donors?
I think the nature of Grand Rapids and West Michigan is to be philanthropic. Barbara and George are sharing their treasures. We say “time, talent and treasures,” and they are sharing their treasures. That gift, and subsequent gifts through the years, is really a demonstration of their values, and in a way, sharing a passion. George loves to obtain Altens, and Barbara in turn, supporting him and wanting to display them in their home, and also at the university and the gallery has greatly expanded since my time here. We had a gallery on the first floor of the DeVos Center, which was very elegant. Then, we and he decided that we needed to expand it, and with that, we were able to create I think a gallery of a whole. From one room, really, we have created different spaces on the first floor and the second floor of the DeVos Center and making it available to the public and making it a sub-gallery, if you will, of the university as a whole. It’s great. I think it’s one of my favorite places to meet. It’s intimate and special on the first floor. I do that a number of times with very special visitors. There I can demonstrate the very special values and mission of the university. Barbara and George have enabled us then, with their passion and their sharing the Altens with us. I think at the end of the day, what we have here is something not just unique but truly, as my granddaughter would say, “Awesome.”
Can you speak about how the Gordons’ actions have influenced donations by others, particularly Alten family members?
I’m a chemist, and chemists love to use catalysts to enable reactions to go forward. Here we have George and Barbara Gordon as catalysts in a way with their gift and subsequent gifts and then demonstrating here at the university that we have a value to display them in a very elegant and professional manner, for the students and others coming from the community. And then others have bought into that notion, that they can share some of their treasures as well, creating even more of an ambience of quality and of great value to our students and to others. I think indeed that they have been those catalysts to others behind that movement of others, demonstrating their confidence in Grand Valley that we will do it right.
How have the financial support and gifts of Alten paintings from the Gordons advanced the educational goals of the university?
When I think about the art we have here, thousands of pieces in 2-D and 3-D, all of those pieces of art, first, create the environment that we want here. We are strong in our resolve that a liberal education and the creativity that comes from that focus, will enable student success. That same type of creativity is also found in our professional programs as well. So I think, again, that the art enables that creative thinking that positions our students well for success here, but more importantly when they graduate from here.
And so the art as a whole really creates that environment that I think is so important. And as we look around, the nature of all the different pieces of art we have here, I see students stopping, reflecting. Now, as we come into the digital age, we have all of the art becoming available through the electronic means, one can take this art now to the rest of the world because of what we have done here. So when you think about the Gordons and others who are contributing to our galleries as a whole, we are taking that locality and making it globally accessible.
Discuss the importance of the long term relationship between the Gordons and Grand Valley and the “legacy of giving” that has been established.
George and Barbara, I have found, are very generous. They are generous in their artwork, but also generous with spirit. I love that whenever I’ve interacted with the Gordons these past nine years, at social events, with the opportunities of sharing some stories. George and I hit it off on the golf course, going back nine years ago. Again, generous of spirit. We’d go out there and we still have memories of individual golf shots along the way. So much so, that he understands how I really like the game, and the people I play with more than the game, and generosity of spirit again, he shared two of his original photographs of golf courses here in northern Michigan. I have them in two places. The first one he gave me, a beautiful photo depicting a golf course in the fall, I have in the three season porch at the President’s Residence. Then he said, “I have another one, I think you’d love it.” I said, “If it’s as good as this one, then I would.” Again, generosity of spirit, I have that one now displayed at my cottage, not too far from where the photo was taken, actually, prominently displayed in our family room at the cottage. That spirit of generosity, both George and Barbara have it, from a golf course connection that we have through understanding that game, and through the support of the university.
There’s another part to that I’d like to share as well. George is a veteran. He and I have that type of camaraderie as well because of our service. We always proudly wear our flags on our lapel and here again, the generosity of spirit is clear as well. And the third part, George is always looking ahead. He may be moving on in years, as we all do, but boy is he ever continuing to look ahead, and that to me is a gift.
Mathias Alten Collection
Can you share your thoughts about the Mathias Alten collection?
I view the eclectic nature of the collection very proudly. I understand when you have the Altens depicting each part of his professional life, whether it be here in West Michigan, or California or the Southwest, the other areas of the world – one of the areas I particularly like are the scenes of Connecticut, having lived in the state for many years, and his paintings from near where I lived, the southeast corner of Connecticut. Seeing some of those scenes reminds me of the great times I had with our family, growing up in Connecticut. So I think it’s been fabulous to see the nature of how he as an artist continued to grow through the years, and to have that displayed here.
[Mr. Gordon has also expressed that sentiment about areas up north that he’s been to and recognized in Alten paintings.]
One other thought, with my service, which was in the Coast Guard, George has picked that up because I do have a liking for the sea and its lore. He has shared some of his favorites with me and Marcia as well. We have a few in our home. I think we have five or six Altens in our home, at 801 Plymouth, the President’s Residence, depicting some of the seagoing and working scenes as well. I do appreciate those parts of the collection because of my affection for the sea.
Do you and Marcia have other favorites in the collection?
Yes, in fact the one right behind me here, that is in fact her favorite. [California Sycamore] She likes the color, the serenity of it. We’ve had it in our home a few times and I’ve got to see if I can get it back sometime. It’s nice that we can rotate the art in our home so that when our gusts are there, they can also appreciate the gifts that Barbara and George have given us.
What types of Alten programs and events, developed because of these gifts, have you and others been able to enjoy?
I think the programming is there when we can bring guests into the gallery. As I mentioned before, I really enjoy having special guests coming, having breakfast, a light lunch, and demonstrating the values of the university [through the art]. That is not a program per se, but it is a great outcome of using the space to the ends that we need at the university. That might be seeking others to donate to the university, investing in the university, which is what Barbara and George have done. So we use the environment to attract others who may want to share their treasures in that regard.
And then of course there’s the Friends of Alten, who come together from time to time and appreciate the educational opportunities that we have. We’ve had faculty and staff, including Henry Matthews who have really brought the educational domain to others through the agency of the Alten collection.
What can you share about the first traveling Alten exhibition, to Naples, Florida in 2011?
That was fun. That was the year that we celebrated our 50th. We were chartered in 1960 as a university [college at that time] and have grown in many, many different ways. We can almost track the growth of the university with the growth in the number of pieces of art that we have as well. But what we did was have a selection of pieces to celebrate the 50th, one of those opportunities that comes along just once in a lifetime. The milestone of fifty was great, and we were able to bring them down with the partnership we have with the folks we know in Naples, to create the opportunity for the donors to experience the Alten collection, and others in Naples and the rest of West Florida also understanding the university in another way, and maybe for some for the first time. We had a sub-part of that when we took a few pieces over to the east side of the state and showed a little bit of that type of “magic,” I call it, with others in the West Palm Beach area.
What are some of the ways the collection has expanded educational opportunities on campus?
Again, if we continue, and we will, the notion and the strengths of the liberal arts education, that the artwork here can inspire – the creativity of thought, the creativity of design. When you are creating a thought piece, it could be in poetry, it could be in music, it could be an experiment in chemistry, you’re designing maybe a way to explore different aspects of a chemical reaction, because you have seen one of the Altens, or one of the other pieces of art we have as a whole. When I was in Connecticut I had a very good connection with Pfizer. I would bring my organic chemicals students over as a lab once a year, and their research facility had original artwork displayed and rotated every few months. Their notion was similar to what we have here. It creates a different mindset, a pathway. Maybe you see things differently because the art has created in you the opportunity to think differently.
What do you see as the future benefits of this collection and other art at Grand Valley? How does it contribute to the university’s long term planning?
I think as we continue to look at the programmatic needs of the university and through that the programmatic needs of the students here while they’re studying and their future success as alumni, I’d love to take the same notion of art and design and creativity out to our alums. I think we have 100,000 of them. They have been dipped in the Grand Valley magic here. We need to begin to understand the art they have been immersed with can also be used for them now as the future supporters of the university. That’s one area I’d like to see us move into. Then in turn, maybe they would support us with their own time, talent and treasure, and use the gifts of Barbara and George and the Altens and others that have contributed to their educational experience and ask them to pay it forward for future generations of Lakers for a Lifetime that will come from Grand Valley over the next 150 years.
Henry Matthews asked for your thoughts on updating the current Gordon Gallery in the near future, and long term plans for a possible new museum building on campus.
We have to dream. Ten years ago we may have had 600-700 pieces of art. As I look ahead at the Art Gallery as a whole, in the short term, we know that the Alten collection in the Gordon Gallery needs to be refreshed time and time again, and I think that’s what we have seen in moving some of the artwork throughout the university. Again, refreshing the vision that we have and using the art for our fundamental purposes of engaging students’ success. So here, what we would have at the Gordon Gallery is the chance next year to refresh it again. We can redo the gallery with new colors. We have museum-quality pieces here, but we also have museum quality pieces across the entire university gallery as a whole. So next year we will refresh the Gordon Gallery, reposition some of the art, maybe see some new ones as well. We have seen, because of Barbara and George sharing their collection, others as well have shared their treasures of Altens.
As a sidelight, Marcia and I have become collectors of Alten as well. We found a beautiful Alten and we have it at the President’s Residence right beside our fireplace. And maybe down the road some year, we will be one of the investors here in the gallery as well. But I see that being exciting.
We will continue to use our electronic means to engage with a global audience and I think the internationalization of the campus really is supported by that approach with our artwork as well. And there is also the fun results of using the artworks and digital techniques and creating a coffee table type book of Alten that is really something people will be really proud to own. They can flip through it and have it in their own hands. I don’t think books have gone away, in fact, many times those tangible types of displays are more important that what we might have on our cell phones, so that’s good.
Now if we look well ahead – As we mentioned, the university gallery now holds over 13,000 pieces of art, some 2-D and 3-D. Many are museum quality, such as the French Collection, and others. It’s fabulous what we have here. We may have another catalyst come along and say, “Well, the university has continued to grow, why not have a stand-alone gallery, of museum quality, here at the university that can complement what we already have in Grand Rapids, and here in West Michigan for that matter?” I don’t want to duplicate, but compliment what we have here in celebration of the arts. That could be the Alten collection and others. It could be the other types of art we have here, that could be dance, it could be music, or one of so many features we have here, and we have great museums here as well. Look ahead big picture, maybe we have someone out there that says, “Hey, I really want to invest because I have a passion to display this art for so many others here in West Michigan.”