How a Crash Changed Everything for the Art Gallery

By jretter | March 26, 2015

March 2015 marks the 30th anniversary of Arcadia University Art Gallery’s move to its current location in the Benton Spruance Art Center, a historic structure built in 1892 that once held massive turbines that provided electricity for the Harrison mansion, now known as Grey Towers Castle. The incident which spurred the gallery’s move has become the stuff of campus legend.

On March 25, 1985, Beaver College staff member Alice Lerro lost control of her vehicle behind the Eugenia Fuller Atwood Library. In swerving to avoid hitting a student, Ms. Lerro ran her car through the 20-foot wide picture window on the library’s ground floor and into the Richard E. Fuller Gallery.

No one was injured, but several pieces from the Eastern Pennsylvania Regional Drawing Exhibition, on view at the time, were destroyed, and the gallery was rendered unusable. As Suzanne Eckert ’84 and Deb Tonjes ’87 wrote in the Beaver News: “Part of this plaster-board covered cinder-block wall is ripped and smashed inward. Pieces of a display case rest against the rubble. A partially shattered ceiling light hangs overhead in front of the boarded up windows, and the floor is slick with anti-freeze.”

The show, an exhibition of metal and mixed media works by Harriet Berman, Bruce Metcalf, and Fred J. Woell, was due to be installed in the gallery in three days. As repairs could not be made in time, gallery director Zina Goldsmith was forced to come up with an alternative. The painting studio in Benton Spruance Art Center would be temporarily transformed into an exhibition space.

The response to viewing artwork in this space was overwhelmingly positive. The art department saw the obvious benefits of not only holding exhibitions in such a high-profile location on campus, but also in such close proximity to the art studios. Later that year, the move was made permanent. The new space became the Beaver College Art Gallery (and then in 2001, the Arcadia University Art Gallery), and is still used as the University’s primary exhibition venue.

Matthew Borgen, exhibition coordinator for the gallery program, is curating an exhibition on the history of the Fuller Gallery. “It would be disingenuous to say that the accident was the sole reason for the gallery’s move across campus,” he says. “The ambitious nature of the programming being presented at that time had long since rendered the Fuller Gallery facilities insufficient. It must have been obvious to all concerned that the caliber of artists being shown required a much higher profile space on campus. The accident proved to be the catalyst that allowed the department to move forward with its plans.”

The Atwood Library exhibition space opened its doors in 1962 and for 12 years exhibited work by students, faculty, and regional artists. In 1974, thanks to support from the National Endowment for the Arts, it presented a solo exhibition for abstract expressionist painter Lee Krasner. This well-received show initiated an expanded program that evolved to include a roster of nationally and internationally acclaimed talent. Despite its shortcomings as a contemporary “white cube,” the Fuller Gallery hosted solo shows for artists such as Arakawa, Alice Aycock, Alex Katz, Barry Le Va, Robert Morris, Elizabeth Murray, Alice Neel, Faith Ringgold, Dorothea Rockburne, Miriam Shapiro, Alan Shields, William Wegman, and many others.