With its angled, curved walls of concrete and steel and multi-story glass windows, the Richmond Center for Visual Arts stands out on the campus of Western Michigan University. It looks the part of a cutting-edge contemporary art museum, which it is — at least in part.
The Richmond Center’s function is chiefly educational, with its first priority being to expose students to contemporary art and working artists. “We have an obligation for our students to be able to see what’s being made now, because that’s what they’re doing,” says Director of Exhibitions Don Desmett. “We focus on things that could be seen as experimental, maybe more provocative, but the reason we can do that is we can educate our public along with our students as to what they’re seeing.”
The center houses part of the Gwen Frostic School of Art, including the student graphic design center, as well as three galleries that show a wide range of art, including electronic and multimedia works.
The centerpiece of the building is the Albertine Monroe-Brown Gallery, a two- story, 4,000-square-foot space that displays seven exhibitions per academic year. The artists shown there are often nationally and internationally known. At least one show per year features local and regional artists.
The gallery is highly configurable and allows exhibits to be seen from above through windows in the building’s second-floor passageway and student lounge. “It really functions wonderfully as this space that adapts to contemporary art, which comes in all varied sizes, shapes, media,” Desmett says.
The adjoining Eleanor R. and Robert A. DeVries Student Gallery has 36-foot ceilings, equal in height to those in the main gallery. “It was designed so that, at least physically, anything we could imagine doing in the Albertine Monroe-Brown Gallery, they have the opportunity to do here. That’s been really a great benefit … that (students) can take advantage of this architecture,” he says. “I can quite frankly say this is the best student gallery I have ever seen.”
The university’s approximately 1,000-piece teaching collection of contemporary prints is housed in the Richmond Center, and portions of it are periodically shown in the center’s Rose Netzorg and James Wilfrid Kerr Gallery, which also exhibits faculty art.
The Richmond Center, which opened in 2007, was designed by SmithGroup JJR, of Detroit, and received the 2008 American Institute of Architects Detroit Honor Award. Desmett consulted on the functional aspects of the building design and its student- centered features, such as the professional- quality student gallery and a classroom specifically for studying pieces in the print collection, so that it was built to meet the particular needs of an art school.
After educating students, a secondary purpose of the exhibitions program is to introduce contemporary art to wider audiences.
Walkways joining the building to the Miller Auditorium parking ramp, Kohrman Hall and the Dalton Center create a physical connection to the various arts programs on campus — including music, theater and dance — and help reach people outside the College of Fine Arts. The large atrium gallery, where passersby can see continuously running video works, hosts a variety of events such as post-symphony concert receptions. People are introduced to art “even when they don’t know they’re going to be,” Desmett says.
Altogether, about 10,000 people visit the Richmond Center each year, including thousands of public-school students participating in the Kalamazoo Regional Educational Service Agency’s Education for the Arts program.
The Monroe-Brown Gallery is currently exhibiting paintings by WMU emeritus art professor Lou Rizzolo, who invited some of his former students to show their work alongside his. “I think (it’s) a very generous way of doing an exhibition,” Desmett says, “and (demonstrates) his understanding of the educational component of the show.”
The center’s exhibitions program also is seeking to reach out beyond the region by putting together traveling exhibits and accompanying publications. In early 2013 it originated “Complex Conversations,” an exhibition of the sculptures, drawings, paintings and prints of Willie Cole that is on a two-year tour of four other galleries at educational institutions around the country.
The Richmond Center galleries are free and open to the public Monday through Saturday during the academic year. Summer hours, from May 1 to June 30, are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. The galleries are closed in July and August so staff can gear up for the next season.
Meanwhile, the public can still view the large outdoor sculptures in the adjacent sculpture garden and at various locations around WMU’s main campus. Desmett says the “Sculpture Tour” generates a lot of attention — and questions. “But that’s a good thing,” he says. “That’s another way for us to reach beyond the walls … and dialogue with the community.”