Published Jul 1, 2016 8:00 AM
A mediocre paintings collection secured by a UC Regent in 1938 was the catalyst that eventually landed UCLA on the national art scene.
Exhibiting works of art for the public was important to UCLA long before the university partnered with the Hammer Museum in 1994. Edward Dickson, a UC Regent from 1913 to 1956 who had no formal training or expertise in art, wanted UCLA to be an art venue at a time when there were few museums in Los Angeles.
Dickson began by securing the donation of the debatably mediocre Willitts J. Hole collection, which included works allegedly created by Old Masters such as Rembrandt, Raphael, Titian and others. But scholars believed that most actually had been painted by followers in the “school” of the Old Masters.
“It was obvious that the collection included old pictures, but old pictures of no great quality in many cases,” recalled E. Maurice Bloch, art historian and founding director of UCLA’s Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts.
The collection was put on view in Powell Library, but Dickson wanted a dedicated gallery space. So when a new building (now Perloff Hall) was constructed for the Department of Art in 1952, a gallery room was included.
The new gallery’s first director, Karl With, squabbled with Dickson over the need to accurately label the paintings, even if that meant admitting that the collection was less prestigious. The drama led to With’s dismissal, and in 1953 Frederick S. Wight, an accomplished painter and former associate director of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, joined UCLA’s art faculty and became curator of art materials.
Wight began to take the gallery in a different direction, which frustrated Dickson but catapulted UCLA onto the national art scene. While the Hole collection was “not the brightest star in our crown,” Wight recalled later, it ultimately catalyzed UCLA’s transformation into an art venue.
Under Wight’s guidance, the gallery showed museum-quality exhibitions of works by the likes of Modigliani, Picasso and Matisse. To raise funds and the gallery’s profile, Wight formed a private support group, the UCLA Art Council, and circulated UCLA’s exhibitions to other institutions. UCLA came to occupy a prominent place in the burgeoning L.A. art scene.
In 1965, a new building — aptly named Dickson Art Center — opened to house the art department. It included a large gallery space that was named the Wight Art Gallery on Wight’s retirement in 1973.
In 1994, UCLA partnered with the Hammer Museum, and the next year the staff and collections of the Wight Art Gallery and the Grunwald Center moved to the Hammer. The space in the Dickson Art Center became the New Wight Gallery, which exhibits work by students and faculty. In 2006, the Dickson Art Center itself was renovated and renamed the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Center.
Source for Frederick S. Wight and E. Maurice Bloch interviews; Bernard Galm, 1972, Center for Oral History Research, UCLA.