Visual Arts Center

Katherine and Tom Belk in the Atrium of the VAC.

Visual Arts Center

The Katherine and Tom Belk Visual Arts Center (VAC) is located at the corner of Griffith Street and Main Street. Situated at the entrance of Davidson College, it is the first thing most people see when coming to the campus off of Interstate 77. Originally, the Louisiana House was located on that site. It served as a faculty home, the President’s House, and a dormitory before being demolished in 1934. Houses rented out by the college and a parking lot occupied that area before construction for the VAC began in 1992.

The Art Department claims the VAC as home, but previously it had been sharing the Cunningham Fine Arts Building with the Music and Theatre Departments. After many years of building a strong Art Department faculty, of waiting in the cramped quarters of Cunningham, and lacking the appropriate supplies and materials, the Art Department was finally moved into the new VAC facility. The Davidson Journal offered a description of the VAC in 1994: “Classrooms in the VAC are enhanced with some of the latest technical equipment, such as an integrated slide and audio system; high-quality video play-back machines; complex dust collection and toxic fume extracting systems; complete wood, clay, and metalworking equipment and power tools; custom-made printing presses; and climate control systems in the galleries.” (Cavanaugh 7).

The original design for the VAC as seen from Main Street, a sketch included in the pamphlet sent to potential facility donors.

Visual Arts Center

The plans and fundraising for the facility  began with the entrance of John W. Kuykendall to the Davidson presidency. In 1984 Dr. Kuykendall appointed a planning group, which consisted of faculty, administration, alumni, and friends of the college and was chaired by trustee Katherine Belk, to prepare and implement the construction of the new building. In their search for a design, the committee consulted and reviewed over 25 architects, until it chose Graham Gund Architects.

The unveiling ceremony for the architectural design of the VAC was originally scheduled for  September 22, 1989, but the effects of Hurricane Hugo postponed the date. At the eventual unveiling, the blueprint proposal depicted four distinct buildings that enclosed a grassy courtyard. Three of the buildings, which included a gallery wing, printmaking wing, and art history office and classroom building, were supposed to be connected by breezeways, while the remaining building, a sculpture pavilion would stand alone. The date of the unveiling was not the only thing to change.

Seal on the front of the VAC.

Visual Arts Center

In May 1991, Davidson decided on a new, neoclassical design which included only one building. Construction for this design began at the ground-breaking ceremony on April 23, 1992 and was completed for dedication on October 8, 1993. The cost of the building was proposed as about $7 million dollars with an additional $2 million endowment to keep up with maintenance cost during construction. By the dedication, the VAC cost $9.1 million that had required a large fundraising effort, which was part of the larger “A Quiet Resolve” campaign, and which drew  money from Duke Endowment, a Challenge Grant from the Kresge Foundation, and various other donors.

In 1998, the VAC was rededicated as the Katherine and Tom Belk Visual Arts Center for their commitment to making the VAC a reality.

This Rodin sculpture was donated by the Peppers Family and eventually made its way to to the VAC atrium.

Visual Arts Center

The design of the VAC is unique, but also maintains the theme of the other structures on campus. Preserving the tradition of red brick, the building also has two, “second-story porticoes on each of the gabled ends [making] direct reference to the college’s revered debating halls…” as described in American School & University magazine in November 1994, which hosts competitions for designs for educational structures and buildings. The interior of the VAC “houses the William H. Van Every, Jr. Gallery and the Edward M. Smith Gallery. The creation of The Duke Endowment Collection Storage marks the first time in the history of Davidson that a space has been designed exclusively for the exhibition, storage , and conservation of art” (Program Notes from the Dedication of the Davidson College Visual Arts Center).

In addition to the galleries, the first floor has a seminar room, a computerized slide collection, a printmaking wing, sculpture space, and the Mary Semans Auditorium, which all surround an atrium that lets in light from the glass paneled ceiling. Offices, classrooms, and studios make up the second floor. A seal, designed by Herb Jackson ’67, adorns the entrance with a Greek motto that translates as “Life is short; art is long.” Additionally, the Pepper family donated a Rodin sculpture, Jean d’Aire, which was placed in the VAC atrium before the dedication.

The first exhibition in the Smith Van Every Gallery was the work of internationally-known artist Kenneth Nolan, a native of North Carolina. Not only was it the first exhibition in the VAC, but it was also the first exhibition of Nolan’s work in his home state of North Carolina. Kenneth Nolan also donated his 1967 striped canvas for placement inside the VAC.

Since its inception, the VAC has been featured on the cover of cover of the North Carolina High Education General Information Survey’s 1993 Faculty Inventory & Utilization Study. In 1998 the American Association of Museums awarded the college a Museum Assessment Program Grant for the Smith Van Every Galleries. On September 25, 1998, the facility was rededicated as the Katherine and Tom Belk Visual Arts Center for their contributions and efforts toward its creation.

Work Cited

The Campaign for Davidson.

Davidson, A Quiet Resolve: Visual Arts Center. Davidson College, circa 1989.

Cavanaugh, Christine Bretscher. “The Future of the Visual Arts Center at Davidson.” Davidson Journal 16, Winter 1994, p. 4-9.

Davidson College. Dedication of the Davidson College Visual Arts Center. Davidson College, 8 October 1993.

“Louis I. Kahn Citation: Davidson College, Visual Arts Center, Davidson, North Carolina.” AS&U, November 1994.

Miller, Michele E. “The Visual Arts at Davidson: Into a New Century.” Davidson Journal 1, Winter 1990, p. 20-25.

“Visual Arts Center Update: A Rodin Sculpture and the Kresge Challenge.” Davidson Journal 13, Spring 1993, p. 23.

Author: Mark Grotjohn

Date: October 2005

Cite as: Grotjohn, Mark. “Tom and Katherine Belk Visual Arts Center Row” Davidson Encyclopedia October 2005.

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