Press-Republican

October 7, 2013

Artful lives of service

ROBIN CAUDELL
Press-Republican

PLATTSBURGH — The Edward and Bette Brohel Museum Without Walls has breathed into existence at SUNY Plattsburgh.

The couple, native New Yorkers, were honored by the college where Edward served 30 years as the director of the Plattsburgh State Art Museum and Bette worked 23 years in Continuing Education before transferring into Academic Advising and retiring in 2005.

"Both Edward and Bette have spent their lives in service to the college," President John Ettling said in a statement. "I can think of no more fitting tribute than to name the Museum Without Walls, which Ed created, in their honor."

IMMERSION

Edward learned everything he knows about art under the tutelage of gallerist Doris Meltzer.

“I had never really been immersed in what a full abstract painting was, what was the process, what was the artist after, the questions we are still asking today," he said. 

"She was very, very solid that way.”

He and Bette met while he was teaching at the Brooklyn Museum. A docent-in-training, she majored in art history and studio art at Fordham University at Lincoln Center.

“Because he was going for his master’s at that point, we were invited to take a class with him," she said. "He was a freebie. He would take us around to different museums. 

"And we all lusted after him.”

'INCREDIBLE EYE'

During his Meltzer stint, Edward didn’t particularly eat much but bought art, including his first purchase, a watercolor, “Two, Below the Moon,” by Madeleine Gekiere, a Swiss-born artist.

“She’s kind of into imaginative distortions that would tell a story but created characters that were recognizable,” he said. “Bette and I see that kind of as the two of us.”

“I’m the short, chubby one, but I’m not chubby anymore,” Bette said. “And Ed is the sleek one.”

“Doris gave us a good price on it, and from the very beginning, I was inquisitive,” Edward said. “I desired to possess things like that.”

“And Ed has an incredible eye,” Bette said.

His eye and the collaboration of colleagues, students and visiting artists created the graceful aesthetics of the college today.

COLLECTION GREW

When the Brohels arrived in 1978, the college's art collection comprised about 200 works. Under Edward's stewardship, it increased to around 8,000 works, displayed in the Meisel collection, Student Association collection, Nina Winkel collection, Slatkin Study Room and collection and the Rockwell Kent Gallery, which began with 236 pieces gifted by Sally Kent Gorton, friendly with then-college President George Angell.

During his tenure, Edward convinced Gorton the college was the best repository for Kent material.

“What they were worried about at the time (was) the Kent Collection had just come, and they wanted someone who knew enough about contemporary American art, and also they were worried about the political aspect,” Edward said. 

“They wanted someone who knew something about that. So, I had certain angles into that, not big ones.”

WINKEL COLLECTION

His imprint also included new galleries: the Hans and Vera Hirsch Gallery and the Louise Norton Room. 

Milestones include his and co-curator/sculptor Don Osborn's collaboration on the Sculpture Park.

The Winkel Sculpture Court was created, in part, due to the friendship of the late Dr. Edgar Barton, SUNY distinguished teaching professor emeritus of art, with Nina Winkel, whom he met while on scholarship to the Sculpture Center in New York City and later invited to Plattsburgh as a visiting artist.

Winkel's husband, George, had a heart attack and had to retire, so they moved to Keene Valley, and she brought along her studio, Edward said.

"Then, I came along, and (college President) Joe Burke came along. She adored Joe Burke. He created such a sense of trust, and he was so cool.

"Nina kept on making the collection that she wanted to give the college bigger and the endowment bigger, and the whole thing kept on growing.

"Joe went to Albany as acting chancellor, and Charlie Warren took over (as college president). She liked Charlie very much. I remember having lunch with Charlie, Nina and George in a restaurant in Keene Valley when they sealed the deal. 

"Then, it started rolling a little bit there, too. Regina Slatkin came into the picture and gave some lovely French glassware, a Rodin sculpture."

“These were people we forged a relationship with,” Bette said. “That was the part of the fun of it, for me. These were people we got to know. Nina would invite us to dinner. Regina Slatkin gave wonderful parties."

BROKE DOWN BARRIERS

The museum-without-walls concept entered Edward’s consciousness while he was working on his master’s degree in 1948-49 at Columbia University.

“It came from a book by a French philosopher by the name of Andre Malraux, who was quite a leftist but kind of a fascist-leftist, who eventually became minister of culture for (Charles) de Gaulle and repainted the Paris Opera,” Edward said. 

“The interest had always been in my head. Part of it was because the one thing about going in art that I was worried about was where was the social responsibility? What did you do? 

"I think people have handled that thought better than maybe we handled it in those days, but still it was a question. Malraux was at least dealing with the question of art.”

Edward touts being the college's last hire from a New York Times advertisement.

He fondly speaks of a Student Association officer who secured a Khandar Indian sculpture at Sotheby's. He's forgotten her name, but he’s never forgotten her excitement.

He is proud that the Art Museum’s collection has evolved into a study collection and resource that can be accessed by students and scholars alike.

“We did make a point of breaking down some of the barriers, some of the elitist things that build around art that injure the people that are making it and the people appreciating it,” Edward said.

Email Robin Caudell: rcaudell@pressrepublican.com