Editor's note: The following article is reprinted with the permission of American Art Review. This article was originally published in American Art Review, Vol. XXII. No. 2. March - April 2010. If you have questions or comments regarding the article, or wish to obtain a copy of the magazine issue in which it appeared, please contact American Art Review via the following Web site, phone number or email address:



 

The Amarillo High School Art Collection

By Graziella Marchicelli, Ph.D.

 



 

Each year the Amarillo Museum of Art holds an exhibition entitled Achievements in Art, which honors an art collector and his vision. The annual event offers a rare opportunity to view an individual's collection and discover the collector's intent on acquiring works of art. This year the Amarillo Museum of Art has made an unconventional choice. Instead of singling out one person, the honor goes to the Amarillo High School, a public high school located in the city of Amarillo, the center of the Texas panhandle.

An Uncommon Dream: The Amarillo High School Collection of 19th and 20th Century Art celebrates the vision of Amarillo High School principal R. B. Norman, the man who founded the school's art collection in 1945. Norman envisioned an education that included a first-hand familiarity with the arts, despite the many miles that separate students of the panhandle from other cities and museums.[1]

The Amarillo High School art collection of ninety-one works comprises a variety of movements and styles, such as Barbizon, American Impressionism, Tonalism, Post-Impressionism, Taos Society Artists, Texas and New Mexico regional schools, and Abstract Expressionism. The collection contains works by prominent American painters of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including American Impressionists John Joseph Enneking, George Pearse Ennis, Chauncey F. Ryder, Elmer Schofield and Tonalist painters Ben Foster and Robert Bruce Crane. Eanger Irving Couse and Ernest Martin Hennings represent the founders of the Taos Society of Artists in the collection, while New Mexico modernists include Eric Gibberd, Gene Kloss, Barbara Latham, Doel Reed and Russian-born Nicolai Fechin.

For decades, Amarillo High School students lived with the works of notable artists around them. These paintings, displayed for their edification, were of museum quality and worth, and yet in the words of Amarillo High School 50th Alumni Association president, Charlie Broomhead:

We had no idea the value of what was to become the Amarillo High School art collection that was hanging on the halls for us to see. As you glanced around you saw the pictures. You knew they were there -- you knew they would always be there. You have to understand that we took it for granted. [We thought] that was the way high school was -- you went into the school and you had pictures hanging in the walls.[2]

In 1945, Amarillo High School joined a very small group of high schools with significant art collections. Most high school collections tend to be focused on regional artists. For instance, Gardena High School in Los Angeles collected California Impressionists. The Hughes High School in Cincinnati began its collection in 1895 with the works of Cincinnati artists and the Salt Lake City School District has an impressive collection of Utah artists.[3] The Amarillo High School collection was an exception with its diversity of artists and the strength and variety of styles and movements represented.

For thirty-two years, from 1929 to 1961, R. B. Norman was the principal of Amarillo High School. His long tenure allowed him to shape the character of the school. Students, teachers, and parents, everyone clearly understood R. B. Norman was in charge. Mr. Broomhead, a 1956 graduate, recalled:

One of the funny things about knowing R. B. Norman was the fact that he was the kindest, gentlest person until you missed English class and then he would decide this was the time for you to set an example and you learned then that even though he was a gentle giant he was in charge.

Mr. Norman was also very clear about the artwork coming into the collection. There were three rules. One, the artwork had to "maintain a high investment quality as well as an aesthetic appeal." Two, local artists were not allowed in the collection; this was to prevent conflicts and jealousy. Three, the paintings had to "hang on the walls where students changed classes everyday." The collection was not meant to decorate the school's offices. With these rules in place, Norman formed a committee led by him, Dr. Carlton Palmer, an art dealer and gallery owner from Atlanta, and Bill Attebury, a representative of the high school student body, to select the works to be purchased. When the committee selected a work of art to purchase, Norman helped secure the funds by working together with the Junior League of Amarillo, the school's Activity Fund, the student council, and the senior class.[4]

R. B. Norman was quite proud of the collection. The school's first acquisition of a painting by Enneking indicates his careful and discerning eye. Mr. Broomhead remembered that:

Mr. Norman knew every inch of every painting. He liked them. He walked the halls looking at the art. Every piece of art that you see from the Norman years has his fingerprints on it. If he did not hang it, he sure picked it.

Some events in life are so momentous that they reshape the history of a community. It was an early Sunday morning on March 1, 1970, when the school's boiler exploded, blowing through the auditorium and third floor. Fire engulfed the building and destroyed it. It was the school's darkest day. It was probably its finest, too.

Amarillo firefighter Ray Mathis said in an interview for the Amarillo Globe-News that when he arrived he saw kids running in and out of the burning building, trying to save prized artwork and books from burning inside the growing fire.[5] Students and teachers were dropping paintings out of second floor windows into the arms of students on the school's front lawn. Allied Van Line provided a truck to shelter the paintings. Khoury Brothers Fine Art Appraisers of Amarillo provided an on the spot appraisal so that the artwork would have an insurance value before the paintings were stored.

Forty years after the fire, many still wonder what was lost; the collection was located on all three floors. But Gary Biggers, an alumnus of the high school, has reconstructed the history of the collection and concludes that not a single painting was lost in the fire. Motivated by his love of the collection, Biggers started researching the history of the art collection in 1987.

Even though Norman retired in 1961, the collection today remains in the hallways for students to appreciate. The paintings have been placed in elegant glass cases and thoughtfully arranged by Biggers and his students. Only a few paintings have been added during the last three decades, primarily through donations or as memorials presented to the school. Biggers has been a determined and tireless caretaker of the Amarillo High School art collection because he truly believes there is nothing more vital than a tradition that continues to live.[6]

 

The article was written in connection with the exhibition An Uncommon Dream: The Amarillo High School Collection of 19th and 20th Century Art, on exhibit at the Amarillo Museum of Art January 31 - April 4, 2010.

 

Endnotes

1 Gary G. Biggers, "History of the Collection," A Lasting Legacy: American Paintings from the Amarillo High School Art Collection (Canyon, Texas: Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, 1991): p. 11.

2 All quotes by Charlie Broomhead are from a documentary video interview by the author, Amarillo Museum of Art, Amarillo, Texas, 20 January 2010.

3 Michael R. Grauer, documentary video interview by the author, Amarillo Museum of Art, Amarillo, Texas, 26 January 2010.

4 Op. Cit., Gary G. Biggers, p. 11.

5 Phillip Yates, "Sandies Remember 1970 High School Fire," Amarillo Globe-News.

6 Gary G. Biggers, documentary video interview by the author, Amarillo Museum of Art, Amarillo, Texas, 15 January 2010.

 

About the Author

Dr. Marchicelli was Executive Director & Chief Curator of the Amarillo Museum of Art at the time of the exhibition An Uncommon Dream: The Amarillo High School Collection of 19th and 20th Century Art.

 

Selected images of paintings in the collection

 

(above: George Pearse Ennis (1884-1936), Running the Seine, oil on canvas, 36 x 45 inches. Image Copyright Amarillo Independent School District.)

 

(above: John Joseph Enneking (1841-1911), Solitude, oil on canvas, 23 1/2 x 30 inches. Image Copyright Amarillo Independent School District.)

 

(above: Eanger Irving Couse (1866-1936), Indian and the Firelight (Indian by Campfire), o/c board, 12 x 16 inches. Image Copyright Amarillo Independent School District.)

 

(above: Philip R. Goodwin (1882-1935), Surprised, oil on canvas, 30 1/4 x 38 inches. Image Copyright Amarillo Independent School District.)

 

(above: W. Elmer Schofield 1867-1944), Cornish Coast in May (The Little Beach), oil on canvas, 40 x 48 inches, ©2011 Estate of W. Elmer Schofield or assignee / image copyright Amarillo Independent School District.)

 

Resource Library editor's note:

The above article is reprinted with the permission of American Art Review and was originally published in American Art Review, Vol. XXII. No. 2. March - April 2010. Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Dr. Marchicelli for her help concerning permission from American Art Review for reprinting the text and for securing permission from the Amarillo Independent School District for posting the above images of paintings in their collection. If you have quesstions concerning the images plaese contact Mr. Les Hoyt, Assistant Superintendent for the Amarillo Independent School District.

Resource Library readers may also enjoy:

The Amarillo Museum of Art has videos posted on this page. One of the videos, titled "An Uncommon Dream," (25 min, 26 sec) is a documentary made in advance of the opening of An Uncommon Dream: The Amarillo High School Collection of 19th and 20th Century Art, held in 2010 at the Amarillo Museum of Art. Dr. Marchicelli initiated the documentaries program for the Amarillo Museum of Art.

Regarding other historic high school art collections:

Videos shown on WLWT News 5 concerning controversy over the Cincinnati Public Schools Art Collection. Please see part 1 and part 2.

 

For biographical information on certain artists referenced in this article please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

Links to sources of information outside of our web site are provided only as referrals for your further consideration. Please use due diligence in judging the quality of information contained in these and all other web sites. Information from linked sources may be inaccurate or out of date. TFAO neither recommends or endorses these referenced organizations. Although TFAO includes links to other web sites, it takes no responsibility for the content or information contained on those other sites, nor exerts any editorial or other control over them. For more information on evaluating web pages see TFAO's General Resources section in Online Resources for Collectors and Students of Art History.

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