Hood receives new contemporary photography donation

by Kaina Chen | 1/5/15 9:29pm

A collection of 39 photographs will be accessible to students at the Hood Museum of Art following a December donation of contemporary photography from Thomas O’Neil ’79 and his wife, Nancy O’Neil. The donation includes pieces by 17 photographers that focus on political and social issues.

Thomas O’Neil said that the idea to donate the photographs emerged about 20 years ago. While he originally had an interest in painting in high school, he said that during his time at the College he began to take photographs.

He said he and Nancy began to expand their interest in art by collecting antique furniture, rugs, porcelain, paintings and photography. In the past two decades, they have focused their efforts on contemporary photography.

“By understanding the arts, and particularly the arts of [one’s] time — and I’m putting a plug in here for contemporary art — I think [one] becomes a much better student and a more complete scholar,” he said. “Frankly, it’s both spiritually and intellectually enriching to experience art, and the spiritual dimension is vital to the human condition.”

He said that he and his wife had explored different avenues for their artwork, including auctioning off a few of their pieces, but that route had not been the right fit for them.

“We gave three different pieces to auction houses over the years, and it left us so hollow,” he said.

He believes that collection is not about the act of acquiring, possessing or profiting from the artwork, but rather about researching, learning and having dialogues with the artist, he said. He and his wife believe students at the College should have the same fulfilling experiences.

He said he first invited curators from the Hood to his home in Baltimore to view his collection about a decade ago.

“For years, we didn’t even have a place to store [our collection],” O’Neil said. “I remember the first trip to Baltimore by the Hood’s curators. They found literally stacks of framed photographs in a regular house where kids were being raised. All in place of furniture.”

Thomas said that the decision of which pieces to include in the donation came from collaboration between the Hood’s curatorial staff and the O’Neils. He sent the Hood “blueprints” of his relationship with each of the artists, which included an overview of the artists’ careers and why the O’Neils had decided to choose each of the pieces for their personal collection. He said that he and his wife suggested, not dictated, what pieces the museum should take.

“We gave them access to a broad array of images by many of the artists,” he said. “But when [the curators] sought our guidance and insight, it was extraordinarily rewarding for both of us.”

He said that the final selection is an accurate representation of the broad range of works in their personal collection, which both he and his wife feel is important since the final collection will be used as a learning and teaching tool.

“We have been fortunate to be able to develop a great deal of depth in close collaboration with so many of the artists in our collection,” he said. “For me, that kind of collection ought to be destined for a scholastic institution. And, candidly, that has been the game plan for almost twenty years.”

He said that many of the artists included in the collection are excited to be involved. The collection will promote both the work of the artists and the Hood’s mission and will open dialogues between the Hood, students and the featured artists he said. The close relationship that he has cultivated with many of the artists involved can create opportunities such as panel discussions, he said.

Chao Chan, a photographer whose work is included in the collection, said that he enjoys the idea of his work being displayed in an academic environment.

“Actually, I’m completely turned off by commercial galleries,” Chan said. “I prefer the way my work is to be seen in universities, museums and books,” Chan said.

Chan said he prefers subtlety and tends to steer away from heavy lighting or dramatic poses. He said that he does not want his audience to think his pieces, such as one of a freedom fighter in Burma that is included in the donation, are caricatures.

“I want people to think ‘this could be me,’” he said.

Photography professor Virginia Beahan said that she is “elated” that students will have access to the donated pieces through classes. She said she hopes her students will be able to “intensively engage” with the photographs.

In December 2013, the O’Neils donated 24 contemporary photographs to the Baltimore Museum of Art. The Baltimore Museum of Art and the Hood plan to do a shared project relating to the donations in 2019.