Thomas T. Solley
The Thomas Treat Solley Atrium, that spacious, triangular, light-filled entry to the IU Art Museum, is a fitting tribute to Thomas T. Solley, its former director. As the gateway to an astonishing number of artworks and artifacts, the atrium is also a point from which you can see, in full view, Solley's achievement at IU: a great university museum.
And seeing, perhaps, is the quality for which Solley is most celebrated. As Heidi Gealt, the museum's current director, explains, "He simply had a great eye. Tom Solley had an extraordinary and instinctive understanding of objects and unsurpassed taste. He could recognize quality no matter what the medium and pick out works that best reflected a certain period."
Art collector, architect, art historian, and philanthropist, Solley brought all of these talents to bear on his work throughout his 18 years at the IU Art Museum. He began his tenure in 1968 as assistant director of the museum and became its director three years later. During that time, he expanded the museum's collection from some 4,000 objects to over 30,000 works of art. He also oversaw the planning, construction, and installation of the building designed by I. M. Pei & Partners and dedicated in 1982. He died in April 2006 at his home in St. Prex, Switzerland, following a lengthy illness.
Museum building, of course, is never the work of a single individual. And to complement Solley's own "vision" were the visions of his distinguished colleagues and mentors, among them IU President Herman B Wells and Henry Hope, Director of the Department of Fine Arts and the IU Art Museum from 1941 to 1971. Wells, for example, dreamed of a museum that would give students from rural Indiana an experience only the "big city" could offer; and Hope imagined a vast, encyclopedic collection of world art that would provide students with a comprehensive historical perspective.
Under Solley's leadership, the museum fulfilled these ideals. It greatly expanded its collections gaining special excellence in Ancient, African, Oceanic, and Pre-Columbian art, as well as works on paper and photography. Solley's interest in Early Modernism and Surrealism led to further strengths in European art from 1900 to 1930. "Tom Solley gave the museum the distinctive qualities that place it among the top university collections, and make it better or equal to many civic museums," Gealt observes.
He also gave generously of his own collections. Solley came from the Indiana family perhaps most renowned for its visionary philanthropy and its art collections, the Lillys. His great uncle, Josiah K. Lilly, founded IU's Lilly Library. In addition to numerous major gifts during his tenure at the museum, in 1996 Solley established the Thomas T. Solley Endowed Fund for the Curator of Ancient Art, followed four years later by his endowment of the Pamela Buell Curatorship of Asian Art.
After a childhood spent in New York, Connecticut, and Europe, followed by service in the U.S. Army during World War II, Solley attended Yale University, where he received a BA in architecture in 1950. He began his architectural career as a project engineer for Lilly and Company in Indianapolis, remaining there for 10 years before opening a private architectural practice in 1961. In 1964, at the urging of Henry Hope, Solley began graduate studies in art history at IU. He received his MA in 1966, followed by two years of postgraduate study in Modern and Surrealist art.
Among many other honors, he was awarded the first Indiana University Medal in recognition of his extraordinary commitment to the IU Art Museum, presented at the dedication of the museum in 1982. In 2002, the Thomas Treat Solley Atrium of the art museum was named in his honor, and he received an honorary doctorate from Indiana University.
The IU Art Museum, which first opened its doors in 1941, will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the I. M. Pei building in 2007. The museum will dedicate the year to Thomas T. Solley.
See a slide show of several pieces in the collection.
Visit the IU Art Museum at www.indiana.edu/~iuam.