Dr. Richard Brettell, 71, longtime professor of art and aesthetic studies and founding director of the Edith O’Donnell Institute of Art History at The University of Texas at Dallas, passed away Friday, July 24.
“Rick was a remarkable scholar and educator and one of the leading voices in the world of art,” said UT Dallas President Richard C. Benson, who holds the Eugene McDermott Distinguished University Chair of Leadership. “His charismatic lectures have introduced thousands to great art as has his work to build the arts culture in Dallas. No one better epitomized a life well-lived than our brilliant, adventurous friend.”
Dr. Inga Musselman, UT Dallas provost, vice president for academic affairs and the Cecil H. Green Distinguished Chair of Academic Leadership, said, “He will be greatly missed as a key member of our arts faculty. Our founding director of the Edith O’Donnell Institute of Art History has been an exceptional colleague. Dr. Brettell’s inspired teaching, his exquisite scholarship and his compassionate leadership are among UTD’s irreplaceable treasures. Our community has richly benefited from his devotion and influence at our school. All of us at UT Dallas are profoundly grateful for his amazingly unique and unbelievably nuanced contributions to the University.”
“Rick was a remarkable scholar and educator and one of the leading voices in the world of art. His charismatic lectures have introduced thousands to great art as has his work to build the arts culture in Dallas. No one better epitomized a life well-lived than our brilliant, adventurous friend.”
“Rick’s infectious personality was invaluable in growing the arts in Dallas,” said Dr. Michael Thomas, director of the O’Donnell Institute. “It was his dynamic disposition and his friendship with so many successful people in the city that made all of his causes so successful.”
Rick Brettell Memorial Fund
A memorial fund has been established in honor of Dr. Richard Brettell. To make a gift, visit the fund’s webpage.
Brettell, who recently was elected to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences and to the board of directors of the Hermitage Museum Foundation, held the Margaret M. McDermott Distinguished Chair of Art and Aesthetic Studies and the Edith O’Donnell Distinguished University Chair. Before joining UT Dallas in 1998, he was the Eugene McDermott Director at the Dallas Museum of Art and the Searle Curator of European Painting at the Art Institute of Chicago. He was also an assistant professor of art history at UT Austin from 1976 to 1980, where he taught a famous course titled Modern Art and the City of Paris.
Brettell was instrumental in developing the vision for an institute at UT Dallas that would be dedicated to the elevation of preserving and expanding the knowledge of art throughout the world. With a $17 million gift from arts patron Edith O’Donnell, the art institute was created in 2014. It has since become a center dedicated to elevating, preserving and expanding innovative research and education in art history with a community of scholars dedicated to collaboration and exchange.
Under Brettell’s leadership, the institute created a partnership with the Dallas Museum of Art, launched major international research partnerships with Nanjing University in China and the Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte in Naples, Italy, and collaborated with partner institutions to present symposia, exhibitions and publications. In 2018 the O’Donnell Institute inaugurated a new master’s degree program in art history.
“The Edith O’Donnell Institute, in many ways, typifies the strength of Rick’s vision and his effectiveness in conveying that vision to others,” said Thomas, who holds the Richard R. Brettell Distinguished University Chair and is a professor in the School of Arts and Humanities (A&H). “He wasn’t just an idea guy. He was an idea guy who made things happen.”
Many colleagues said it was Brettell’s loyalty and friendships that allowed him to take ideas and turn them into significant projects.
“Rick Brettell had an amazing number of vibrant, close, admiring friends — the cultural leaders of Dallas and beyond,” said Dr. Hobson Wildenthal, UT Dallas Distinguished Scholar in Residence, professor of physics, and former provost and executive vice president. “People loved to be around him because he was dynamic, amusing and affectionate. And he also was full of knowledge.”
Dr. Nils Roemer, interim dean of A&H, director of the Ackerman Center for Holocaust Studies, and the Stan and Barbara Rabin Professor in Holocaust Studies, said Brettell was known for being very daring.
“Rick was relentless in his pursuit to build, create and shape the arts at UT Dallas and throughout the city; his energy was also infectious,” he said.
In addition to Brettell’s acclaimed status as an art historian, Roemer said, he also was a big advocate for his UT Dallas graduate students.
“He would spend a lot of time reviewing dissertations, as well as supervising and counseling. He would do anything to help students get their degrees,” he said.
In 2017, with a generous gift from philanthropist Margaret McDermott, the University honored Brettell through the establishment of the Richard Brettell Award in the Arts, a biennial honor recognizing established artists whose body of work demonstrates a lifetime of achievement in their field. Winners receive a $150,000 prize and participate in a campus residency, where they spend time interacting with faculty and students.
The award is just one of the many Brettell-inspired legacies that will continue to increase UT Dallas’ ability to provide deep and wide resources for research and teaching in the arts.
Brettell also organized numerous, high-profile exhibitions, which he believed were an impactful way to teach people about art and its importance. He was a prolific author and lectured nationally and internationally. Prior to his death, he was completing the definitive catalogue raisonné of the work of Paul Gauguin.
Longtime friends and colleagues Rob Kendall and Tony Holmes recently established the Rob Kendall and Tony Holmes Travel Award To Honor Rick Brettell. The fund will provide UT Dallas students opportunities to design and experience one-of-a-kind trips, both international and domestic, unrelated to specific academic requirements.
Architectural renderings soon will be done on an art and performance complex called, under Brettell’s inspiration, the Athenaeum. Among the pieces that will be on display at the new complex will be those from the Barrett Collection and the Trammell and Margaret Crow Museum of Asian Art, both of which were donated to UT Dallas in the last two years.
Wildenthal said the Athenaeum, along with the scholarly work done at the O’Donnell Institute, ensures that Brettell’s vision for UT Dallas as a center of arts excellence will come to fruition.
“We have lost a great colleague and a great inspirational friend, but his legacy of arts excellence will continue to grow at UT Dallas,” he said.
UT System Chancellor James B. Milliken released the following statement on the death of Dr. Richard Brettell:
“Nana and I were deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Rick Brettell, a friend whose visionary leadership enriched two UT institutions and helped transformed the arts landscape in Dallas.
“In the 1970s, Rick spent four years teaching at UT Austin, rising to become the head of the art history department. He went on to serve as director of the Dallas Museum of Art for several years. But it was at UT Dallas that he created his unmatched legacy and raised UTD’s national profile in the arts immeasurably. As founding director of the Edith O’Donnell Institute of Art History, he was instrumental in bringing the Barrett Collection of rare Swiss art to the University, and in the acquisition of the Crow Museum of Asian Art in the Dallas Arts District. His impact on the future of UTD will benefit generations.
“Throughout his career, Rick harnessed his enormous energy and talent to share his love of the arts with Dallas, Texas, and the world. And the same spirit that made him a professional force made him a beloved and unforgettable friend to thousands. It was a privilege to be one of those thousands, and our hearts go out to his wife, Caroline, the entire Brettell family and all who loved Rick. He truly was one of a kind.”