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Retired professor’s donation gives photo collection a new home

A $100,000 donation by retired MTSU photography professor and Murfreesboro resident Harold L. Baldwin will support plans to develop a new photography gallery in MTSU’s Bragg Mass Communication Building.

The renovated space, to be dedicated in late 2013 or early 2014, will become the new permanent home of MTSU’s photography archive — a million-dollar-plus collection that Baldwin, who created MTSU’s photography program in the 1960s, pieced together over decades of service to MTSU.

The university’s former photography gallery, named for the mass communication professor emeritus, had been located in a hallway of the McWherter Learning Resources Center until recent building renovations displaced it.

Dr. Harold Baldwin, an MTSU mass communication professor emeritus, displays one of the masterpieces in the university gallery collection that bears his name. The Ansel Adams print of “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” will be moving into a new home inside the Bragg Mass Communication Building on campus in late 2013 or early 2014. (MTSU photo by J. Intintoli)

In its new home on the second floor of the Bragg building, the Baldwin Gallery will feature movable walls and contemporary lighting to showcase the collection the professor amassed through the years, as well as traveling exhibits and student work.

Once operational, the gallery will become the third specialized media showcase for the building, which already is home to the Center for Popular Music and the Center for Innovation in Media.

Baldwin’s gift is part of MTSU’s $80 million Centennial Campaign.

“Harold’s gift truly embodies the spirit of the Centennial Campaign,” said Nick Perlick, director of development.

“He has been part of this campus family for decades, and now he has chosen to make an investment to enhance the particular aspect of the university that means so much to him. We are extremely grateful for his generosity.”

With Baldwin’s new commitment, the Centennial Campaign has surpassed $60 million in gifts and pledges toward its $80 million goal.

It could be said that the gallery was a half-century in the making. A few years after arriving from Colorado in 1959 to teach industrial arts at MTSU, Baldwin launched the university’s photography program.

He soon realized the need for gallery space to augment the instruction he was providing in his rapidly expanding program.

“We needed to bring in popular photographers to enhance the student experience,” Baldwin said. “That was the one thing that was lacking. Students couldn’t get exposed to the work of top professional photographers like all the big schools on the East and West coasts.”

Baldwin began working with the Eastman Kodak Company to bring exhibits to campus, but the Kodak shows did not match his vision.

“They were the traditional pretty prints; they didn’t have any real meaning to them,” he explained. “I knew I needed to get some true artists to campus.”

Baldwin started contacting well-known photographers. One of the first was American photographer Ansel Adams.

“This was before big PR agencies handled big photographers. They handled their own shows,” Baldwin recalled. “So I wrote him a letter asking him to come, and he sent me a postcard, saying, ‘I’m going to send you one of the best little shows you have ever seen.’ And I thought, ‘Well, my God!’”

That exhibition, as well as future exhibitions Baldwin arranged, hung in what is now the Tom Jackson Building. At each exhibit, the professor found a way to cobble together funds to purchase a print; sometimes several of the artists made a gift of a print to the university.

As a result, Baldwin said, “I just kind of accumulated a permanent collection here.”

The collection moved into the Learning Resources Center after it opened in 1975. The MTSU Photographic Gallery was renamed to honor Baldwin in 2009.

While a full appraisal has never been conducted on the collection, which was formally established in 1961, Baldwin recently funded an independent assessment that values it “easily in excess of a million dollars.”

In fact, the value could be quite a bit more. One piece of the collection alone — a print of Adams’ most famous photo, “Moon Rise, Hernandez, New Mexico” — is considered quite valuable.

In addition to Adams, other photographers who exhibited their work at MTSU through the years included Richard Avedon, Sally Mann, André Kertész, Henry Horenstein and Arthur Fellig, who was better known by his pseudonym, “Weegee.” Photographers whose work is part of the Baldwin collection, though they never exhibited on campus, include Edward Weston, Minor White, Paul Strand and Jerry Uelsmann.

The expanded new gallery will no doubt become a significant new cultural asset for MTSU and the broader Murfreesboro community.

“It’s an opportunity to display what we are doing here, what’s happening, and get the word out. It is a good advertisement for the photography department itself,” said Baldwin, who shifted to teaching photography full-time in 1968 and taught thousands of photographers in MTSU’s program until his retirement in 1991.

Baldwin added that he hopes his gift will inspire others to donate to the gallery, too.

“Recent cutbacks mean we have only been able to host a limited number of shows in recent years,” Baldwin said. “More gifts would help keep that gallery rolling.”

Now 85 years old, Baldwin is busy working with the university to re-establish the gallery. Once that’s completed, he’s excited about a photography trip he has planned in February 2014 to the Galapagos Islands. Baldwin and his daughter are two of 30 photographers included in the 10-day boat trip guided by a National Geographic photographer.

Can the MTSU community expect to see photos from that trip in the new campus gallery?

Baldwin laughed heartily. “I haven’t even thought of that!”

— Drew Ruble (Drew.Ruble@mtsu.edu)