Envisioning an Enriched Future for the Arts
The Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts: a Visionary Legacy for the Department of Art and Art History and the Visual Arts at UAB
A few years ago, Judy and Hal Abroms, who have long been generous supportersof UAB, decided they wanted to do something significant for the university.They later asked their good friends Ruth and Marvin Engel to join them. The twocouples have played vital roles in the founding, funding, and success of multipleUAB programs and initiatives. And now their generous combined commitment offunds totaling $5 million will enable construction and establishment of the Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts at UAB.
The institute will enhance education and training for art students and educate non-art students about the importance of the visual arts in their lives, inspiring them to become future arts patrons. Situated across the street from UAB’s Alys Robinson Stephens Performing Arts Center (ASC), the 26,000-square-foot facility will be in the vicinity of the Department of Theatre, the Department of Music, and the other visual-arts disciplines in the Humanities Building, creating a UAB Cultural Arts District. This close proximity will develop a greater sense of community for students and faculty and offer opportunities for collaboration and interaction with other arts agencies in the city.
“From its earliest conceptual stages, the Institute for the Visual Arts has enjoyed the steadfast enthusiasm and support of the Abroms and Engel families, who understood the importance of our vision for the future of the arts at UAB,” says Bert Brouwer, past dean of the former School of Arts and Humanities, now part of the College of Arts and Sciences. “The center will educate, inform, engage, and enrich the lives of a broad audience of UAB students, artists, educators, elementary and high-school students, and all those interested in the arts by engaging them in the most current dialogue and broad investigation of the visual arts. It also will expand UAB’s role as an educational, social, and cultural leader by providing educational programs and challenging exhibitions for a broad-based audience within our region and state.”
A Vision Takes Shape
When Mr. and Mrs. Abroms, who have provided exemplary philanthropic support to the community for decades, asked UAB President Carol Garrison where their most recent gift would be most beneficial, Garrison explained that a facility for the visual arts would help round out UAB and make it truly a university. According to Brouwer, there are approximately 287 students studying art and art history at UAB, but their studios and classrooms are located in several noncontiguous buildings on campus. The faculty, too, are spread out, creating an inefficient teaching/learning environment. “Dr. Garrison said if we could place the institute right across the street from the ASC, it would really complete the campus on the west end, and it would concentrate the arts programs,” says Mr. Abroms, who is the retired vice chairman of Parisian. “We were really excited about that.”
When the Abromses met architect Randall Stout, their enthusiasm grew. “We went to Chattanooga, Tennessee, where he’d designed an extension to the Hunter Museum of American Art,” Mr. Abroms says. “It was absolutely fantastic, so we decided to give more money than we originally intended. That was before the downturn in the economy. I’ve since wondered if we would have done it if we had known what was going to happen to our estate, and I think we would have in any event.”
“We think UAB is extremely important in our metro area and the state,” Mr. Abroms says. “We always believed when we were in business that we would never be any more successful than the communities in which we operated, so we always felt the need to contribute. And we feel that it’s a joy to be able to contribute.”
Partners in Progress
To get the project moving, Mr. and Mrs. Abroms asked the Engels to join them in making the lead gift. “Marvin and Ruth were happy to do it,” Mr. Abroms says. Mr. Engel, retired president of Engel Realty Company, and Mrs. Engel also have made exemplary contributions over the years to the university and community through their generous support of education, health care, and the arts.
“I had been a patron of the arts in Birmingham for a long time, starting in high school,” Mr. Engel says. “It’s been an integral part of my life, so I was fertile ground when Hal approached us about this.”
Mr. Engel adds that another advantage to the institute will be collaboration with other exhibition facilities. Although the Department of Art and Art History’s Visual Arts Gallery has collaborated with other arts agencies such as the Birmingham Museum of Art and Space One Eleven, its current facility does not meet the climate-control standards required by the American Association of Museums for more ambitious collaborations and partnerships, important environmental conditions that the new institute will be able to meet. “Collaboration with the Birmingham Museum of Art would mean, for instance, larger traveling and locally curated exhibits could be displayed at UAB,” Mr. Engel says. “It would benefit the entire community in addition to the students and faculty.”
Two Exemplary Families; Many Years of Support
Mr. Abroms serves on the executive committees of the Alabama Symphony Association and McWane Science Center. He was named the 2011 Distinguished Patron of the Arts by the Alabama Symphony Orchestra. In 2010, Mr. and Mrs. Abroms received the William M. and Virginia B. Spencer Outstanding Philanthropist Award from the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) Alabama Chapter. The United Way of Central Alabama honored the Abromses in 2000 with the Alexis de Tocqueville Society Award. (They are charter members of the organization.) Mr. and Mrs. Abroms also have contributed to the ASC, specifically the center’s Abroms Patrons Lounge. The couple received the center’s 2008 Patrons of the Arts Award, and Mrs. Abroms has served on the ASC’s Advisory Board since its inception.
Among the many other UAB programs supported by Mr. and Mrs. Abroms are the University Honors Program (through the Hess-Abroms Honors Scholarship Endowment), WBHM Public Radio, the Comprehensive Cancer Center, the School of Business, and the UAB Golden 100 Athletic Fund. The university also has benefited tremendously from Mr. Abroms’s current service on the UAB Leadership Cabinet and the University Honors Program Leadership Council and his past service on the UAB President’s Council and the Campaign for UAB Executive Committee. He also served as interim vice president of University Development in 1995.
The Engels have generously supported many units at UAB including, among many others, the Comprehensive Cancer Center, the Division of Cardiovascular Disease, the Division of Clinical Immunology and Rheumatology, WBHM Public Radio, and the ASC, specifically the center’s Engel Plaza. Thanks to the couple’s generosity, a sculpture by world-renowned artist Frank Stella graces the plaza. Mr. and Mrs. Engel generously donated the sculpture to the Birmingham Museum of Art, which cares for the work of art on permanent loan to UAB. They have also contributed to the gastroenterology chair and every chair honoring every retiring president of UAB. And Mr. Engel has graciously served on the UAB President’s Council and UAB Leadership Cabinet to the great benefit of the university.
Mr. Engel has served on the boards of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Alabama Symphony Association, and the Art Fund of the Birmingham Museum of Art and as president of the Festival of Arts, now the Birmingham International Festival. He was recognized by the National Society of Fund Raising Executives Alabama Chapter, now the AFP Alabama Chapter, with its Outstanding Philanthropist Award in 2000. He also is one of 100 members of the Alabama Academy of Honor. Mrs. Engel has served as secretary of the Birmingham Museum of Art and now serves on the board.
In addition, Mr. and Mrs. Abroms and Mr. and Mrs. Engel served on the board of directors of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C. Mr. Abroms and Mr. Engel also were awarded honorary Doctor of Humanities degrees from UAB during the university’s spring 2010 commencement ceremony. “We are deeply grateful to Mr. and Mrs. Abroms and Mr. and Mrs. Engel for all they’ve done for UAB over many years,” Garrison says. “Their latest gift is a perfect example of their level of generosity and will leave a lasting legacy at UAB, enriching its arts programs and enhancing arts and culture for the entire community.”
The Dream Becomes a Reality
“As a research university and community partner, UAB is a catalyst for improving and enhancing the lives of many in the larger community,” Brouwer says. “The Institute for the Visual Arts will measurably enhance this part of our mission. My greatest joy has been working with the Abroms and Engel families the past several years as we collectively developed our vision for the future of the arts at UAB, culminating in the Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts.”
“This center will benefit the entire community and will attract people to UAB,” Mr. Engel says. “The building is going to be unique architecturally, something befitting an art center. Any time you have a center for arts and culture like this, it helps the city, the area where it is.”
Mr. Abroms adds, “I always have felt that arts define a community. A lot of people throughout the world think Birmingham is not a cultured community. I don’t agree. We do have artists, and we do have the ballet, the symphony, and the Alys Stephens Center, and now we will add the Institute for the Visual Arts.”
Helping Lead the Way
Many generous donors have contributed to making the Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts a reality. Among them are Maggie and Will Brooke, Tom DiLorenzo, Ellen and Fred Elsas, Betty Allenberg Goldstein, Ronne and Donald Hess, Jemison Investment Company, Leo Kayser Jr., Ocllo and Wallace Malone Jr., the Robert Meyer Foundation, Carol S. Odess, Sheri and Charlie Perry Jr., Karen and Joel Piassick, Nancy and John Poynor, and Leslie and Elton Stephens.
Maintaining the Momentum / Summer 2011