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Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Arts have a Foundational Legacy at Clemson University

The second Sunday in September has been proclaimed as the official start of National Arts in Education Week by Congress (HR275, Arts in Education Week Resolution).  In reading this proclamation today, Sunday, September 8, 2013, I began to think about the penultimate "Whereas" clause which states that  "art is integral to the lives of United States citizens and essential to the health and vitality of communities and the Nation."

It made me think how "essential to the health and vitality" the arts were to the founder of Clemson University, Thomas Green Clemson.  And though many today know the University more for the performance of its teams on the gridiron than for their Arts curriculum, the fact remains that the literary, performing and the visual arts are, in fact, an integral part of Thomas Green Clemson’s legacy and mandate for the institution that bears his name.  

Students, faculty and alumni at Clemson have long understood the profound importance of the visionary act that Thomas G. Clemson, took on November 6, 1886, when he specified in his will that “Fort Hill place,” formerly the home of his father-in-law, John C. Calhoun, be set aside for “the establishment of a scientific institution.”  Importantly, however, Clemson very carefully specified that this “high seminary of learning” should provide a broad learning experience, combining both “physical and intellectual education.” 

Clemson’s will also specified that Fort Hill house should “never be torn down or altered, but shall be kept in repair …  [and] always be open for the inspection of visitors,“ making special note that his “pictures and paintings” remain “to adorn the Fort Hill house.”

To take Thomas Green Clemson’s will as the extent of his relationship to the arts, however, would not merely be an incomplete picture, but a gross misrepresentation.  One need only consult William David Hiott’s article, “Thomas Green Clemson: Art Collector and Artist,” in Thomas Green Clemson, edited by the late Alma Bennett:

“Thomas Green Clemson’s affection for the arts is poignantly described in his address [at the Second Festival of the Washington Art Association as] ‘The Beautiful Arts—the magic bonds which unite all ages and Nations.’ 

“Thomas G. Clemson’s passion for the fine arts provides an invaluable glimpse into Thomas Clemson the man. After all, this is the person who, in 1859, insisted, ‘All organized being [are] artists—from the minute creature that built up the coral islands and twined coral wreaths around the world up to man.’ In art as in other segments of his career, he was an enlightened man ahead of his time. His collecting art is a conspicuous case in point of that enlightenment. When few of his American contemporaries were doing so, he began to collect representative samples of seventeenth-century and nineteenth-century European paintings. He rounded out his collection by commissioning original portraits as well as museum-grade copies of impressive paintings he had seen or studied. When his own paintings were added to that effort, the result was an oil painting collection that would have rivaled any personal art collection in America at his time.

Today, the Thomas Green Clemson Art Collection is remarkably intact.  It is also remarkable that, by specifically giving most of that collection to Fort Hill, Clemson established an artistic legacy for his namesake institution of higher learning as well as a tangible and highly personal link with its founder.”

As such, those who experience and/or study the arts at Clemson University are taking part in a legacy of creativity that links them to one of the most abiding passions of its founder: the arts.

As chair of the Art Department at Clemson University, I encourage visitors to the campus who have not been to Fort Hill, and those who’ve not been recently, to stop by and see our founder's art collection (which includes several canvases by Mr. Clemson himself), and to contemplate the vision of a truly “enlightened man ahead of his time.”  Entrance is free.  520 Fort Hill St., Clemson, SC 29634, USA.

§  Greg Shelnutt, Chair and Professor of Art, Clemson University, September 8, 2013, Clemson, South Carolina.


Holmes, Alester G., and George R. Sherrill. "The Will." Thomas Green Clemson The Will. Clemson University, n.d. Web. 03 Sept. 2013.

William, Hiott David. "Thomas Green Clemson: Art Collector and Artist." Thomas Green Clemson. Clemson University Digital Press, 26 Apr. 2013. Web. 4 Sept. 2013.   


  1. Arts learning can also improve motivation, concentration, confidence, and teamwork.


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