The University of Michigan’s History of Art Department has received two donations totaling $8.2 million from alumni and Professor Emeritus Ilene Forsyth, allowing the department to expand its programming initiatives, according to a Jan. 10 press release. The donations establish the George H. and Ilene H. Forsyth Professorship in Medieval Art as well as the Ilene H. Forsyth Fund, allowing the department to better support faculty research. It will also fund undergraduate internship programs, postdoctoral fellowships and study abroad opportunities.
Forsyth taught medieval and Romanesque art at the University from 1962 until her retirement in 1997. The University named Forsyth a Thurnau professor in 1984 to spotlight her excellence in undergraduate teaching. In 1972, Forsyth published “The Throne of Wisdom: Wood Sculptures of the Madonna in Romanesque France,” earning her the Charles Rufus Morey Book Award — an award acknowledging distinguished books that have contributed meaningfully to the field.
Elizabeth Sears, chair of the History of Art Department, said Forsyth’s commitment to creating a global and wide-ranging history department made her a celebrated professor for more than 30 years.
“She was a really famous teacher in the day,” Sears said. “Very conscientious, (she) put together beautiful art history lectures where words and texts worked so well. She really helped people to learn to look, to see. I think she was very devoted to the University of Michigan, to art history and to her own field — medieval.”
As a result of Forsyth’s donation, the University became the second in the country to offer a professorship in the specialty of medieval art. Sears noted how medieval history is sometimes misused by contemporary politics to discuss ideas of racial purity. She said the professorship allows the department to shed light on an often neglected or misunderstood historical period.
“The Michigan department has always believed in the importance of studying many cultures and deep history,” Sears said. “Whereas some departments are focusing more exclusively on modern and contemporary, we believe in having a full chronological as well as geographical range. Medieval has been one of our great strengths for decades. This (gift) preserves it.”
Jeffrey Craft, chief administrator of the department, said the donation allows the department to “transcend” its previous research and study abroad programs. Craft noted how Forsyth’s gift will positively impact the history of art department as well as LSA as a whole.
“As for LSA, I think (the donation) will help them because there are things where we would go to them and ask them for funding, and that we now can be more self-sufficient,” Craft said. “That frees up the funds to be used for other departments and other initiatives. It’s a win not only for us as a department, but for LSA.”
Craft said the introduction of postdoctoral fellowships and faculty research projects allows the department to stand among national programs. He also mentioned how the donation, one of the largest ever given to a humanities department in LSA, must be distributed carefully in order to ensure the money will support different projects for undergraduates, graduates and faculty members.
“With such an endowment, there comes responsibilities on making sure we utilize the funds how Professor Forsyth wanted them to be used, while following all the regulations from the University,” Craft said.
The department has not decided on how to allocate the funds, but hopes the donation will incentivize new talented professors join the University.
Rackham student Michelle Al-Ferzly, whose research focuses on medieval Islamic art, considers Forsyth’s donation instrumental in guaranteeing the future of medieval studies at the University.
“If there is a professor in a certain discipline in a department and they retire, sometimes it is really hard to replace them because there aren’t funds devoted to that specific field,” Al-Ferzly said. “Having that professorship will just ensure that our department will continue to have expertise in the medieval field.”
Sears echoed this statement, noting how the gift will attract faculty members with a history of strong teaching and innovative research.
“It’s also very good for recruiting because it makes it very attractive for a faculty member to come to a place where they know that they have serious research money that is dedicated to their field of interest,” Sears said. “Of course, as you go outside, particularly in the humanities, there is a great deal of competition for limited resources. It’s also a world in which we’re realizing the advantages of collaborative work. The fact that this can supply the seed money for more ambitious, long-term projects is extremely attractive.”