LSA’s Department of History of Art celebrates two magnificent gifts from distinguished former faculty member Ilene Forsyth, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor Emerita of History of Art (A.B. 1950 Michigan; M.A., Ph.D. Columbia University). Prof. Forsyth's transformative endowments, totaling $8.2 million, represent the most generous benefaction ever made to the Department of History of Art.
Together, the gifts will enhance the department’s exceptional strength among public universities. One of the largest departments of art history in North America – with specialists covering every major continent and dealing with all historical periods from antiquity to the present – Michigan has long ranked among the top art history programs nationally. The department has been home to some of the most distinguished scholars in the field, including Prof. Forsyth, a foremost expert in medieval sculpture and the precious arts, especially of the Romanesque era.
The George H. and Ilene H. Forsyth Professorship in Medieval Art secures the future of the study and teaching of western medieval and Byzantine art at the University of Michigan. This endowed professorship honors the memory of George H. Forsyth Jr., medieval architectural historian, former chair of the department (1947-1961) and director of the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology (through 1969), even as it supports Prof. Ilene Forsyth’s own area of passionate and brilliant scholarship. It is one of the very few medieval art history chairs in the nation.
The Ilene H. Forsyth Fund was created to help the department maintain its high level of excellence and renown. It will support collaboration and exchange by bringing exceptional visiting scholars, postdoctoral fellows, and advanced students to the university and providing opportunities for faculty and students to pursue educational and research opportunities on campus and around the world.
“With these gifts I am making an investment in the future,” said Ilene Forsyth. “My belief in the value of the study of art and history has only grown over time.” She has expressed her pleasure in being able to support faculty and students in the department that her late husband George Forsyth helped to shape in the 1950s, and in which she long taught and was enabled and encouraged to produce rigorous humanistic scholarship.
“Ilene Forsyth’s wonderfully generous support truly marks a juncture in the history of our department and stands as a bold assertion of belief in the humanities,” said Elizabeth Sears, chair of the Department of History of Art and the George H. Forsyth Jr. Collegiate Professor of History of Art. “The endowments she has provided, thoughtfully conceived, at once focused and flexible, give the Department the means to consolidate strengths and to undertake important new initiatives. There was much rejoicing when the gifts were announced!”
Prof. Forsyth’s philanthropic roots with the Department of History of Art are deep. Other funds she has endowed include two graduate fellowships supporting research and travel, especially for students in the medieval field, and “Explorations in Art and Visual Culture,” the fund that enables all students taking art history classes to travel to see works of art firsthand.
Forsyth joined the faculty at the University of Michigan in 1961, having left a position at Columbia University. At Michigan she rose through the ranks to become a full professor in 1974 and, in recognition of her superlative scholarship and teaching, was named Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in 1984. Students in a wide range of specializations benefited from her training. Famously, she “opened their eyes” and taught them how to see, even while helping them to locate the objects historically in their social and cultural contexts. At a time when women were not well represented in the higher ranks, she was invited onto innumerable boards and visiting committees, becoming an important voice in an expanding discipline. Prof. Forsyth is the recipient of many honors, including an appointment as Kress Professor at the National Gallery of Art (1998-99) and Fellow of the Medieval Academy of America (2006). She was named Professor Emerita of History of Art upon her retirement from the University in 1997.
Additionally, Prof. Forsyth has been an ardent supporter of the arts at the University of Michigan. She has generously established three endowments at the University Musical Society to support three performances each season (orchestral, chamber arts, and a theater presentation), and has donated artwork to the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology and to the U-M Museum of Art, including a rare Romanesque ivory game piece. She has made significant contributions to the Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum as well as the Bentley Historical Library, where, in 2017, she deposited her first husband George’s scholarly papers.