This spring, art history Professor Emeritus Charles Brownell and his sister, Louise, made a gift to establish the Bess T. Brownell Fund in memory of their mother, Bess Trippe Brownell (1910-95) at VCU Libraries. The Brownell Fund supports the acquisition, stewardship and access of rare printed and hand-made publications and ephemera on architecture and the decorative arts by Special Collections and Archives at the James Branch Cabell Library of VCU Libraries.

Yuki Hibben, Interim Head and Curator of Books and Art, Special Collections and Archives, said of the gift “The work of Special Collections and Archives is as highly specialized and diverse as the collections that we hold. For that reason, funding to support the work that we do is crucial as our needs are great and not often covered with traditional venues of funding. The Bess T. Brownell Fund will help us to meet many of these needs as they relate to architecture and the decorative arts.”

Charles, an architectural and decorative arts historian, taught in the art history department at VCU’s School of the Arts for 23 years before retiring in 2015. His sister, Louise, served as Registrar of the Maryland Historical Society from 1998 to 2015. In 2018, with a shared interest in history, architecture and the decorative arts, the siblings began collaborating on the “Artistic Mansions,” event to benefit VCU Libraries. In 2020, the annual spring event had to be cancelled due to the pandemic, but there are plans to revive the series when it is safe to do so. This popular event that combines a formal lecture followed by a walking tour, celebrates VCU’s nationally important “outdoor museum” of historic buildings. In addition, thanks to the generosity of Charles, Special Collections and Archives in the Cabell Library holds the manuscripts for these presentations as well as many papers, theses, and dissertations by Dr. Brownell’s students and various other materials that are valuable research resources in these areas of study.

In naming an endowment for his mother, Charles said “Bess was a wonderful mother who encouraged our interest in the arts. Deeply loyal, she supported all of our interests, some of which were not well regarded in the 1950s and 1960s (when, for instance, boys were not supposed to take an interest in the decorative arts and girls were more often encouraged to become secretaries, nurses or teachers rather than historians).” A true independent spirit, in mid-life Bess boldly made a career of management at the local branch of Saks Fifth Avenue, a move which her children noted with pride.

This is the second endowment to be created at VCU in memory of Bess Brownell, who was a good friend to the university. The first is a scholarship in the department of art history that bears her name. We are grateful to Charles and Louise for remembering their mother with these gifts of endowments.

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