Honoring a Champion of the Arts and Humanities
It is fitting that we gather this morning in the foyer of the Indiana University Auditorium, one of the centerpieces of IU's great traditions in the arts and humanities, to honor the life and career of one of the university's most distinguished scholars and public servants—a man who dedicated himself tirelessly to the deeper understanding, appreciation and celebration of the arts and humanities: Bruce Cole.
IU's renown in the arts and humanities is based, first and foremost, on the eminence and reputation of its superb scholars. From language and literature, to the fine and performing arts, they have established IU’s programs as among the finest in the world. They have also contributed immeasurably to providing a liberal education, in the very truest sense, to generations of IU students. The arts and humanities, especially when taught and expounded upon by a master like Bruce, can play an indispensable role in developing the moral and ethical character of students and to help prepare them for democratic responsibility, civic leadership, global engagement and personal fulfillment.
Bruce Cole's distinguished career as a faculty member at Indiana University contributed in glittering measure to this renown. And through his subsequent service to the university—and to the nation—Bruce continued to champion the arts and humanities for their value as an integral part of our daily lives and as a vital part of our nation’s cultural heritage.
Bruce Cole's Career in Art History
Bruce traced his love for the arts to childhood trips to the Cleveland Art Museum with his Aunt Gertrude. But it was as a freshman in college that he truly found his calling when he first saw the painting "The Meeting of Saint Anthony and Saint Paul" in a textbook. He described the moment as "an epiphany" that led him to dedicate himself to the study of the Italian Renaissance.1
He began his academic career at the University of Rochester and came to IU in 1973. His nearly three decades of service on the IU faculty included service as chair of the Department of Art History, and, of course, he rose to the rank of Distinguished Professor of Art History and Comparative Literature. He would later serve the university in a number of other important capacities. In 2010, when then-governor Mitch Daniels appointed him to the IU Board of Trustees, Bruce became the first IU faculty member in the modern era to serve on the Board. I was particularly grateful to him for his advice and counsel as a member of the Board since, as the only academic on it, he brought to bear that immense experience and difference in perspective on all the issues with which we were wrestling. After he left the Board in 2014, he served as chair of the search committee that helped bring David Brenneman to IU as director of the Eskenazi Museum of Art.
Bruce achieved great distinction both within his field of art history and in the broader arts community. He wrote more than a dozen books on Renaissance art and related subjects. In the words of Douglas Lewis, who was associated with the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. for 40 years, 36 of which he served as the Gallery’s curator of sculpture and decorative arts, Bruce became "one of the household names in art history."2
Cole at the National Endowment for the Humanities
In 2001, of course, Bruce was nominated by President George W. Bush to serve as the eighth chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. He was unanimously confirmed by the Senate for a first term on September 14, 2001—just three days after the attacks of September 11. He was appointed and confirmed for a second term in 2005, and his eight years of service as NEH chairman made him the longest-serving chairman in the organization’s history.
Ironically it was only around this time just before Bruce went to the NEH that I got to know him. I had become interested in Byzantine history and was wondering what the influence was of the Byzantines, fleeing the end of their empire, on the founding of the Renaissance. So, who better to ask than Bruce. I sent him an email – we had never met or corresponded – and he sent me a courteous reply indicating that it was a good question that had been little studied. However, he recommenced a book that I read and found very helpful on this topic. Bruce later admitted he was enormously surprised to receive a message from me, as I was then just the vice president for information technology, and he was especially surprised to hear from me on such a subject, as he had me cast as technology barbarian. But in this regard, it was at the NEH that Bruce had another epiphany—he began to realize how technology could be used to immeasurably amplify and expand the reach and impact of the arts and humanities, so much so that within a few years he emerged as one of the most articulate and respected advocates for its importance. During this period, he invited both Laurie, then at Internet2, and me to serve as members of an NEH workshop on the importance of digital technology to the mission of the NEH, and thereafter Laurie and I became fast friends with Bruce and Doreen.
He was an extraordinarily visionary chair of the NEH, ushering in the era of its full participation in digital scholarship, while focusing it on some of the very best in American art, history, and values.
During his years as chair of the NEH, Bruce spearheaded such efforts as the Digital Humanities Initiative and the We the People Program. Programs such as these highlighted the crucial role history plays in strengthening democracy and offer a vision of the future with enhanced opportunities created by technological advances. Bruce dedicated himself to what he called "the challenge of restoring America’s memory."3
As he explained in a 2008 senate subcommittee hearing, "Americans are bound by ideas and ideals that every citizen must know for our republic to survive. That survival is not preordained; the habits and principles of our democracy must be learned anew and passed down to each generation."4
Words that have never been more true that they are at the moment.
After the NEH, he went on to serve as President and CEO of the American Revolution Center in Philadelphia, as a Senior Fellow of the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., and as Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in our nation’s capital.
Bruce was the recipient of many honors and awards throughout his distinguished career. They reflect the measure of dedication that Bruce brought to every endeavor.
He held fellowships and grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the American Philosophical Society, among many others. He was a corresponding member of the Accademia Senese degli Intronati, the oldest learned society in Europe, and he was the founder of the Association for Art History.
In 2006, Bruce was named a Sagamore of the Wabash by then-Governor Mitch Daniels, the highest honor Indiana’s governor can bestow. In 2008, I was delighted to present Bruce with the highest honor an Indiana University president can bestow, the President’s Medal for Excellence, in recognition of his distinction in public service, his service to the university, and his achievement in the humanities.
In 2008, President George W. Bush awarded Bruce the Presidential Citizens Medal "for his work to strengthen our national memory and ensure that our country's heritage is passed on to future generations." The medal is second only to the Presidential Medal of Freedom among the honors that the president can confer upon a civilian. Also in 2008, he was decorated Knight of the Grand Cross, the highest honor of the Republic of Italy.
In 2013, Bruce was appointed by President Barack Obama to be a member of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Commission.
Bruce held a deep dedication to the idea that the strength of our democracy depends upon the strength of our education. He built upon those strengths as an educator and as a public servant, serving Indiana University generously with his time and energy and serving our nation with his passionate dedication to preserving and enhancing our democracy, our historical memory and our culture.
All of us are extremely proud that IU served as Bruce’s academic home for so many years and grateful to have benefitted from his extraordinary accomplishments and service to the university. He will be profoundly missed, and our thoughts and most sincere condolences go to his wife, Doreen; his brother, Neil; his son Ryan and Daughter Stephanie; his grandchildren; and to all of his friends and former colleagues here and all around the nation who held him in the highest of regard and esteem.
To adapt a phrase used by Winston Churchill, a man he enormously admired, Bruce was truly an American worthy.
1. Jacqueline Trescott, "The Scholar’s Call to Arms – Bruce Cole Sees the Humanities as Key to Building a Homeland Defense." Washington Post March 6, 2002.
3. Bruce Cole, "Humanities Must Strive to Reverse American Amnesia." Richmond Times-Dispatch (VA) September 18, 2004, A-13.
4. Bruce Cole, "Prepared Statement of Chairman Bruce Cole Before the Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies, U.S. House of Representatives." March 11, 2008.