Exploring Connelly Art Gallery

Lauren Piro

The commuter lounge in Villanova’s Connelly Center is host to the usual collegiate set – students buried in books and crippled by overstuffed backpacks or those who view the numerous worn couches more as the site of a midday power nap than a study session. The scent of freshly brewed coffee and oil-soaked French fries wafts up from the lower floor of the normally bustling student center, and one feels like the place serves only as a pit stop for the constantly moving and shaking Villanovan. Taking a moment to slow down and turn to the back of the lounge, however, you may actually find your new favorite cultural spot on campus – the Villanova Art Gallery.

“I think the art gallery provides a reflective spot to admire works of art from artists in the Philadelphia area,” senior Charlotte Thurston says. “But, I think because it is tucked away in the Connelly Center, many people don’t know about it or they’re too busy doing other things to stop and visit.”

Such is the dilemma of the gallery. What is an afterthought to many students and perhaps unknown to even more is actually a campus cultural gem that represents more of the University than what many passersby realize.

The gallery first opened with Connelly Center 30 years ago. Since then, Rev. Richard Canulli, O.S.A., University professor and artist, has acted as its director, curating art to be shown in the space while promoting the gallery within and beyond the immediate Villanova community. The gallery collects art for exhibition from artists who work with a range of media; shows have included photography, watercolors and sculptures to name a few. To what may be the surprise of many, including Thurston, the small space has shown work from local artists as well as those based as far as in Europe and Asia.

“Usually the opening show in the fall showcases a teacher,” says Canulli. “We’ve exhausted the number of Villanova teachers who are artists, so now we find either high school or college teachers from many places in the U.S. They have to apply for a show.”

The art gallery, being non-profit and non-commercial, attracts and accepts applications from up-and-coming artists across the nation. From years of receiving submissions from these artists as well as donations from other patrons, the gallery has collected 6,000 pieces of art that the University now owns.

“When I first came here there were only 73 pieces,” Canulli says. “I used to know all the pieces by heart, back when we kept them on index cards and not in a computer database.”

Reflecting on its place in the Villanova community, Canulli says the art gallery has been used prominently as an extension of the classroom as a space where professors can hold class discussions on course topics from an artist’s – and an art observer’s – point of view. A professor of studio art and iconography, Canulli describes taking his own students to visit the gallery and talk about the work there.

As one glances around his academic office lined with his own works, it is clear that Canulli sees a strong connection between art and education. The gallery is his vehicle for embedding that ideology in Villanova students as well.

Falling in line with true Villanova “caritas,” the gallery also sponsors community outreach workshops involving the exhibits throughout the year. Most recently, a day of arts and crafts was held for children in the area with HIV.

“We made hats and bags that they got to help sew on a sewing machine,” Canulli says, “This way they get to go home with something creative and see what a university is like.”

Hoping to attract those who are interested in art beyond an educational or community service standpoint, the art gallery changes exhibits at least four times a year and always with a variety of dutifully crafted pieces. Canulli himself will showcase his work in the spring – a collection of mixed media pieces reflecting on shrines in southern Italy that has taken him 10 years to complete. Like with every opening, he will extend an invitation to the entire student community, but will expect a less than Mona Lisa-sized turn out.

“I think about one-tenth know it’s there, and then maybe two percent go into the gallery,” says Canulli. “They hardly ever come to the openings, where there is always free food. In the beginning I used to go up and down the streets to bring them in, but there is only so much you can do.”

Some students blame the gallery’s small size or less than prominent locale among slaving and slumbering undergrads in the lounge to which it is adjacent. But for those who have found the gallery, they believe they have found a masterpiece.

Senior Marissa Bulger enjoys the gallery so much she is almost protective of it and the beauty she says surrounds her when she is there.

“I’ve always thought of it as ‘my spot’ so I’m surprised whenever I see other students there,” she says. “It’s funny how often people forget that it’s even there. The commuter lounge will be packed with people and I’ll just visit a corner of the art gallery to get work done. It’s one of the few peaceful places on campus and they usually display really interesting artwork on a unique culture – something Villanova is working harder to expose students to.”

Canulli’s plans for the future of the art gallery work toward upping this exposure; he hopes that a museum space will be included in the Campus Master Plan to act as a permanent home for some of the most interesting pieces in Villanova’s large collection. For the time being, those that are not displayed in the gallery or around campus sit in storage, waiting to become part of the Villanova mission cultivated in art.

At a school with a small art gallery and even smaller fine arts program, it is no surprise that the hidden artistic space is not as well-known as its accomplishments warrant it to be. But with planned growth and continued excellence, the gallery may know a more visible place within the Villanova community it already represents so fully – with colors that are flying rather than fleeting.