Professor emerita endows two gifts in LSA art history department


Two new gifts totaling $8.2 million to LSA from alumna and retired professor Ilene Forsyth will secure the future study of medieval art at the University of Michigan and provide educational and research opportunities for faculty and students.

Together, the gifts will enhance the Department of History of Art’s national standing among other top-ranked programs while encouraging links with scholars worldwide.

Photo of Ilene Forsyth
Ilene Forsyth

One gift establishes the George H. and Ilene H. Forsyth Professorship in Medieval Art, honoring the memory of George H. Forsyth Jr., medieval architectural historian, who served as both chair of the Department of History of Art and director of the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology. With this gift, U-M becomes one of only two schools in the country with an endowed professorship in medieval art.

The second gift establishes the Ilene H. Forsyth Fund, intended to support departmental initiatives including postdoctoral fellowships, a visiting scholars program, a student and faculty exchange program, new seminars and symposia, faculty research, and study trips for art history students.

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“We are excited by this generous donation and grateful to Professor Ilene Forsyth for helping to ensure the legacy of art history at U-M,” said Elizabeth Cole, interim dean of LSA. “Offering flexibility and focus, the gift enables us to further advance the University of Michigan as home to one of the most distinguished art history programs in the country.”

“Professor Forsyth, one of U-M’s great teachers, has dedicated her life to providing a better understanding of art, its history, and its impact on our world,” said Elizabeth Sears, chair of the Department of History of Art and the George H. Forsyth Jr. Collegiate Professor of History of Art. “Her unparalleled generosity opens a new chapter in departmental history and we are beyond grateful.”

Forsyth’s gift is among the largest ever given to a department in the humanities division of LSA.

“This gift is such a powerful investment in the humanities and their role in understanding the human experience,” said Anne Curzan, LSA associate dean for the humanities, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English Language and Literature, and professor of English language and literature, linguistics, and education.

“Here at U-M we believe deeply in the importance of humanistic inquiry and collaboration in our ever more globally connected world.”

Forsyth, professor emerita of history of art in LSA and former Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, was a pioneer among women in academia. Her distinguished record of publication in medieval art, including the prize-winning book, “The Throne of Wisdom: Wood Sculpture of the Madonna in Romanesque France” (1972), ensured an international reputation. She came to U-M in 1962 and taught for 35 years, retiring in 1997.

Forsyth’s longstanding philanthropic support for the Department of History of Art includes endowed graduate fellowships — especially for those studying medieval art — and funding for “Explorations in Art and Visual Culture,” a program that enables all students taking art history courses to travel to museums and sites so as to study works of art firsthand.

An ardent supporter of the arts at U-M, Forsyth also has established three endowments at the University Musical Society that support performances each season: orchestral, chamber arts and a theater presentation.

She has donated artwork to the Kelsey Museum and 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 to the Bentley Historical Library, where, in 2017, she deposited her late husband’s scholarly papers.

The Department of History of Art is well-known for its rigorous curriculum, combining coursework with hands-on experience. It has long-established partnerships with museums including UMMA, the Kelsey Museum, and the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Known for its global reach with specialists in Asian, African, Middle-Eastern, European, and North and South American art, the department has more than 2,500 alumni worldwide, including leading academics and art professionals.


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