Trailblazer for Women: Virginia Rembert Liles

In the spring of 1982, new art department chair Dr. Virginia Rembert poses on the porch of Woods Hall. Photo by Lee Ann Lutz, BFA 1980, and courtesy of the UA College of Arts and Sciences.
In the spring of 1982, new art department chair Dr. Virginia Rembert poses on the porch of Woods Hall. Photo by Lee Ann Lutz (BFA 1980) and courtesy of the UA College of Arts and Sciences.

Originally published in the fall 2012 issue of The Loupe, as “Trailblazer for Women Leads UA Art into the Future,” by Rachel Dobson.

When her former colleagues talk about Virginia Pitts Rembert Liles, the word “gracious” appears frequently in their descriptions of her. “She was gracious and diplomatic,” says Robert Mellown, UA professor emeritus of art history. Liles’ former student Professor Marilyn R. Brown (BSC 1972) remembers her teaching as “a combination of awesome erudition and gracious elegance.” UA professor of art history Mindy Nancarrow adds that “Virginia had an old school way about her.” Those qualities have served Virginia Liles well in a career often spent blazing new trails in academia.

Liles’ career spans more than 45 years, highlighted by her popularity as a teacher, her scholarly accomplishments and her administrative leadership in the arts. She was the first woman chair of three southern art departments: Birmingham-Southern College, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and The University of Alabama. In addition, as Donaghey Distinguished Professor of Art and Art History at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock (UALR), Liles established their art history program. She took UAB’s fledgling art program to the department level and later at UA helped to found the joint program for the Master of Arts degree in art history with UAB.

Caption/photo credit: In the spring of 1982, new art department chair Dr. Virginia Rembert poses on the porch of Woods Hall. Photo by Lee Ann Lutz (BFA 1980) and courtesy of the UA College of Arts and Sciences.

Before her trailblazing administrative career, Liles shone as a teacher. Her charm and generous spirit helped her in connecting with students and colleagues, in making friends, and in creating good community relations that supported her educational arts programs. The late Robert Kaufmann (a former BSC student who went on to work as a librarian at the Metropolitan Museum of Art) called her art history courses “electrifying” in BSC’s alumni magazine, ‘Southern. BSC alumna Marilyn Brown wrote about her former teacher, “She made me realize that learning is not a chore or exercise, but a rich lifelong pursuit. Studying for her classes didn’t seem like work, it was something I looked forward to with joy.”

Keyser Wilson (UA MFA 1978), who has taught art in higher education for two decades, had Liles for four years of undergraduate art history at BSC, where Wilson earned her BFA in art. Wilson describes Liles’ way of letting students be themselves and encouraging their creativity: “We were all wild and crazy and she made us write a lot, gave serious lectures, a lot of tests and papers, and we smoked cigarettes in class! I loved her classes. She encouraged me to write what I think and feel and to hell with crap I was “taught” in high school, although she was more diplomatic in her statement. Dr. Rembert is really the ONLY woman who ever influenced me as an artist, and so I have a special place in my heart for her.”

Liles supported her colleagues as well as her students in their research and career paths. Other people’s successes genuinely made her happy. Professor Mindy Nancarrow remembers that while she was working on her first book on the Spanish painter, Bartolomé Estéban Murillo, Liles encouraged her scholarship and helped her connect with other scholars in her field. “She made me feel like I was special,” Nancarrow remembers. Liles has always had a strong network of colleagues around the country who were also friends. Artist Dorothy Gillespie, Pace Gallery founder Arne Glimcher, Met Museum librarian Robert Kaufmann and art historian Eleanor Tufts are a few examples.

SECAC was one of the annual events that allowed Liles to network and meet with friends and colleagues from all across the region. The Southeastern College Art Conference (SECAC), which she described recently as “like a little family,” is still the leading professional organization for art academics in the Southeast. Liles served as its president 1978-79 and was on its Board of Directors for seventeen years. She organized and chaired two annual meetings, at UALR in 1978 and at UA in 1986. In 1989 she was honored by SECAC with their Distinguished Service Award and was paid tribute by one of her oldest friends, John Schnorrenberg, professor emeritus of art history at UAB. Another friend and colleague at Arkansas, Lloyd W. Benjamin III (now President Emeritus and Trustee Professor of Indiana State University), wrote, “Virginia has been a constant presence at SECAC and significant contributor to art history in the South.”

A Leader Among Her Peers

Liles was a role model in teaching and administration through the 1970s and 1980s, a time when great changes were taking place for women in every part of society. Marilyn Brown wrote in ‘Southern, “As a role model at a time when women didn’t have that many, she convinced me that women could be proud of being intelligent and professionally committed to teaching others about the infinite possibilities of the human spirit.”

A brief overview of female heads of departments generally, and of academic art and art history departments specifically, shows how groundbreaking Liles’ career has been. In North America, only a sprinkling of women had served as academic department chairs in areas other than art since at least the 1920s. Stand-alone departments of art history broke ground within their institutions by hiring women as heads in the mid-1970s. Anne Coffin Hanson, the first female full professor at Yale, became chair of its Department of the History of Art in 1974, the first female department head at the university. In 1975 Madeline H. Caviness was named the first female department chair at Tufts University, also in art history. In academic departments of art (that often included art history), change was slower, although, oddly, the South may have been an exception. As early as 1960, Professor Gulnar Bosch, who later became a friend of Liles’, was named head of the art department at Florida State University, a post she held until 1977.

If Liles’ administrative achievements seem striking for a time when women were just beginning to make headway in leadership roles, they are even more so for a woman who was tragically pushed into her career. She met her first husband, John Lamar Rembert, while working on her master’s degree in Fine Arts and Fine Arts Education at Columbia University. They married, moved to Chapel Hill, NC, and then to Beloit College in Madison, WI, where he served as head of the art department. After her husband suffered a debilitating illness, the world she knew abruptly changed. She took over her husband’s teaching and began to study art history more seriously. The next years she spent caring for her invalid husband (until his death in 1978), teaching at several schools until arriving at Birmingham-Southern in 1960, all the while continuing her education. Liles earned a second master’s degree in art history at the University of Wisconsin, and ultimately her Ph.D. in art history and archeology at Columbia in 1970.

In 1970 the ten-year department veteran was named chair of the art department at Birmingham-Southern. In 1973, Frederick W. Conner, the new dean of the School of Humanities at UAB hired Liles away from BSC to turn UAB’s new art program into a full-fledged art department where she stayed for two years before going to Arkansas in 1975.

Coming to Alabama

Liles remembers, “They started looking for someone [to head the art department] at Alabama the year before they hired me. I heard about it, but I didn’t apply.” In the second year of the search, they asked her if she would be interested. “[Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences] Doug Jones was wonderful. I was hired for ten months and I could be off for two months in the summer.” With characteristic understatement she recalls some resistance: “I think some of the studio men were a little leery of having an art historian be in charge. So there was some difficulty for the first two or three years – a little rough going until I got my sea legs.” Liles kept the peace at Alabama, however, and even made some friends as she pushed the department to make the changes it needed to stay competitive with comparable schools, and to lay the groundwork for future improvements.

By 1986, she was getting her sea legs. “Things began to turn around when we invited SECAC [to conference in Tuscaloosa].” Liles knew what even football coaches know about “process:” that working together toward a common goal builds relationships and strengthens trust within a group. She enlisted Arts and Sciences Assistant Dean Joan Parsons Mitchell, department faculty and others to help her organize and involve the community. She relied on her organizing experiences with SECAC at Arkansas to guide her. And she mixed in a little down home glitz and some New York glamour for good measure. The young Kentuck Museum and Art Center in Northport headed by Georgine Clark hosted a luncheon for the conference goers and Jack Warner (then Chairman and CEO of Gulf States Paper Corporation) gave a party for the whole conference – a cocktail party and dinner party at the NorthRiver Yacht Club. Liles recalls, “It turned out to be almost 300 faculty and graduate students. It all went off just wonderfully.”

Liles also pulled together a top quality contemporary art exhibition at the conference. Arne Glimcher, founder of Pace Galleries in New York, had been her student at Massachusetts College of Art. She asked him if he would send down some art work for the conference. UA professor Tom Barnes drove a truck up to New York and brought back selections from Glimcher’s personal art collection to exhibit during the conference. “Arne himself came and delivered the [conference keynote] address!”

Liles recalls the costume party on the last night of the conference: “It was Halloween, so we had a ‘do’ at the L&N Train Station, and Arne’s wife and [artist] Dorothy Gillespie and Richard Martin, who was head of Arts Magazine, were judges for the costumes. The whole thing was just a coup.”

Making UA Competitive

Liles made slim educational resources go farther. UA and UAB had small undergraduate programs in art history, and each wanted to create a graduate program. She and John Schnorrenberg, then chair of UAB’s art department, whom she had known since Chapel Hill, worked with art historians on both campuses to create a joint program for the master of arts degree in art history between UA and UAB. They brought in John Howett, who had established Emory University’s art history program. Liles said they wanted to make sure “we were doing it right.” Howett read through the proposal and made suggestions. “He was just wonderful,” she remembers. In 1987 Liles and Schnorrenberg started the only program for the MA in art history in the state.

Although accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), Liles felt NASAD accreditation was vital to stay competitive. “The major art departments over the country were accredited through NASAD.” Ironically, the UA art department had helped to create NASAD in 1948, and had been a charter member, but later dropped out. Now, as competing universities like Auburn claimed accreditation and art students, Liles convinced the dean and then the art faculty of the wisdom of returning to NASAD’s standards. “We had to do it. Auburn had done it and they were touting themselves as the only accredited [art] program in Alabama.”

Liles’s Work Continues

Virginia Liles excels as a scholar as well as a teacher and administrator. She has published articles and numerous reviews for Woman’s Art Journal, Arts Magazine and Art Papers, as well as other scholarly publications. She also has done her part to build the arts community wherever she has lived by lecturing to interest groups, and writing for museum bulletins, popular arts magazines, and newspaper reviews. Since her retirement in 1999, she continues to publish: Mondrian in the U.S.A. (Parkstone Press, 2002); and most recently Bosch (Parkstone Press, 2004). She has two books in progress, one a biography of the artist Carl Holty. In 1993, UA’s College of Arts and Sciences’ Society of the Fine Arts awarded her the Distinguished Career Award.

Liles now lives at Danberry Retirement Center with her artist husband Raeford Liles. She continues to write and is currently working on her memoirs. Her recent drawings and paintings will be exhibited at the Unitarian-Universalist Church of Birmingham in February.

From the beginning, Virginia Rembert Liles carried into every aspect of her career a deep conviction of the value of academic art departments and what they can offer, not only to academia itself but to the community. This unassailable knowledge gave her the vision and self-assurance to develop and enrich each department in which she worked, always supported by her “old school” graciousness and charm. Almost as an afterthought, but with profound implications, she also cleared a new path for her female colleagues and inspired her students to carry on her legacy. As Marilyn Brown – whose own career as an art historian spans 35 years – described Liles recently, she was a “pioneering woman art department administrator, especially in the South.”

Editor’s note: Thanks to the editors of Birmingham-Southern College’s ‘Southern magazine for allowing me to quote their alumni. I am grateful to Dean Robert Olin of the College of Arts and Sciences for suggesting this article, and to Keyser Wilson and Dr. Marilyn Brown for sharing their memories. Dr. Mindy Nancarrow and Dr. Robert Mellown gave invaluable editing help; I am responsible for all errors. I am most grateful to Dr. Liles for her openness and generosity in our conversations. It was a pleasure and an inspiration getting to know her. She passed away July 5, 2013 — Rachel Dobson