When Professor of Art Bill Salzillo retires in June, it will mark more than the end of a productive 50-plus year career. The artist, teacher, and gallery director is the last member of the Hamilton faculty to have begun his tenure at Kirkland College.

Salzillo came to College Hill in 1973 and was instrumental in establishing the Art Department at Kirkland. He joined the Hamilton faculty in 1978 when the colleges merged and from 1982 to 1992 served as founding director of the Emerson Gallery. A painter and printmaker, his work has been exhibited at the National Academy of Design and Fourteen Sculptors Gallery, New York City; Everson Museum, Syracuse; Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, Utica; and elsewhere.

We asked him to look back on his career. Here are excerpts from that discussion.

How did you develop your love for art?

My dad was in the service, so I spent time as a kid in Japan, Virginia, France. We moved around a lot, which was fun. It led to a broad education, and visiting museums led to my interest in art. My aunt gave me a paint kit when I was 12-years-old, but I never thought of [art] as a profession. When I got to Middlebury I started taking art courses and was encouraged by my professors. 

Salzillo earned an undergraduate degree in history at Middlebury College and a second in fine arts at Rhode Island School of Design. He holds a master’s degree from Cranbrook Academy of Art.

At the time I went to grad school, liberal arts colleges — institutions like Hamilton — were suddenly starting to establish serious art programs. Almost everyone was there to get a teaching job. … I was never really interested in moving to New York [and working as an artist]. While I was at Cranbrook, I spent two summers teaching at Interlocken Music Camp. I met some great people, and when I got in the classroom it felt like home, a place where I could be comfortable.

What drew you to Kirkland? 

Kirkland was unusual because it had six people on the art faculty. We had film, photography, sculpture, printmaking, ceramics, painting. Nobody in our peer group had that. List Art Center — at the time a state-of-the-art building — was the only building [at Kirkland] designated exclusively for a specific use. It was a great place to teach with tremendous support unlike at other institutions where [the arts] was a sideline; we were the focus. Kirkland was about putting creativity right at the center.

The merger of Hamilton and Kirkland did not come without its share of tense moments within the faculty ranks, and, in the end, Salzillo recalls that many were not invited to stay. However, the Art Department remained intact.

Kirkland Gate detail

How did you come to add gallery director to your duties?

From the time I came to Kirkland, I was very interested in bringing in people from the outside to meet with students. Up until I arrived, Munson-Williams-Proctor programmed the Root Arts Center [in what is now the Anderson-Connell Alumni Center]. They had some amazing shows there — Edward Hopper, Charles Burchfield, and others. 

Eventually the College saw the need to take over management of its collection, and the Emerson Gallery opened on the first floor of Christian Johnson Hall with Salzillo as its founding director. During this time he continued to teach four courses and chair the Art Department.

I always saw working with the gallery as part of my teaching, bringing in students to work there. I had been doing a lot of curating at the Root Arts Center, and I was very involved in supporting plans for the new gallery, which grew essentially from the idea of it being no more than a lobby. Along came me who suggested we needed storage space and security and proper lighting. We were lucky [that people listened]. We had a good run. Nobody expected us to be having shows reviewed in The New York Times

When we started we had no arts advisory committee. I worked to establish relationships with alumni collectors like Keith Wellin [’50], Hans Schambach [’43], and Bill Roehrick [’34]. Pat and Eric Selch [’52, P’79,’88] had a fabulous collection, with Gauguin, Van Gogh, it was incredible. Michael Shapiro [’71, now director emeritus of the High Art Museum in Atlanta] was involved on our first committee. A lot of people were responding; a lot of people were coming in who were never involved before.

Alumni engagement led to opportunities, including a popular Hamilton collectors exhibit and two shows around an impressive collection of musical instruments owned by Schambach. “The Art of Music” traveled to the Whitney Museum in New York and garnered several prizes.

You left the gallery in 1993, but your involvement didn’t end, correct?

It had reached a certain point where I had done much of what I had intended and decided I wanted to concentrate more on my family. I also realized we needed a new facility in order to move forward.

I did come back a few years later [when the gallery was between directors] to do a show with Dan Dietrich [’64], who had an incredible collection. … And Kevin Kennedy [’70], who was board chair at the time, lent his support and pieces to another very well received “Hamilton Collects” show that marked the 20th anniversary of Emerson Gallery. That’s when serious discussions started about [what would become the Wellin Museum in 2012].

Looking back over the past 50 years, what would you say was the best of Hamilton?

I’ve learned a lot being here. I’ve grown here and that to me is the thing about a place like Hamilton that’s different from the commercial art world. It’s a place where people take the time to learn and grow and study and understand.

There was so much collaboration that was fostered. I had some great colleagues. Carole Bellini-Sharp [the late professor of theatre] started the same year that I did and we would collaborate on dance sets. Bill Rosenfeld [the late professor of creative writing] wrote an opera.

In his retirement, Salzillo plans to focus more time on his art, especially printmaking, and raising his French bulldogs — two grand champions and one champion.

I believe that certain times are ripe with possibilities — the right people, the right circumstances. I saw those possibilities and was able to take advantage of that. It was the best of Hamilton because people were open, flexible. We had all of this support for the arts. It was important enough at Kirkland to make it a flagship program and then to continue developing the curriculum at Hamilton. People on campus became aware and joined those of us who advocated for [the arts] on campus, but alumni collectors advocated for it as well. To be part of that was exciting.

And please thank all of the students I’ve had the pleasure to work with over the years. They taught me everything.

Feature photo: Bill Salzillo in front of the Kirkland Wall in the Kennedy Center for Theatre and the Studio Arts. The wall includes the name of every alumna who matriculated at Kirkland College. Photo by Kevin Waldron.

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