The Story Behind The Name: Norton Center for the Arts

Posted by Centre News in News, Norton Center 30 Oct 2015

nortoncenter_nightYoung, Crounse, Sutcliffe, Breckinridge . . . today these names are simply places where we go to learn chemistry or philosophy, to work out, to meet a professor or hang with a friend. But before they were attached to particular buildings, these names belonged to real people whose close ties to Centre reveal fascinating stories.

As the College wends its way toward its bicentennial in 2019, it seems timely to recall the people who lent their names to campus landmarks.

Norton Center for the Arts

nortoncenter_nightCentre College’s arts complex officially opened in September 1973 as the Regional Arts Center with the dual mission of providing instructional facilities for the fine arts and bringing truly outstanding cultural opportunities to Central Kentucky. Nine years later, in October 1982, the board of trustees renamed it the Jane Morton Norton Center for the Arts to honor the Louisville civic leader, Centre trustee and visionary patron of the arts.

Jane Morton Norton

Jane Morton Norton

Jane Morton Norton

A gracious and generous woman of rare imagination, Jane Morton Norton was born into a prominent Kentucky family in 1908, experienced almost unimaginable tragedy when both her husband and son were killed in separate car accidents in the same year, and emerged to establish herself as a successful professional artist when she was in her 60s.

It was one of her ethereal, light-infused paintings, in fact, that prompted her first trip to Centre.

During her 1977 exhibition at the Bodley Gallery in New York City (where Andy Warhol had exhibited), an anonymous buyer purchased a painting with a proviso: she must deliver it herself to Centre College.

Centre president Thomas A. Spragens charmed her as he gave her a campus tour during that fateful visit and persuaded her of the significance of Centre’s new arts center not only to the College, but also to the region. It was the beginning of an extraordinary relationship that would last until her death in 1988.

“I do look forward to an association with so many wonderful people drawn together in a work that I find pertinent and worthwhile,” she wrote to Spragens in 1980, soon after being named a trustee. “I am grateful for this chance to serve in some small way.”

In 1928, the young Jane Morton had married George Norton III, a lawyer who went on to found WAVE radio and the first television station in Kentucky. They had two children, George IV and Mary, and Jane Norton served on a number of boards for arts and humanitarian organizations in Louisville. After the 1964 deaths of both her husband and son, she took a more active role in the family business. Many credit her savvy acumen for the continuing expansion and success of the company. The Norton stations eventually expanded to five states and became known as Orion Broadcasting before their 1982 sale to Cosmos Broadcasting.

Jane Norton did not build the complex that now bears her name. The improbable notion for a major arts center on the campus of a tiny college belongs to Centre’s then-board chair, A. Chauncey Newlin-1925, a New York City lawyer. (In 1975, on the occasion of his 50th reunion, the board named the main concert hall in his honor.)

She did, however, take the arts center to a new level of excellence.

“Although the Norton Center owes its beginning to Chauncey Newlin, it owes its fulfillment to Mrs. Norton,” observed the late Bill Breeze ’45 when he was Centre’s interim president. “It enables Centre students to appreciate the arts—music, drama, and the visual arts—in a way that few if any small colleges can.”

Her connections, leadership, and enthusiasm made it possible for Centre to host internationally acclaimed performers such as a concert featuring Pearl Bailey, Sarah Vaughn, and Tony Bennett that was filmed for PBS and to organize a major exhibition of work by the Ukrainian sculptor Alexander Archipenko.

She also took the lead in strengthening the College’s own art collection, which at the time consisted mainly of a small group of prints. She presented Centre with The Betrothal by 17th-century Dutch artist Jan Weenix and introduced New York City art dealer Ivan Karp to the College, a relationship that over the years would add more than 75 important contemporary works to the Centre collection.

She took particular delight in shepherding young artists at Centre and elsewhere. One of her protégés was Tom Lear, the Louisville sculptor who designed Ex Astris in 1978 as the final touch to Centre’s arts center.

George Foreman, who worked closely with her when he was director of the Norton Center, recalls her as the “ideal patron.”

She was guided all her life by the strong sense of service and responsibility instilled in her early on by her grandfather, he adds.

“She never got over thinking that she had more to do,” Foreman says. “She’s one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever known in my whole life.”

by Diane Johnson
October 30, 2015

Article featured in the fall 2015 edition of Centrepiece magazine.

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