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  • Robert M. Edsel

In Memoriam: Dr. Bruce Cole, Champion of the Arts

Works of art and other cultural treasures have not survived the ages by accident. Learned people of previous generations understood the importance of preserving mankind’s most noble and creative moments, seeing them as signposts in the development of civilization. Over centuries and through wars, natural disasters, and religious and political upheavals, they served as guardians of our shared cultural heritage. Recently, one of those guardians passed away – Dr. Bruce Cole.

Robert Edsel and Dr. Bruce Cole

During his near-eighty years, Bruce Cole unceasingly championed history and the arts as an acclaimed professor at Indiana University-Bloomington, an award-winning author of fifteen books, and through his leadership of the National Endowment for the Humanities, where he served as the most longstanding chairman in its history. Bruce received recognition from U.S. presidents and dignitaries from foreign lands, but that praise was secondary to his passion for sharing the importance and beauty of art with others.

Unlike many scholars, Bruce spoke and wrote about art using language that made it accessible to the broadest number of people, especially younger audiences. He sought out programs that joined powerful storytelling with compelling images. Two prominent examples included a nine-part series that aired on PBS based on his outstanding book, Art of the Western World, and Picturing America, a NEH program that utilized famous works of art to teach students about American history. Picturing America ultimately reached 55,000 schools plus public libraries and community centers across the country.

I first met Bruce in my role as co-producer of the documentary, The Rape of Europa. Our film, based on the eponymous award-winning book written by scholar Lynn Nicholas, told the story of Nazi looting during World War II and profiled the work of several Monuments Men. Only at the end of that meeting did I discover our shared connection involving the Monuments Men, in particular Fred Hartt, one of the nation’s most brilliant scholars on art of the Renaissance. Bruce had studied under Fred; I had known about Fred for years while researching the Monuments Men and their extraordinary achievements protecting millions of works of art and other cultural treasures during World War II.

During our meeting, Bruce told me that after he had learned that the NEH had rejected the filmmaker’s initial grant request to provide lead funding for The Rape of Europa, he made certain that a second request was approved. Men and women of conviction are oftentimes lightning rods for criticism, but Bruce was fearless, and in this instance, correct. The film opened to universal praise, had a very successful national television broadcast on PBS, and garnered an Emmy nomination.

The next time I saw Bruce Cole was at the White House for the presentation ceremony of the National Humanities Medal to the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art, a dramatic and surreal moment after all years of work to honor the men and women who saved millions of cultural items from the destruction of war and theft by the Nazis. Sharing the stage with Monuments Men Harry Ettlinger, Seymour Pomrenze, James Reed, and Bernie Taper, and seeing the joy on their faces as the President presented the medal is a memory I hold dear. The Monuments Men Foundation will forever remain grateful to President George W. Bush for recognizing the work of the Foundation, and to Bruce Cole for his steadfast support.

From left to right: Robert M. Edsel, Monuments Man James Reeds, President George W. Bush, and Monuments Men Seymour Pomrenze, Harry Ettlinger, and Horace Apgar at the ceremony for the 2007 National Humanities Medal.

Bruce was a fierce proponent of the things he believed were important and took decisive action to help as much as possible. Support like that proved invaluable in the early days of the Monuments Men Foundation and our efforts to share the legacy of the Monuments Men and Women with a national audience. Some months later, I had an opportunity to ask Bruce why he felt so strongly about the Monuments Men story. “Simple,” he said. “It’s not only a story about art and about culture and about democracy and totalitarianism, but it’s a great human story, and it’s a great American story and we need to know about it.”

The death of Bruce Cole is a great loss to our nation. We honor this dedicated civil servant and passionate scholar by remembering his role as defender of those things that cannot defend themselves, the very things that define us as a civilization: the arts and humanities.

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