David Smith, founder of Caltech’s daring Baxter Art Gallery and a professor of English for more than 30 years, has died. He was 67.
Smith died Friday of cancer at his home in Malibu.
Respected as a Joseph Conrad scholar and editor of the periodical Joseph Conrad Today, Smith was perhaps better known as founder of the nationally known Baxter gallery, which closed in 1985. A painter by avocation, he served as the gallery’s first director.
One famous early Baxter exhibition linked a computer at MIT running “Doctor,” a program representing nondirective psychotherapy, to a computer at Caltech running “Parry,” a program representing paranoid schizophrenia. Exhanges between the “therapist” and “patient” machines were printed out and projected onto a screen for viewers.
The gallery’s final 1985 exhibition of spectacular NASA photography continues to tour the world.
Noting that museums in Los Angeles declined in the 1970s, Jay Belloli, a former Baxter Art Gallery director and now director of the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena, credited Smith with preserving contemporary art in this area during a difficult period.
“Dave Smith was one of those who kept hope alive during the lean years,” Belloli said, “and he did so in the heart of the scientific community, historically one of the least hospitable to the visual arts. Dave had a way of turning obstacles into advantages.”
The Baxter Art Gallery was so highly regarded, Belloli said, that when it closed, the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution requested all its records.
“And rightly so,” he said. “In the history of art in this community, the gallery played a unique role.”
Founded in 1969, the gallery was supported primarily by private donations and closed briefly in 1976 because of a lack of money. Smith claimed the Caltech administration provided virtually no financial support for the gallery because of pressures over controversial exhibits.
“Since visual arts have to do with visual reality they should make us stop and think about visual reality,” Smith said during the 1976 funding crisis. “But sooner or later some (people) are going to be upset because they don’t like to be prodded out of their comfortable path . . . (and) the administration cares about the opinion of people contributing money to Caltech.”
Smith is survived by his wife, Annette; his sons Christopher, David and Pierre, and a grandson, Tyler.
A memorial program will be scheduled at Caltech at a later date. Funeral services will be private.