The Story Behind the Esbenshade Professorship in Visual Art

It was a confluence of interests that led Harry “Hap” Esbenshade III to endow a chair in the arts, but it started with a trip. He and his daughter were looking for a college with a strong visual arts program. They toured a lot of schools and what they found was a large concentration in the northeast and a few in the south. But, he says, “there’s really nothing in the southeast.” That’s especially true if you’re looking for a strong arts program at a liberal arts college.

To Esbenshade, a business-minded alumnus (class of ’79) with a long record of philanthropic and volunteer service to Duke, the void looked not so much like a problem as an opportunity – a chance, he says, for Duke “to distinguish itself by becoming the truly exceptional school in the arts in the southeast.”

Steps had already been taken in that direction, starting with the founding of the Nasher Museum of Art, which gave Duke much-needed credibility in the arts arena. Still, Esbenshade says, “compared to many other areas at Duke, we have farther to go to bring the arts up to the same status as the rest of the university. I wanted to do something to help move us in that direction.”

Esbenshade is, in his description, an unlikely patron of the arts. “I’m a specialty contractor,” he says. “We do roofing, sheet metal and mechanical contracting, and have shops. What do I know about art?” Considering that his daughter is a talented painter and his mother was an artist, as well, he may be selling himself a little short. But in any case, he clearly knows something about artists and about arts education, and he’s troubled by what he sees.

“We delay discovery of the arts in public schools through underfunding,” he says, “so unfortunately it may not come until college. And then the students get in and they say, ‘Wow! I wish I could have gotten this sooner, but now I’m going to get as much as I can.’”

That thinking informs his gift. Duke has long offered introductory classes in painting and drawing but little beyond that. Esbenshade stipulated that the professorship he endowed is for an artist who will teach intermediate and advanced arts. It’s meant to give students that opportunity to dig deeper. It also gives college applicants with an interest in the arts more reason to seriously consider Duke.

The Esbenshade Professorship of the Practice of Visual Arts, then, is a strategic investment by Esbenshade in Duke’s program of expansion in the arts – an endeavor he sees as important and promising. It’s “a very small but corrective step” for arts education in general. And it’s a way to honor the creative passion of both his mother and his daughter.

The gift is also a challenge. “If a contractor from West Virginia can do this,” Esbenshade says, “what could you maybe do?” For his part, he adds, “I’ve never missed a dollar I gave away.”