In 1971, when the Campus Center at then-three-year-old Gloucester County College opened, art professor Ross Beitzel asked president William Apetz what was planned for the big, glassed-in case in the main lobby.
"After I scraped myself off the floor when he answered, 'Oh, that's for trophies,' I pleaded with him: 'Please, please, please, let us use it for art,' " Beitzel said.
"It was our only showcase then. And now, look, there are several more for three-dimensional art," said Beitzel, spreading his arms out in joy in that same space, now the Dr. Ross Beitzel Art Gallery.
Beitzel's initial request has made GCC unusual for a two-year public institution. Through his efforts, the school has a 500-piece permanent art collection whose worth he estimates at more than $250,000.
"Dr. Apetz became a great supporter of the idea of an art collection, and his spirit has been echoed by every administration," Beitzel said. Though he retired from full-time teaching 18 years ago, Beitzel, of Almonesson, teaches GCC courses as an adjunct professor and supervises the gallery and collection.
What is distinctive about GCC's acquisitions is that they are all on display all of the time.
"Rutgers-Camden has good pieces, but most of it is in storage," Beitzel said. "And I know we have more than any local public school, like Rowan or Stockton."
On the Sewell campus, art is on display everywhere. There are watercolors above water fountains and prints over secretaries' desks.
Even stairwells have been gussied up with art. One in the Campus Center had been just gray cinder-block walls and metal steps. Beitzel got Valero, which owns a refinery in West Deptford, to donate an acrylic abstract painting. Then he got the college to paint the staircase walls light peach, a stretch of ceiling a darker version, and another stretch soft green.
"We now have people who walk up the stairs and think about art," Beitzel said.
The eclectic collection is a testament to building slowly and patiently. With small grants from the college and donors, Beitzel went to galleries in New York and Philadelphia, especially to the Rittenhouse Square outdoor art shows, to buy pieces.
He has gotten local artists, such as landscape painter Woody Platt of West Deptford and Paul Stankard, a sculptor of ornamental paperweights who grew up in Salem County, to donate. And each time he traveled overseas, he would ask for a few hundred dollars to buy folk art - illuminated manuscript pages from Israel, an ornate, woven wedding skirt from Tanzania, natural-fiber and paint prints from Vietnam, a painting from Bhutan.
Whenever relatives died, Beitzel would ask mourners for a contribution to the school's acquisition fund in lieu of flowers.
One donor recently turned over three Andrew Wyeth drawings; another, a series of photographs from South Africa, Beitzel said.
"The whole collection could be the basis of any collection in a museum anywhere," said Burton Wasserman, an art critic and emeritus professor of art at Rowan University.
"What Ross has done with the collection is make sure students know that art is made by people, not just by small groups of artists, and that it is made all around the world," Wasserman said.
College provost John Henzy said he recently gave his "nickel tour" of the collection to two art professors from Connecticut, and two weeks later got a call from four other professors who had heard about the collection from them and had driven from Connecticut to see it.
"It's a hidden treasure. Our first president wanted the college to be like a living room for the county, to have art all around, and Ross has taken it these four decades as a mission," Henzy said.
Pieces are in every corridor, many classrooms, every office space, and even on pedestals in an alcove.
On two of those pedestals are distinctive shopping bags - one made for New York's Museum of Modern Art of mineral dust from old buildings - that appeared in a college gallery show called "The Art of the Bag."
"People here loved that, so I decided to make that an ongoing, rotating exhibit," said Beitzel, an enthusiastic man who gives his age as "between 50 and death" and lives in the town where he grew up. He has bachelor's and master's degrees in art from Rowan University (which was then Glassboro State), and a Ph.D. from Fairleigh Dickinson University in the psychology of human behavior.
"I always wanted to know why people and societies create, and how they do it," said Beitzel, who has taught studio art and art appreciation and history.
"I love having [the artwork] all around," said Meg Resue, administrative liaison to the college's president and board of trustees. Beitzel is choosing a piece for the bare wall in front of her desk.
"It's going to be a surprise, but I'm very particular," Resue said. "I told him I want something with color in it, and not too abstract. I know it will be something good."
Beitzel understands that some may find it incongruous that a county college has such an extensive collection, but he views it as part of GCC's mission to educate everyone, not just the elite.
"If I teach an art class here and I ask if anyone has been to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which I view as the world's greatest museum, I feel lucky if I get one hand," Beitzel said.
"That is why it's so important for those same kids to have art all around them when they come here. It shows them art isn't Elvis on black velvet or paint-by-number."
Several more recent pieces in the collection are by alumni who hadn't been exposed to art before attending GCC. One of the newest is a painting by the college's head of security, Joseph Getsinger, that honors the Gloucester County Fire Academy.
"I wanted something in the collection that goes to my heart, and I have long been associated with the academy," Getsinger said. "Ross understands that, and that is why the collection is so special here."
Having the work on view all over campus gives faculty an opportunity to use it across the curriculum, Beitzel said.
"I know art teachers, music teachers, writing teachers will ask students to pick out a piece of art and use it in compositions - relate it to literature or music," Beitzel said.
"To bring art from all over the world - from Jordan and India to Deptford and Paulsboro - right here for everyone, that is what a collection should do."