BY MATT ELLIOTT
Last Wednesday night, September 19, the University held a “memorial party” for Dr. Thomas P. Somma, the Director of the University of Mary Washington Galleries since 1998. Dr. Somma passed away May 10, following a long battle with cancer. He did not want a funeral, but instead, asked for a party. Just as he asked, students, faculty and other visitors came and celebrated the memory of a dedicated member of the University of Mary Washington family.
The Ridderhoff Martin Gallery teemed with students, teachers, Fredericksburg residents, and family of Dr. Somma, who snacked on the provided refreshments and reminisced about the late Director. The party stayed true to Dr .Somma’s wishes and held an upbeat feeling through the night.
Somma, who also taught at Georgetown University and the University of Maryland, focused his studies on American sculpture, public art, and French-American statues. He won the first-ever U.S. Capitol Historical Society Fellowship in 1987.
He also helped write and publish a number of books about art and architecture, specifically architecture of historic Washington D.C. buildings like the U.S. Capitol. Dr. Somma’s teaching was not limited to the classroom, however.
“Even while working in the gallery, Dr. Somma tried to help and teach students who weren’t in his classes or seminars,” said Lara Teague, who serves as the Ridderhof Gallery’s graduate intern. Dr. Somma was well known for his dedication to his students and his work.
Fredericksburg is not known for its intimate relationship with the University community. Dr. Somma sought to remedy this. He saw the gallery as a bridge to connect the UMW community with the outside art community and Fredericksburg as a whole.
Serving as one of Fredericksburg’s better art galleries, Ridderhof Martin has become a spot frequented by many Fredericksburg residents and visitors from outside of the city.
Additionally, Dr. Somma was responsible for the partnership now shared with the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Many agree the gallery would not be what it is today without Dr. Somma’s hard work.
“The gallery’s accreditation was very important to Dr. Somma, but he also wanted to change the gallery’s direction to appeal to students as well, which were his primary concerns,” said Robert Lynn, a student employee of the gallery who was fond of Dr. Somma.
In 2004, Dr. Somma arranged an exhibition, “Reflections on American Slavery,” about the history of slavery, which gave the public a “preview” of what to expect in the new U.S. National Slavery Museum in Fredericksburg, expected to begin construction soon.
The museum’s selection of the Ridderhoff Martin Gallery attests to the gallery’s accreditation. Dr. Somma had to take great caution about what to include in the exhibit, since it revolved around a sensitive subject. As a result, the slavery exhibition brought unprecedented publicity for the gallery and for the University.
Thanks to his hard work and devotion to the gallery, Dr. Somma’s influence will carry on in the future. An endowment fund has been established in Dr. Somma’s name for the acquisition of public art for the UMW campus. More information about contributions can be found online at www.umw.edu/gift/make_a_gift/default.php.