Meyer and Smith Honored With Thomas Jefferson Awards

June 1, 2023
Thomas Jefferson statue in front of Rotunda

This year’s Thomas Jefferson Award winners include a landscape architect who has established the value of her field and an anthropologist who persuaded John Kluge to donate his Aboriginal art collection to the University. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

Beth Meyer, the Merrill D. Peterson Professor of Landscape Architecture, and Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection director Margo Smith each received Thomas Jefferson Awards on Thursday, the highest honor given to members of the University of Virginia community.

The awards are presented to honorees who exemplify the University’s ideals in character, work and influence, and have worked for the University at least 15 years. A committee in the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost chose the pair. Meyer was presented the award for excellence in scholarship and Smith for excellence in service. The 2023 winners were announced Thursday at the Board of Visitors meeting.

Beth Meyer

Meyer is “one of the world’s most influential voices in landscape architecture,” wrote nominator Bradley Cantrell, University Professor and current chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture in UVA’s School of Architecture. Meyer, a double Hoo, left an associate professorship at Harvard University to return to her alma mater and chair the landscape architecture department in 1993. She chaired the department until 1998, and again from 2002 to 2003. She went on to serve as dean of the Architecture School from 2014 to 2016.

“Her commitment to excellence in research, teaching, service and design has had an undeniable and lasting impact on generations of students, instructors and the broader community of landscape architects in the United States and abroad,” Cantrell wrote. “Her work has both elevated the University of Virginia and pushed the boundaries of our field, defining new areas of inquiry and providing a foundation for contemporary research and practice.”

Candid of Beth Meyer leading grads during Final Exercises
Landscape architecture professor Beth Meyer came to UVA from Harvard University in 1993. Since then, she’s been acknowledged for excellence in teaching and research. (Photo by Emily Faith Morgan, University Communications)

In 2012, former President Barack Obama appointed Meyer to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. She served as the commission’s vice chair from 2017 until 2021, when she left the body.

She was named a fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects in 2003 and inducted as a fellow of the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture in 2012, the council’s highest honor. In 2019, she received the Vincent Scully Prize from the National Building Museum, for “exemplary contributions to the built environment in practice, scholarship, or criticism.”

She is the founding director of the UVA Center for Cultural Landscapes and the inaugural faculty director of sustainability at Morven Sustainability Lab.

Meyer’s accomplishments go beyond the academic and extend into practice.

“Beth’s research bridges landscape architecture theory and practice and invites us to think critically about what lies between assumed binary oppositions such as art and science, urban and rural, and architecture and landscape,” Provost Ian Baucom said

Meyer said winning the award was an honor.

“I was flabbergasted,” Meyer said. “I am thrilled that a landscape architecture scholar – someone whose medium, lens and subject is landscape – has been recognized for this award.”

Margo Smith

When Margo Smith agreed to catalog John Kluge’s collection of Aboriginal art in 1995, she didn’t think she would end up as the director of the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection.

“It brought me back to something that already existed in me: a real love of art,” she said, “but also a lot of interest and eagerness to learn about other cultures.”

After sorting through the collection, Smith and Howard Morphy, an expert in Aboriginal art and professor at Australia National University, persuaded Kluge to donate the works to the University, “despite Mr. Kluge’s earlier inclination to establish a private museum,” wrote Smith’s nominators from the Kluge-Ruhe Advisory Council.

Portrait of Margo Smith
Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection director Margo Smith helped make the museum one of the finest collections of Aboriginal art outside of Australia. (Photo by Tom Cogill)

Her unexpected path to becoming director of the museum is part of why winning the award was so fulfilling.

“It’s really humbling and very gratifying to be recognized for the work you do,” Smith said, “work that you would do whether or not you’re recognized for it.”

The award is well-deserved, University officials said.

“Margo has made the Kluge-Ruhe one of the most important collections of Indigenous Australian art outside of Australia. Scholars, artists, and museum professionals worldwide have acknowledged Ms. Smith for her advocacy,” President Jim Ryan said.

Since 1999, Smith has curated more than 50 exhibits for Kluge-Ruhe in addition to curating shows at other venues, including the Embassy of Australia in Washington. Kluge-Ruhe’s most recent endeavor – and one of the most notable – is “Madayin: Eight Decades of Aboriginal Australian Bark Painting from Yirrkala,” a major touring exhibition of bark paintings by Yolngu people. Many of these artworks had never been seen by American audiences.

“Madayin” was lauded by The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. The show enlisted Yolngu artists as curators of the exhibit. The Australian government cited the exhibit’s curation as a case study in a national guiding document about Australian arts and culture.

Smith’s work to draw American attention to Aboriginal art and culture and foster relationships across cultures led the Australian government to recognize her in 2015 as an Honorary Member of the Order of Australia.

94% On-Time Graduation Rate Pleases 100% of Parents, to be great and good in all we do
94% On-Time Graduation Rate Pleases 100% of Parents, to be great and good in all we do

She’s also worked to promote Indigenous voices at home. She worked with UVA’s Racial Equity Task Force, recommending that the University begin a coordinated effort to develop trust with Virginia Tribal Nations. Inside the Kluge-Ruhe’s lobby, and on its website, is a land acknowledgement which honors the traditional homeland of the Monacan Nation.

“For her, the principles of collaboration, respect and reciprocity apply just as much at home as they do abroad,” Catherine Walden, the program director for the Mellon Race, Place, and Equity Program, wrote.

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Alice Berry

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