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Ralph and Trish Nagel: Cultivating Creativity

Ralph and Trish Nagel donated $2.3 million for DU’s new Nagel Art Studios. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

Ralph and Trish Nagel can spot opportunity even if it’s buried under sod and trampled by short-cutting pedestrians.

Witness the School of Art and Art History’s new Nagel Art Studios, an annex made possible by a $2.3 million gift from the couple. Clad in limestone and copper, the structure rises from a small plot of land once covered by grass and overlooked by students on their way to the Coors Fitness Center. The studio building, which provides light-filled space for students and faculty in the drawing and painting program, is just south of the Ritchie Center, behind the new soccer stadium.

“It’s actually a found idea,” says Ralph, a member of DU’s Board of Trustees. And he’s the one who found it.

“I serve on the building and grounds committee, and I could see the curious opportunity of capturing a unique space, a found space, and making extraordinary, distinctive and valuable studios. Eventually it completed the composition of the larger Ritchie Center,” he says.

As an architect, Ralph liked the idea of putting an awkward slice of land to imaginative use. The idea also appealed to his convention-defying side, what he calls his “interest in synthesizing opposites.” Why not put artists and athletes under the same roof? Mix them up, like primary colors, and see what happens.

“Universities talk about how to bring things together,” he says, noting that more often than not they create isolated islands of specialized endeavor. But the studio, he says, “brings artists and athletes together in a unique way.”

The Nagels have been bringing things together in a unique way for 37 years. Their gift to the art school is just the latest in a string of contributions to DU, including $4 million for the Nagel Residence Hall and its collection of paintings to inspire student creativity. In addition to funding the new art studio, their most recent gift covered a renovation and technological update to the Shwayder Art Building’s third floor, which houses the electronic media arts design program.

The couple’s support for the arts grows out of a willingness to evacuate their comfort zones and experiment. Both hope an invigorated art scene on campus will encourage risk taking and unconventional thinking — not just among art majors, but among students in all disciplines.

“I’m a real fan of the art spirit,” Trish says, “which is creative, inventive and expressive, and I think you can use that to advantage in any profession.”

She speaks from experience. Both she and Ralph have infused their professional lives with the art spirit. Their 1983 move to Colorado — she hails from Philadelphia, he from Chicago — grew out of a quest for new ventures.

“We both had professional practices in St. Louis,” Ralph recalls. “I was an architect and Trish was an attorney. I came up with a business idea to develop and operate luxury retirement communities, and financing was more available in Colorado, even though there were fewer older adults here.”

Once in Denver, the couple launched Meridian Retirement Communities, which they sold in 2005. While the firm was growing, Trish nurtured her legal career, representing hospitals, surgical centers, nursing homes, assisted living facilities and retirement communities in everything from acquisitions and joint ventures to regulatory matters. After selling Meridian, Ralph launched Top Rock LLC, a special situations investment fund.

Throughout their professional lives, the Nagels have sought out ways to harness their brainpower.

“I took a course, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, for five days in New York City,” Trish says. “I actually took it because I was interested in what it could do to help my sense of creativity, as opposed to a sense of drawing. It was very encouraging from that standpoint.” In fact, she adds, dabbling in drawing helped her approach challenges with recharged confidence. “You can do things that otherwise you thought couldn’t be done,” she says.

Ralph’s venture into the creative realm was more focused on developing skills, unleashing talents and mastering an art form.

“I started painting about 10 years ago. It was actually done in contrast to my professional work. It is highly personal, and it doesn’t include committees or deadlines or budgets,” he says. “I approached painting from a self-discovery point of view, because it causes your intellectual brain to become more subordinate to an intuitive sense. You have to develop skills as well as tolerance. I felt my brain changing during that first couple of years, because you are actually using the brain in a different order.”

Anne McCall, who has served as dean of the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences since 2008, credits the Nagels and their questing spirit with fueling the art school’s ambitions. She also expects the gift to foster DU’s emergence as an arts campus, one where the entire community benefits from creative energy.

“The Nagels’ gift,” she says, “is transformative in many respects.”


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