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When most Madisonians think of where to view art on campus, the newly expanded Chazen Museum of Art comes first to mind.

Then perhaps we remember the Memorial Union galleries, where students curate the shows, or the Art Lofts, where graduate students sculpt and paint.

But just one mile west, in the newly renovated School of Human Ecology Building (now called Nancy Nicholas Hall), the Ruth Davis Design Gallery has been quietly welcoming visitors for about four months.

Like the Edgewood College Art Gallery in The Stream, the new gallery may be less known because it’s hard to reach by car. But it's well worth seeking out. 

The Design Gallery tries to “focus not only on things that support and will be of interest to the student body, but also... exhibitions that will attract the community,” said gallery director Liese Pfeifer.

At 2,300 square feet, the new gallery is approximately twice the size of the old one. It is climate controlled, has a sophisticated sound and video system, and walls that can be rearranged.

The temperature controls allow for longer exhibitions from the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection. A show planned for the fall will feature clothing from southeast Asia, with pieces directly from the permanent collection.

“We expect a really diverse crowd to this exhibit,” Pfeifer said about the current show, “Lia Cook, Weaving and Innovation.”

“I think the school sees the Design Gallery as a draw for the community to come in and see what we have to offer,” she added. “It’s kind of like the jewelry of the building. It’s something beautiful, and it's positioned perfectly right inside the main entry.”

Design for designers

The Design Gallery is just one element of the new Nancy Nicholas Hall, which opened late last September after a $52 million construction and renovation project.

According to a story at the time, the UW System Regents approved the new name for the building in 2011, "marking the first exclusive-use academic building on campus named in honor of a woman." 

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(The Helen C. White Hall houses the College Library and the English Department, and two residence halls, Susan B. Davis and Elizabeth Waters, are named after women.)

Nicholas, a 1955 Human Ecology graduate, gave $8 million for renovation in 2004, believed to be the largest single private gift to a Human Ecology program. 

She and several dozen other women are featured on the hall's "100 Women Wall," designed by two Human Ecology alumnae from the local Zebradog design firm. With a gift of $100,000, donors can honor or memorialize an important woman with her face in the artwork and story in an interactive kiosk.

Elsewhere in the building, there are dozens of little surprises: bird sounds and twinkling lights in the first floor bathrooms, mosaic-style patterns on the floors, an amusing mural (including Bucky) in the parking garage. Many floors were built using reclaimed materials.

"This building, the original piece was built in 1914 and we were very crowded in there," said communications specialist Doris Green. "Students would be sitting on the stairs because there was no place to gather."

Now they have study niches at the ends of hallways, with couches and tables that students "immediately started using," she said. "They took the building as their own."

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Since 2008, Lindsay Christians has been writing about fine arts and food for The Capital Times. She loves eating at the bar, going to the theater, fine wine and good stories. She lives on the east side with her husband, two cats and too many cookbooks.