For Art Vandenberg, No Walls to Knowledge, Innovation and Collaboration

For Art Vandenberg, no walls to knowledge, innovation and collaboration
Library donor and computer scientist is a Renaissance thinker and artist

One night when he was 7, Art Vandenberg dreamed he was on a long ladder that reached into infinity, and all around him were stacks and shelves that stretched further than he could see. He had a card in his hand, and as soon as a subject popped into his head, he would instantly be around all the things needed to help him understand that subject. In his dream, time never ran out, and he awoke with a delight that still remains.

The respect and value he held for libraries grew with him, as he gravitated to the library on his free mornings at boarding school and then as a graduate student at Georgia State University in the 1970s.

Working at the GSU Library, he met the woman who would become his wife, Cathy Crawford. In 1979 he received a GSU master of visual art degree in drawing and painting en route to a career in computers. Building networks allowed him to continue to learn across the university.

Recently, he made a five-figure gift to the GSU Library Innovation Fund “because libraries have always represented to me human knowledge and community,” Vandenberg, 62, said. “They are humans’ social endeavor to make sense of things.”

“Georgia State’s been good to me,” he added. “I’m a little over the top and wacky and strange, and it’s allowed me to be successful.”

As a customer relations manager at GSU’s Information Systems and Technology, Vandenberg draws every day from the creativity nurtured through his library experiences and artistic pursuits to structure computer solutions for collaborative projects. His expertise helped realize a prominent intersection of technology and collaboration at GSU: the Parker H. “Pete” Petit Science Center’s Visualization Wall.

The “Viz Wall” is a 6-foot high, 28-foot wide tiled array of high-resolution monitors used to study and solve complex problems in many fields, such as geography, chemistry and public health. Vandenberg’s knowledge of technology has benefited the library as well.

“I saw Art’s passion for the library when I worked with Art and the GSU library staff on a business intelligence project aimed at the library usage,” said Jaroslav Klc, a colleague in IS&T for seven years. “Art’s group built a system that collects information about the library patrons based on the library turnstile data. Using this system, the library management can ‘slice and dice’ their visitor population by gender, college, major, ethnicity, time of visits and more.”

For Vandenberg, books were always linked to growth. His parents immigrated from the Netherlands after World War II, and in rural Maryland his father established a nursery based on guidance from a botany dictionary filled with Latin names.

“Money does grow on trees,” Vandenberg said of the pin oaks, maples, boxwood, Norway spruce and other trees that his family grew. “We planted hundreds of cuttings, and five years later they were 10 feet tall that were worth cash money. The point was to plant cuttings and let them go and have the patience to see what happened. That’s innovation.”

Vandenberg valued the ingenuity of the Dutch, who used such technology as windmills to help reclaim about a third of their country from the Atlantic Ocean. “Make it big,” was his dad’s motto. He followed that advice as an artist, choosing large canvases, folding screen structures and then landscape art in which bows and lines hung dozens of feet in the air, stretched between trees hundreds of feet apart.

His art could be seen as a precursor to the Viz Wall, which also can expansively depict otherwise small subjects, a la Claes Oldenburg’s giant paper clip. “If you make a paperclip big, that makes you think of it,” said Vandenberg, “much like the Viz Wall helps us view details of cells, insects or geographical maps.”

“On the Viz Wall, I went to Google Earth and traveled to the Grand Tetons and they rose up [on the screen and appeared to] hit the ceiling and bust the water pipes. I went to Paris, London, San Francisco and Amsterdam, and Egypt for the pyramids, and Rome – all without leaving my ‘armchair.’ You could do all that using your laptop, but the wall changes the nature of how you look at everything.”

Vandenberg has supported significant challenges and projects at GSU, such as the Y2K remediation, the founding of the SURAgrid initiative with collaborators from the Southeastern Universities Research Association, starting GSU’s partnership with the World Community Grid, Virtual Classroom Lab and many others. “As soon as he discovers an interesting teaching or research project, he works very hard find the technology to help accelerate the project,” Klc said, adding that Vandenberg sees solutions through an artist’s eye.

“He does not stop finding art in common everyday objects and situations,” Klc said. “Art has pointed out camels in grid availability charts or Michael Jordan in a small metal object flattened by thousands of cars on a Marietta Street crosswalk.”

As a recipient of external grants, Vandenberg has an awareness of funding impact, said computer science professor Vijay K. Vaishnavi, who has met weekly with Vandenberg since 2000. “He is somebody who is excited about what he does and brings that excitement to people he meets, and he also benefits GSU because he has worked in a number of areas to get funding in collaboration with other people,” he said.

Dean of Libraries Nan Seamans said Vandenberg’s gift reflects the value of creativity. “Art’s gift allows us to convey that [value] to library personnel and that we can provide seed money for innovative pilot projects that improve library services or collections,” she said. “That’s a really powerful message! It also allows us to experiment and figure out what kind of improvements we can make as we plan for the future of the University Library.

“Having someone as visionary as Art provide this kind of support for the library is really incredibly gratifying,” Seamans added. “Art is someone who is aware of the historical value of libraries but who also realizes the many things that the library will contribute to GSU as we move forward.”

—By Michelle Hiskey; Contact Kim Cretors, (404) 413-3424