John Pittman's last image of his 28-year friendship with Cleve Carney is a vivid one.
Two years ago, Carney, suffering from a rare brain disorder that would claim his life in July 2013, called Pittman, an artist from St. Charles who works in Wheaton, because he wanted to look at his latest work.
Pittman could not discourage his friend from coming.
"He literally got down on all fours to get up the stairs to see what I was working on," Pittman said. "He was determined to see the newest, latest things that I had made. He was full of vigor."
That unquenchable thirst for the arts is being reflected this month with the opening of the Cleve Carney Art Gallery at the McAninch Arts Center on the College of DuPage's Glen Ellyn campus.
The 1,850-square-foot gallery is part of the 14-month, $35 million MAC renovation and opens its doors from noon until 2 p.m. Thursday for a preview of its inaugural exhibition, "Selection of Artworks from the Cleve Carney Collection."
Carney, a businessman and lover of the arts born and raised in Wheaton, contributed $700,000 in 2012 to COD, and an in-kind donation of his immense art collection thought to be worth at least $300,000.
"When Cleve stepped up and decided to make this donation for an art space, the stars lined up from my point of view," said longtime friend Mark Wight, whose Darien-based Wight & Company designed the gallery. "Cleve had a number of passions, but two of the biggest were contemporary art and live theater. He was also passionate about DuPage County, having lived here his whole life.
"A donated art space, with his name, attached to a private theater at a school with the DuPage name: It's quite perfect on many levels."
The gallery, adjacent the lobby space at the MAC, features high ceilings, heated sustainable bamboo floors and an outdoor courtyard visible through glass windows. Visitors can arrive through the exterior court, or through the lobby. Students outside can sit, study, read and enjoy the view inside the gallery.
"The most interesting feature is it incorporates natural light and a view to the outside," said Kevin Havens, director of design at Wight & Company. "The light is very controlled. No penetrating sun will affect the artwork. In the evening, you can stand outside and look inside to the art exhibition. It draws you right in. That's a unique feature that many galleries don't have."
Barbara Wiesen, the gallery's director and curator, said there will be rotating exhibitions that will feature an estimated seven shows a year. The gallery will continue to host one student show and one faculty show a year, with the rest featuring shows from local, national and international artists. Portable walls eventually could allow the gallery to show films and videos. A summer show is scheduled featuring works from street photographer Vivian Maier.
"Variety is definitely something I want to bring in here," Wiesen said. "It will not be just paintings."
The first exhibition will feature selections from Carney's massive collection of 800 paintings, sculptures and other pieces of contemporary modern art he bought during travels around the world. Carney bequeathed 40 percent of his collection with the intent that it be displayed around the COD campus.
Thursday's preview precedes the official public dedication of the gallery at 3 p.m. Feb. 16. Admission is free and open to the public. The exhibition will be on display through March 29.
"To have a fine arts venue in DuPage County enabling people to be exposed to fine arts and the theater is a wonderful asset," Pittman said. "It's very good for the art community."