Every year the VCU Sculpture department celebrates our current students, our amazing alumni, and our storied history at an annual party in honor of a beloved faculty member who left us too early, José Puig. This is a time when we remember our roots and the people who built this place that we love and are so proud of. Here is a brief history:
The Sculpture Department’s origins date back to 1928, when a fledgling art department was founded in what was then an amalgam of professional education courses in Richmond. Later renamed Richmond Professional Institute (RPI), it joined forces with the Medical College of Virginia in 1968 and became what is now known as Virginia Commonwealth University.
The Sculpture department made its home in at least one basement and more than one carriage house before it finally settled in a former car dealership on Broad Street, where run-down former showrooms and an upstairs maze of offices (full of the presiding ghosts of car salesmen) would combine with the liberation politics of the ’70s to create an atmosphere of remarkable competitive and intellectual momentum. The department gained an underground reputation for its marathon critiques—and its marathon parties.
Sculpture’s first official chair was the hugely influential Chuck Renick, whose ethos still guides the Sculpture department’s principles to this day. Renick set the tone for a close-knit faculty of sculptors who became legendary not only for their fighting edge as artists, but for their generosity as colleagues and teachers. This faculty, and VCU’s dirt-cheap tuition, attracted a growing number of superb students. Harold North took over as chair of sculpture in 1968 and over the next few years José Puig, Myron Helfgott, Chuck Henry, and Lester Van Winkle joined the faculty. Joe Seipel, now the Dean of VCU’s School of the Arts joined the faculty in 1974, and Connie Brown arrived as department secretary in 1976. During the 80’s and 90’s the program grew to more than 120 undergraduate sculpture majors and Elizabeth King, Carlton Newton, and Kendall Buster joined the faculty. Blake Huff came on board and ran the shops with his signature expertise and wit.
In 1998 U.S. News and World Report designated the Sculpture Graduate Program among the top 5 such programs in the country. The department moved into a newly designed building at 1000 W. Broad St. across the street from the site of the old car dealership. Embracing performance and new media, the department changed its name to Sculpture + Extended Media in recognition of the many different studio practices found under the rubric of “sculpture.” In 2003 it named VCU Sculpture as the #1 graduate sculpture program in America – a position it holds to this day.
The next decade brought enormous change, and new levels of accomplishment. Amy Hauft was hired as Chair of the department and Jack Risley, Michael Jones McKean, Corin Hewitt, Gregory Volk, Ester Partegas, and Matt King joined the program as faculty. Mary Eisendrath joined the team as administrative faculty. Now Assistant Chair of the department, Mary’s office is a hive of activity ranging from academic advising to soothsaying.
Extraordinary programs and projects proliferated, such as Curious, Affiliated Residencies, as well as our ongoing biannual graduate exhibitions in New York City. Faculty and student research grants have provided funds to send our most curious to various corners of the globe. Together these programs and grants have generated abundant cross-pollination between VCU Sculpture and the international art world.
As this art world has evolved, so have digital fabrication technologies proliferated through dawn of the new century, and the capabilities of the department’s extensive shops have evolved accordingly. Rather than abandoning time-proven techniques, the department has built upon its strengths, seamlessly integrating new technology into its already impressive facility. We’ve been lucky to share in the expertise of such artist/technicians as Arthur Hash, Tim DeVoe, Alex Hayden, Jesse Burrowes and Ryan Crowley. This is an ongoing process and we are constantly updating our array of equipment in the labs, shops, and studios.
As the reputation of VCU Sculpture has grown, we have continued to attract not only top faculty but also an increasingly diverse and international pool of student applicants to our program. This, along with aggressively increased funding for our graduate students, has elevated the level of competition in admissions exponentially, and each year we see a continuously impressive student body.
This cast of characters is in no way complete. The department has for decades brought in a yearly roster of internationally recognized artists, critics, curators, philosophers and thinkers to our Visiting Artist program. Affiliated faculty Sanford Biggers and Siemon Allen, and a changing roster of full-time visiting faculty such as Artie Vierkant, A.K. Burns, Adrian Wong, Marc Ganzglass, Mike Arcega, Irvin Morazan, Clifford Owens and A.L. Steiner have had a vital impact on the changing shape of the department. In 2015, Matt King became Department Chair, and VCU Sculpture continues the tradition of rambunctious and multi-faceted exploration of ideas and materials that has defined its legacy.