In 1928, Teresa Pollak taught the first art class at Virginia Commonwealth University (then called Richmond Professional Institute). A well-known painter, Pollak was trained at the Art Students League of New York, received a prestigious Carnegie Fellowship and exhibited work in the first Whitney Biennial in 1932. She went on to serve as the first chairman of VCUarts when it was established as a school in 1933. Pollak taught at the school for 40 years, the first of a long line of well-regarded, professional artist faculty members who helped grow VCUarts into one of the most highly regarded schools of art and design in the country.
Pollak wasn’t the only early champion for the school. In the 1930s, Colonel Abraham Archibald Anderson, a wealthy New York portrait artist, contributed $10,000 to establish VCU’s Anderson Gallery, along with $24,000 from Richmond citizens and funding from the Virginia Department of Education.
The Anderson Gallery opened in 1931 in the renovated Ginter Mansion stable building on Franklin Street. The Gallery served as Richmond’s only art exhibition facility until the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts opened in 1936. The Gallery’s collections are now housed at VCU’s James Branch Cabell Library, where they are accessible for research and study.
In the 1940s and 1950s, VCUarts began acquiring nationwide recognition. A brochure issued by RPI circa 1940 carried two photographs that had been published by Life magazine. The school was one of the largest at RPI and its successor, Virginia Commonwealth University. Herbert J. Burgart, Ph. D., who became dean around 1966–67, conducted pioneering research about the affects of hands-on studio art on creativity. VCUarts continues to be known for training artists skilled not only to be conceptually creative, but who are also practical makers.
By 1970, the faculty had increased to 72 full-time and 24 part-time teachers. In 1971, the Pollak Building was named for Theresa Pollak, in honor of her dedication and vision.
Painter Murry N. DePillars, Ph.D., served as dean of the VCUarts from 1976 until 1995. He cultivated a fertile period of development at the School of the Arts, which nearly doubled enrollment, reaching 2,400 students and emerging as one of the largest arts schools in the country under his leadership. DePillars is also credited with growing funding, including external funding and a sizeable increase in the endowment. But his greatest achievement may be elevating the professionalism of both the faculty and students, which raised the school’s prominence in all fields during his 20-year reign.
From 1996 to 2010, Dean Richard Toscan led VCUarts to international recognition. The school’s rankings in U.S. News & World Report list of America’s Best Graduate Schools grew from 25th to fourth overall, and to the top-ranked public university arts program in the nation. He also conceived and guided the development of VCU’s art and design campus in Doha, Qatar, establishing a connection to the Middle East, a fast-growing powerhouse in the international art world.
The Shaqab College of Design Arts operated by VCU opened its doors in fall of 1998 to a class of 33 female students. In 2002, the branch campus Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts in Qatar replaced Shaqab. It was the first school to open in Education City, a complex that includes branches of other top- performing schools from around the world, including Weill Cornell, Texas A&M, Carnegie Mellon, Georgetown and Northwestern Universities, and the London School of Economics. Since its inception, VCUarts Qatar has been involved in the development of Qatar’s emerging design industry, helping to further the country’s creative economy. The school regularly hosts Tasmeem Doha, the biennial international art and design conference, attracting speakers and artists from across the world for a week of innovation and dialogue.
VCUarts Qatar, VCUarts and the Qatar Foundation sponsor the biennial Hamad bin Khalifa Symposium on Islamic Art, widely considered the pre-eminent conference on Islamic art and culture. In 2005 the Pollak Society was established with the help of Richmond gallery owner and VCUarts supporter, Beverly Reynolds. The group is made up of community supporters whose membership contributions bolster the school’s 16 departments and allows for scholarships, visiting artists, study abroad, and more.
In 2005 the Pollak Society was established with the help of Richmond gallery owner and VCUarts supporter, Beverly Reynolds. The group is made up of community supporters whose membership contributions bolster the school’s 16 departments and allows for scholarships, visiting artists, study abroad, and more.
Joseph H. Seipel, who led the Sculpture department to its number one ranking during his 17 years as professor and chairman, succeeded Dean Toscan as head of VCUarts from 2011 to 2016. Seipel continued Toscan’s global reach by further establishing international exchange opportunities, championed the school’s interdisciplinary connections, advocated for arts research, and helped turn the Institute for Contemporary Art into a reality by helping to raise $43M for its construction. During Dean Seipel’s tenure, VCUarts moved to the no. 2 overall ranking in U.S. News & World Report’s rankings of graduate schools of art and design, while remaining the highest ranked public art school in the country.
In 2012, VCUarts unveiled the design for the Institute for Contemporary Art by Steven Holl Architects, a 38,000-square- foot building for the presentation of cutting-edge art and performance from around the world to serve as a new destination for contemporary arts and culture in the region. The following year, its inaugural director, Lisa Freiman, was hired.
The VCUarts Center for the Creative Economy was established in 2014 offering four courses in creative entrepreneurship, which are the foundation curriculum for VCUarts students who pursue VCU’s da Vinci Center Certificate in Venture Creation. VCU’s da Vinci Center for Innovation develops interdisciplinary student projects supported by corporate and government affiliates. The center is housed in the Depot building, which is dedicated to interdisciplinary collaborations and houses the Depot Gallery.
In 2016, the Arts Research Institute, led by Sarah Bainter Cunningham, Ph.D. launched. The Arts Research Institute conducts original research, developing expert insights, framing critical problems, and convening policymakers, arts leaders and other decision makers to consider the most pressing aesthetic, artistic and design issues of our times. It is one of only a few research centers of its kind in higher education, nationally or internationally.
Shawn Brixey became the newest dean of the School of the Arts in 2017, succeeding the tenure of Joseph Seipel and Interim Dean James Frazier. In addition to his duties as dean, Brixey serves as Special Assistant to the Provost for the School of the Arts in Qatar, and is both a professor of VCUArts and an affiliate professor of the VCU School of Engineering.
Today, VCUarts is one of the leading visual arts and design programs in the country, serving nearly 2,800 undergraduates and more than 160 graduate students annually. VCUarts is known for hands-on learning and experimentation and for encouraging students to push the boundaries of their creativity while working alongside some of the most acclaimed artist-faculty in the nation. Its curriculum focuses on cross-disciplinary collaborations with scholars from divergent fields, taking advantage of its role as part of a major, urban public research university.
VCUarts has been ranked the #1 public university visual arts and design graduate program in the country by U.S. News & World Report since 2003. VCUarts offers undergraduate and graduate degrees at its campuses in Richmond, Va., and Doha, Qatar. The 16 departments and areas of study offered in Richmond include, among others, Art History, Craft/Material Studies, Dance and Choreography, Graphic Design, Music, Painting and Printmaking, Photography and Film, Sculpture + Extended Media, and Theatre.
VCUarts’ distinguished faculty and alumni are celebrated artists whose work has been exhibited at and collected by major U.S. museums, shown in major film festivals, and debuted at some of the nation’s most well-known opera houses and stages. Prominent faculty and alumni include Kendall Buster, Corin Hewitt, Michael Jones McKean and Professor Emeritus Elizabeth King (Sculpture + Extended Media), Sonya Clark (Craft/Material Studies), Robert Hobbs (Art History), Toni-Leslie James and David Leong (Theatre), Hilary Wilder (Painting and Printmaking), Sonali Gulati (Photography and Film), Rex Richardson (Music), Stephen Vitiello (Kinetic Imaging), sculptor Tara Donovan (M.F.A. ’99), sculptor Teresita Fernández (M.F.A. ’92), sculptor Bonnie Collura (B.F.A. ’94), painter Judith Godwin (B.F.A. ’52), Professor Emeritus and painter Richard Kevorkian (B.F.A. ’61), photographer Emmet Gowin (B.F.A. ’65), actor Jason Butler Harner (B.F.A, ’92), production designer Dan Bishop (B.F.A. ’80), jazz musician Victor Goines (M.M. ’90), fashion entrepreneur Donwan T. Harrell (B.F.A. ’92), illustrator and painter Sterling Hundley (B.F.A. ’98), graphic design historian Philip Meggs (B.F.A. ’64, M.F.A. ’71) dancer Jason Akira Somma (B.F.A. ’03) and glass artist Kazue Taguchi (M.F.A. ’07).