Joseph Seipel, who helped transform VCU and Greater Richmond through the arts, dies at 76

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In more than 40 years at VCUarts, he led the school and university to national prominence as an administrator, educator and creative artist in his own right.

Virginia Commonwealth University and the Richmond arts scene have lost a legend with the death of Joseph H. Seipel, dean emeritus of the School of the Arts.

Seipel, who died June 12 at age 76, retired as VCUarts dean in 2016 after more than 40 years with the school, leaving behind an enduring and indelible legacy. Under his leadership, the school’s national prominence would grow exponentially – and the arts scene around it would flourish.

An early champion of cross-disciplinary partnerships across campus, Seipel also helped the university realize its vision for the Institute for Contemporary Art at VCU, leading fundraising efforts and later serving as its interim director. 

“Joe Seipel will always be among the great leaders at VCU, helping to shepherd the School of Arts – and the university – to national prominence,” said VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D. “A world-class sculptor, Joe embodied the notion of arts as foundational to our most important human endeavors and disciplines, building a culture of creativity and collaboration across the university and health system. He touched everyone who had the privilege to work with him with his wit, compassion and passion. We are a better VCU because of Joe. Mónica and I will miss him dearly.”

“Joe Seipel was an extraordinary individual whose humanity, compassion and commitment to the arts were defining components of his time at VCU,” added Carmenita Higginbotham, Ph.D., dean of VCUarts. “An influential artist, teacher and dean, Joe shaped VCUarts in immeasurable ways, helping to transform us into one of the top arts and design schools in the nation. He also extended that impact into the city of Richmond, greatly influencing its arts scene and forging long-lasting relationships between its creative communities. Joe will be deeply missed, but he will never be forgotten.” 

Pam Royall, president of the ICA’s advisory board and a former VCU School of Business faculty member who worked with Seipel for many years, remembered him as a powerful yet playful figure in the maturation of the school and its influence.   

“Joe will forever be remembered as a constant presence. And not just at VCU, but in the community that grew up around VCUarts, largely as a result of nurturing from Joe and his contemporaries,” Royall said. “Always at the center, always with a knowing grin and a joke, always engaging others, Joe’s quiet influence was forceful. You always knew you were in for some fun when Joe was in the room, and who wouldn’t want to be part of it?”

To honor Seipel’s life and work, the Anderson, VCUarts’ on-campus gallery, will host “Joe Seipel: Yours & Mine” from Aug. 20 through Sept. 28. The exhibition will collect work from across Seipel’s five decades as an artist, with media ranging from sculpture, painting and drawing to photography and transdisciplinary work.

“Joe’s exceptional leadership in the School of the Arts and his countless contributions to the wider cultural life of our city is more than ample reason to celebrate this remarkable individual,” said Ashley Kistler, former director of the VCUarts Anderson Gallery, curator of the Visual Arts Center of Richmond and associate curator of modern and contemporary art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. “These many accomplishments, however, have tended to overshadow a focus on Joe the artist and his own creative evolution in the studio over five decades. Assembling works from the 1970s to the present, the forthcoming exhibition aims to remedy this imbalance. Joe’s tireless experimentation with image, idea and material offers us an unforgettable journey full of discovery, verve, humor, insight and remembrance.”


Seipel grew up in the small town of Spring Valley, Wisconsin. It was there where his fascination with the three-dimensional took root as he built Lincoln Log and block structures around his family home.

After earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he received his Master of Fine Arts degree in 1973 from the Rinehart School of Sculpture at the Maryland Institute of College of Arts.

His first project as an MFA candidate characterized Seipel’s artistic ethos. Inspired by the landscapes of Colorado and the debut of earthworks in the contemporary art scene, he conceived the “Enviro-plug,” a half-mechanic, half-artistic colossus that would, theoretically, fit seamlessly into a mountain gully.

Since it was less art in the traditional sense, Seipel wanted the Enviro-plug to debut in the New England Industrial Show in Boston. But to secure a booth, he first needed to be a legitimate industrialist. To fund this endeavor, he created “Seipel Manufacturing” with his friend-slash-VP, and together, they hustled hundreds of shares of bogus stock, both common and preferred. They gathered all the accoutrements of a legitimate business, including stationery, samples and even matching green and pink suits.

Through sheer determination and ingenuity, Seipel ultimately showcased the Enviro-plug to acclaim and skepticism. It ended up being more than just a project – it was a game-changer. According to Seipel, it cultivated a sense of fearlessness and spontaneity that would inform not only his artwork but his approach to teaching, ultimately arming him with the tools that would change VCUarts forever.

After earning his MFA, Seipel tended bar at Bertha’s in Baltimore, where he became friends with filmmaker John Waters and his crew, who frequently hung out there. At that point, he applied to VCU for a teaching position.

Seipel’s 1974 interview with Harold North, then chair of the VCU Department of Sculpture, started at a picnic table behind 914 W. Franklin St. and lasted all day. Seipel ended up staying for a party where he realized that the university was “a spectacular community of like-minded artists.”

Decades later, Myron Helfgott, retired sculpture professor, still remembered Seipel’s application.

“When Joe applied for the job in 1974, there [were] a number of other applicants,” Helfgott said in a 2011 discussion. “But one thing that endeared Joe to us was that he sent a photographic self-portrait in bib overalls signed Joseph ‘Joe’ Seipel. ‘We want that guy!’” (Incidentally, in the same discussion, Seipel mentioned that he traded one of those publicity shots to Beat Generation poet and writer Allen Ginsberg for a lock of hair.)

At the time, the Department of Sculpture was on the second floor of a carriage house behind 914 W. Franklin St., and its studios were in virtually every garage down the alleyway between Franklin and Grace streets. Seipel gave his first class lectures in the basement of the president’s office at 910 W. Franklin St.

In 1985, Seipel became chair of the department under Murry DePillars, Ph.D., then VCUarts dean. Richard Toscan, Ph.D., would succeed DePillars as dean more than a decade later.

“For many years Joe was a key part of my team as we built the national reputation of the School of the Arts from 25th when I arrived in 1996 to one of the top four programs in the nation and the No. 1 public university art and design school in the U.S.,” Toscan said.

One of Seipel’s initiatives that garnered national attention for the department was changing its curriculum to include more technical opportunities for students. For that, the International Sculpture Center presented him with the 2001 Outstanding Sculpture Educator award.

Also in 2001, Seipel became senior associate dean for academic affairs and director of graduate studies for VCUarts. During his tenure, he was offered other dean jobs that he turned down. But when the Savannah College of Art and Design came knocking in 2009, he had become a little restless and thought it would be a particularly interesting challenge.

But the Savannah job also made him realize how much he missed being in a big research university. And two years later, when Toscan announced his retirement, Seipel was at the top of the list of possible replacements, and he became dean in 2011.

Seipel extrapolated the pedagogies of the sculpture department to the rest of VCUarts’ already-successful graduate programs.

Under his leadership, students were required to take an intensive course in at least one department outside of their field of study. Moreover, Seipel was an early adopter of technology in art education and resisted hard constraints in his courses, which benefited both students and faculty by allowing them to maximize their creative expression, connect with like-minded artists and play to their strengths.

This stewardship of VCUarts elevated the MFA sculpture program to No. 1 in the nation and led the school to its highest academic ranking ever. Under Seipel’s leadership, VCUarts rose from No. 4 to No. 2 overall among arts programs in the U.S. News & World Report list of America’s Best Graduate Schools, and it maintained its position as the No. 1 public program.

VCUarts Assistant Dean Holly Alford, who was appointed by Seipel as the school’s first diversity, equity and inclusion officer in 2012, recalled how supportive Seipel was as the school navigated opportunities and challenges.

“At one point I was swamped, and I remember Joe looked at me and said, ‘I got you’ – and I smiled and said, ‘I got your back, too,’” Alford said. “After that, whenever we needed to discuss something difficult, we would look at each other with a peace sign sideways. That meant, I got you. A lot happened during his tenure, and he was always making sure that faculty and students were heard and taken care of. I can honestly say he always had my back.”

Upon his retirement, Seipel called it unusual for an art school to be so respected in an urban research university. But he described VCU as the “university of yes” because nobody ever says no.

“If you want to do some research with the medical school or business or engineering or humanities and sciences, everybody is willing – and that’s not usual in big universities, I assure you,” Seipel said. “We’re very lucky to have the colleagues that we do across this campus.”


Though Seipel officially retired from VCU in 2016 after serving as the dean for five years, he returned a short time later as interim director of the Institute for Contemporary Art, leading a successful fundraising campaign that secured $46 million for its construction and facilities.

“When the ICA lost its first executive director, there was no doubt who could step in and fill the position until a permanent director was hired,” Royall said. “If you didn’t think of it yourself, when you heard Joe was going to be the interim director, it made perfect sense. And he did it masterfully, stabilizing the team and ensuring the public that we would not lose ground. It was, perhaps, not what he had in mind for his retirement, but he barely hesitated when he was asked to serve. That was Joe. You could count on him. What a gift.”

Seipel also shaped the Richmond community through entrepreneurship. He opened the Texas-Wisconsin Border Café with friends Donna Van Winkle, an actress and director, and James Bradford, a painter and member of the VCUarts faculty. Their goal was to invigorate the Richmond bar scene with Central USA flair.

It was an instant hit for locals – particularly for its signature chili – and for Seipel himself, as it was at Texas-Wisconsin where he met his future wife, Suzanne.

Seipel also was an active participant in the Richmond arts scene, working with the city’s galleries before co-founding the 1708 Gallery on West Broad Street. There, his 1999 biographical work “18,621 Days” earned a Critic’s Choice award for public art.

He participated in the Richmond citywide project 21 Billboards by 21 Artists; was appointed by Gov. L. Douglas Wilder to the Task Force for Promotion of the Arts and by Gov. George Allen to the Virginia Art and Architecture Review Board; joined the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts Board; was named the May 2016 Richmonder of the Month by Richmond Magazine; and was co-honored by the Richmond Times-Dispatch as the 2018 RTD Person of the Year for his service to the arts community.

Seipel continued to work in his two studios after his VCU retirement, picking up on unfinished pieces he started some 20 years ago.

“So the first thing I’ve got to do,” he said at the time of his retirement, “is I’ve got to finish that work, find some catharsis with that work and hopefully have an exhibition sometime in the not-too-distant future.”