The Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts is dedicating its fine arts building to Murry N. DePillars, Ph.D.
DePillars served as dean of 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 tenure.
“Dean Murry DePillars’ legacy as an artist, an educator and an advocate for our university community — and for Richmond — is profound,” said VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D. “He brought diverse communities together to learn, to create and to engage in needed conversations. VCUarts grew and achieved well-earned worldwide recognition during his time as a leader. I’m delighted that the fine arts building will bear his name.”
DePillars arrived at VCUarts during a kind of revolution. After having served four years as assistant dean, in 1976, his first year as dean, Virginia Commonwealth University was only 8 years old — a new entity born from a 1968 merger between Richmond Professional Institute and the Medical College of Virginia. The governance of Richmond was changing, too; 1977 marked the election of the first majority Black city council in almost 30 years, along with the city’s first Black mayor.
The shifting status quo rocked the city. But as dean, DePillars was determined to use the arts to forge a bold unified spirit in Richmond. Over the course of his 20 years of leadership, VCUarts flourished, growing to become one of the largest arts schools in America with expanded performing arts facilities, campus and city jazz festivals and high-profile fashion shows. These events — many organized largely by the dean himself — realized his goal of bringing a diverse public together.
“Murry was a bigger than life presence,” said former VCUarts Dean Joseph Seipel. “I’ll always remember his graciousness, his sense of humanity and his love of the School of Arts. The sweet aroma of his pipe tobacco and his hearty laugh always let you know that the impeccably dressed dean was near. Generous with his smiles, he was a friend to so many of us on the faculty as well as our leader. Mostly though, nothing was more important to Murry than the students. Walking through the halls and studios of the School of Arts, he always had time to spend talking and engaging with the students. He made sure that the focus of our jobs as faculty and administrators was to give the students the best of ourselves. For that he will always be remembered.”
DePillars believed so strongly that the arts empowered communities that he was willing to defend the principle before the federal government.
In 1992, the National Endowment for the Arts decided to withhold a $10,000 grant from an Anderson Gallery exhibition featuring photographs of human body parts. In protest, DePillars relinquished his seat on the NEA’s Expansion Arts/Arts in Education Initiative panel.
“I did not resign to create a reaction,” DePillars said. “I resigned because of principle.”
That same year, the dean spoke before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies to argue that the NEA should receive maximum funding, despite years of calls by detractors to abolish it. In his testimony, he spoke to the importance of free speech and public support for the arts.
“The endorsement of free expression is risky,” said the dean, “yet the benefits for VCU have been returned by distinguished alumni who have been the recipients of Oscars, Emmys, Cotys, Addys, Jacob Javits fellowships and, I will add, National Endowment for the Arts grants.”
Like many of VCUarts’ administrative members, DePillars was more than just a dean. He was a professional painter and art historian whose artwork and research were exhibited and published throughout the country.
A Chicago native, DePillars absorbed every element of the arts scene in the city. He was deeply influenced by the countercultural zeitgeist of the 1960s, becoming a lifelong lover of jazz and a member of the Chicago-based AfriCOBRA — the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists.
His affinity for the incredible history of Black artistry in the United States and abroad fueled his encyclopedic knowledge of African art history. His paintings incorporated a vast lexicon of cultural iconography, from the gyrations of hip-hop dancers to ancient Saharan petroglyphs. Even in his final years, he worked new materials into his art.
In a WCVE News story, DePillars’ wife Mary recalled him saying, “I have attempted to celebrate, affirm and present the augustness of the Black presence. It is my hope that one day we can acknowledge, appreciate and celebrate the presence of all people.”
The 114,000-square-foot Dr. Murry N. DePillars Building at 1000 W. Broad St. houses the Craft/Material Studies, Painting and Printmaking, Kinetic Imaging, and Sculpture + Extended Media departments. The fine arts center’s unique features include a foundry and specialized studios for metalworking, woodworking, printmaking, ceramics, glass, textiles and jewelry, as well as critique rooms, faculty offices, student studios and a multi-use gallery.
Image courtesy Mary DePillars. Story by Richard DiCicco (BA ’14) and Leila Uginčius, University Public Affairs.