Remembering Melanie Buffington

Headshot of Melanie Buffington in a teal sweater

The VCUarts community is saddened by the passing of Melanie Buffington, Ph.D. On Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020, we learned that our beloved colleague lost her battle with brain cancer. She was at home surrounded by family.

Dr. Buffington joined the Department of Art Education as an assistant professor and graduate director in 2006. She became associate professor of Art Education in 2012, and was serving as interim chair of the Department of Art Education this year. She earned a Ph.D. and a M.A. in Art Education from Ohio State University and a B.S. in Art Education form Pennsylvania State University. Melanie started her career as a 7th grade art teacher and, after completing her graduate education, she was an assistant professor of Art Education at Eastern Michigan University.

Sara Wilson-McKay, Ph.D., a colleague and past chair of the Art Education department said, “Art Education lost a powerhouse scholar last week.”

Dr. Buffington served as a graduate director for Art Education for almost a decade. She was passionate about the programs and had a significant role in developing curriculum, recruiting and mentoring students and junior faculty. Dr. Buffington was always curious and learning, asking questions, incorporating new course material, and reflecting on her teaching and best practices in her field. An educator to her core, Dr. Buffington also spent many summers teaching art to students of all ages at our VCUarts Qatar campus, and offering professional development sessions to Qatari art teachers.

Dr. Buffington was a prolific scholar, with a strong focus on social justice and equity. Her published research incorporates pedagogy, community, social justice and equity. She combined research, teaching, and service in projects around the city of Richmond with the Neighborhood Resource Center, Richmond City jail, and the Carver Promise mentoring program.

“As a nationally recognized teacher, Melanie inspired me and others not only through her consistent innovation and use of culturally relevant pedagogies,” says Dr. Wilson-McKay, “but also she made real her theoretical commitments to student voice and authentic and equitable community partnerships.”

Melanie was the recipient of many grants and awards. Most recently, she was acknowledged by her alma mater, The Ohio State University, with the Arts, Administration, Education and Policy Marantz Alumni Award. In 2015 she received the National Higher Education Art Educator Award from the National Art Education Association, and the Kathy Connors Teaching Award from the Women’s Caucus of the National Art Education Association. During the same year she was also recognized by the National Endowment for the Humanities by receiving the Landmarks of American History and Culture Grant, which provided $179,946 to support teacher workshops. This is a testament to Melanie’s sustained efforts to keep education current and to bring attention to issues of equity and justice.

“Melanie’s scholarship on public monuments—especially Confederate monuments—is essential work that fosters conversations at the intersections of race, power, history, and art,” says Dr. Wilson-McKay.

Dr. Buffington was a true collaborator. She included art education faculty and students in her research and writing process, resulting in several co authored publications.

“Melanie took on projects that had significant impact, such as confronting food deserts on Richmond’s East End, and she involved graduate students on the journey,” says Dr. Wilson-McKay. “Anyone who worked alongside Melanie on a professional project can attest to her commitment to excellence.”

Melanie was a valued colleague in the VCU community and the greater Richmond community. She was a treasured faculty to her students, a mentor to faculty, and a friend to many. 

“In addition to her kindness and intellect, Melanie’s sense of honesty, integrity, and fairness continues to touch so many of my thoughts and hopes,” says Pamela G. Taylor, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus in Art Education. “I learned from her daily and like so many others, I will be forever changed for knowing her.

“In particular, I believe she made me a better administrator as she was firm, yet kind in her response to my sometimes overwhelming asks. So real, yet so positive; fun and professional; inspirational mixed with awe. Melanie Buffington was a force that we will feel is missing for a long time to come.” 

Melanie believed in building community. Whether it was in her own department, in the school or the university, she was there to offer her expertise and advice. She was a service-learning fellow at VCU and established several service-learning courses, leading the effort on building VCU and community partnerships. 

“Melanie was a tireless and generous teacher and researcher,” says her colleague and close friend Courtnie Wolfgang, Ph.D. “She leaves behind an important legacy. Students and alumni continue to reach out to me to tell me how every day, in their own teaching, they keep Dr. Buffington close because she taught them—directly through content and indirectly through her actions—how to nurture students through the arts and education.

“She was justice-driven before it was a buzzword. Her work was so important because she lived practice. She knew how to welcome people into practice, to challenge her own knowledge and build on it, to rest and let others lead when it called for it. She epitomized the best art education—the field, not just our department—has to offer. And that loss is immeasurable.”

We are all inspired by Melanie’s humanistic and scholarly contributions and appreciate how fortunate we are that she graced our community for 14 years. 

The family asks that in lieu of flowers, contributions furthering Melanie’s commitment to the Richmond community can be made to the following charities: