Murry DePillars: Principle and Presence

Murry N. DePillars arrived at VCUarts during a kind of revolution. 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 African-American 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 19 years of leadership, VCUarts flourished, growing to become one of the largest art schools in America with expanded performing arts facilities, campus 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 warm and gracious leader,” said former VCUarts Dean Joseph Seipel after DePillars’ death in 2008. “I vividly remember seeing Murry with his trademark pipe and aromatic tobacco out in the halls or classrooms spending time with students and faculty. He was the consummate people person.”

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.”

2018 marks 90 years of creative daring at VCUarts. To mark this occasion, VCUarts is spending this school year reflecting on our shared history and envisioning how we can continue to pave the way for creative practice in the 21st century and beyond. Visit the VCUarts 90th Anniversary website to learn more about the many stories that have shaped our school, and to share memories of your own.


October 19, 2018