VCU School of the Arts

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Virginia Commonwealth University
School of the Arts
Type Public university
Dean Joseph H Seipel[1]
Students 3,108[2]
Location Richmond, Virginia, USA
Campus Monroe Park Campus
Nickname VCUarts

Virginia Commonwealth University's School of the Arts, located in Richmond, Virginia, comprises 16 programs and more than 3,000 students. With the inclusion of the campus in Qatar, come an additional five programs and another 214 students. As part of a large, urban public research university, VCUarts students have the opportunity to pursue cross-disciplinary collaborations[3] and to study alongside scholars in different fields. The VCUarts graduate program has been the top ranked public university visual arts and design graduate program in the country since 2003.[4] VCUarts has the lowest annual tuition among the top 10 schools of arts and design in the country.[5]

The Fine Arts Building, Monroe Park Campus.


The first important step in the expansion of the curriculum into an entirely new field was the opening in 1928 of the School of Art in a studio constructed in the loft of an old stable. The establishment of the School of Art resulted partly from the encouragement provided by an initial gift of $10,000 by Colonel Abraham Archibald Anderson, a wealthy New York artist; partly from gifts from Richmond citizens of $24,000; partly from a grant of financial assistance made by the State Department of Education; and partly from the willingness of the first teacher, Miss Theresa Pollak, to work in those early years without a salary guarantee.[6]

Around the 1940s and 1950s the School of Arts began acquiring some recognition nationwide. A brochure issued by RPI about 1940 carried two photographs which had been published by Life magazine. The school has been for years one of the largest at RPI and its successor, Virginia Commonwealth University. Herbert J. Burgart, who became director about 1966-67 was quoted by the Richmond Times-Dispatch on March 23, 1969, as saying that his information was that it is the "largest professional art school in the country, with 1,200 full-time undergraduate students and 75 graduate students." [7]

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 selfless dedication to the school.[8]


VCUarts is ranked the #1 public university and #2 overall school of arts and design in the country by U.S. News & World Report[9]

The following are overall rankings within the United States:

  • #1 - Sculpture
  • #4 - Fiber Arts (Craft/Material Studies)
  • #7 - Graphic Design
  • #3 - Glass (Craft/Material Studies)
  • #7 - Painting
  • #9 - Ceramics (Craft/Material Studies)
  • #10- Interior Design (Undergraduate)[10]
  • #10 - Metals/Jewelry (Craft/Material Studies)
  • #10 - Printmaking
  • #13 - Photography/Film
  • #14 - Multimedia/Visual Communications (Communication Arts, Photography & Film, and Kinetic Imaging)

The Department of Interior Design graduate program was ranked as the #4 Interior Design graduate program in the South and #6 nationally by the journal DesignIntelligence in its 2008 edition of "America's Best Architecture & Design Schools". The undergraduate program was ranked #5 regionally.

Departments and Programs[edit]

  • Art Education[11]
  • Art Foundation
  • Art History
  • Film (Cinema)
  • Communication Arts
  • Craft/Material Studies
  • Dance and Choreography
  • Fashion Design
  • Fashion Merchandising
  • Graphic Design
  • Interior Design[12]
  • Kinetic Imaging
  • Music
  • Painting and Printmaking
  • Photography and Film
  • Sculpture + Extended Media
  • Theatre


In 1996, a worldwide search began for universities that were regarded as the top schools in their fields, so that an educational center could be created in the Middle Eastern state of Qatar. In 1997, because it was the top ranked public university school of arts and design, VCU School of the Arts was contacted to determine its interest in offering some of the same programs offered on its Richmond campus to students in Doha, Qatar. Consequently, the Shaqab College of Design Arts operated by VCU opened its doors in fall of 1998 to a class of 33 female students enrolled in the equivalent of the Art Foundation Program. Today at VCU Qatar you can earn a BFA in Fashion Design, Graphic Design, Interior Design, or Painting and Printmaking, and a BA in Art History. The school also offers MFA in Design Studies.[13]

Since VCUQatar opened, the school has been involved in the development of Qatar’s emerging design industry, helping to further the country’s creative economy.[14] VCUQatar 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.

VCUQatar, VCUarts and the Qatar Foundation sponsor the biennial Hamad bin Khalifa Symposium on Islamic Art,[15] widely considered the pre-eminent conference on Islamic art and culture, to explore themes and issues in understanding visual art of the Islamic lands.[16]

Art Foundation Program[edit]

The first-year Art Foundation Program (AFO) is a rigorous studio-based experience in the fundamental issues of art and design that VCUarts students must successfully complete to gain entry into VCUarts fine art and design departments (Art Education, Communication Arts, Craft and Material Studies, Fashion Design, Graphic Design, Interior Design, Kinetic Imaging, Painting + Printmaking, Photography & Film, and Sculpture + Extended Media).[17]

The AFO program exposes students to a vast forum of ideas and concepts with the intention of preparing them for a wide range of disciplines. Students are grouped in small, 18-person studios in which they experiment with new materials, strategies and ideas. More than half of first-year students change their major to a new field of study within VCUarts as a result of exposure they received in AFO. The Program has its own dedicated woodshop, two computer labs, a critique room, lecture hall and 24-hour studio access for its students.

Interdisciplinary study[edit]

Interdisciplinary study and collaboration is encouraged across VCUarts 16 departments and programs and within the larger VCU and VCU Medical Center community. Some of these collaborations are forged through structures VCUarts has put in place to encourage interdisciplinary thought, such as the da Vinci Center and the Center for the Creative Economy. Other collaborations are pursued because of the individual interests of students or faculty members.

  • Sculpture student Morgan Yacoe collaborated with plastic surgeon Jennifer Rhodes, M.D., director of the Center of Craniofacial Care at the Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU, to help separate conjoined twins in 2011.[18] Yacoe provided molds of the conjoined twins that assisted in their separation surgery. Yacoe has since run workshops for plastic surgery residents at VCU Medical Center. Yacoe received the Arts Innovator award at the 17th Annual Theresa Pollak Prizes in 2014.[19] Rhodes and Yacoe did a TEDx Talk in 2014[20] about how fine art is informing and inspiring tomorrow's surgeons.
  • VCUarts Theatre department has also forged a unique collaboration with the VCU Medical Center. Associate Chair Aaron Anderson, Ph.D., has conducted pioneering research in the field of healthcare communication by applying theater techniques to medical and nursing education to improve the patient experience.[21]

The Center for the Creative Economy[edit]

The VCUarts Center for the Creative Economy was established in 2014 to promote the creative economy "as a trans-disciplinary, collaborative force that disrupts the status quo in order to drive innovation and new business models around the world." The Center for the Creative Economy offers four courses in creative entrepreneurship. These core courses 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[22] develops interdisciplinary student projects supported by corporate and government affiliates.

  1. Part of the Center for the Creative Economy at VCUarts, CoLaboratory (CoLab) is a post-disciplinary, variable-credit, internship program that provides students with opportunities in hands-on, innovative problem solving. Students develop career skills and create value in existing organizations and professions through the completion of research-intensive, industry-focused projects. Emphasis is on the collaborative development and commercial application of products that focus on emerging technologies. Projects originate as research concepts within the university or from industry affiliates. Past projects have worked on applications for doctors using Google Glass at the VCU Medical Center. A 2015 CoLab project was Navigate VCU[23] – a web-based app developed for the campus so that students, faculty, and staff could navigate the UCI Road World Championships.
  2. In Spring 2016, VCUarts launches a certificate program in Advanced Media Production Technology (AMPT).[24] The program is designed to connect graduates with employment opportunities in the expansive field of digital media production. It’s a hands-on, project-based program that brings disciplined craftsmanship together with innovative technology.


The VCUarts Arts Research Institute[25] 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. The Arts Research Institute at VCUarts advances understanding and practice of arts and design research nationally and internationally. The Institute fully launches September 2016.

The Institute reinforces the 1) role of the arts in the development of new knowledge 2) the role of artists and designers within civil society and 3) facilitates collaborations that achieve these two goals.

In partnership with VCUarts faculty, the Institute conducts research around four themes: Creative Works and Scholarship, Arts and Health, Community Practice and Interdisciplinary Research. The Institute will establish new collaborations within and outside the university, host convenings addressing vital debates around the arts, and provide educational opportunities for faculty and alumni.[26]


Many students choose to study at VCU in part because of its diverse student body.[27] VCU is the most diverse school in the commonwealth of Virginia and ranked 55th most diverse in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. In 2015, the student body comprised more than 31,000 students hailing from 108 countries. The ethnic breakdown was 12% Asian; 15% black/African-American; 7% Hispanic/Latino; 6% international; 4% bi-racial; 5% unreported; and 51% white.[28]


Notable VCUarts alumni include music producer Michael D. Congdon (BA, 2005), sculptor Tara Donovan (MFA, 1999), sculptor Teresita Fernández (MFA, 1992), actor Jason Butler Harner (BFA, 1992), fashion entrepreneur Donwan T. Harrell (Fashion Design, 1992), illustrator Sterling Hundley (BFA, 1998), dancer Jason Akira Somma (Dance, ’03) and glass artist Kazue Taguchi (Craft, 2009). The work of VCUarts graduates has appeared in the Chicago International Film Festival, New York City Opera, Metropolitan Opera, Joffrey Ballet, Carnegie Hall, MTV, Sundance Film Festival, Disney Studios, Spike Lee Productions, and in museums including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Tokyo, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum.


VCUarts faculty, working at both VCUarts campuses, are practicing artists who have been recognized nationally and internationally for their artistic, research and scholarship achievements with a number of prestigious awards and fellowships, including MacArthur Foundation "Genius" Grants, Guggenheim Fellowships and United States Artist Fellowships, among others. Prominent faculty include Kendall Buster, Corin Hewitt and Elizabeth King[29] (Sculpture + Extended Media), Sonya Clark (Craft/Material Studies), Robert Hobbs (Art History), Arnold Kemp and Hilary Wilder (Painting and Printmaking), Rex Richardson[30] (Music) and Stephen Vitiello (Kinetic Imaging).

Community Involvement[edit]

Set within the mid-sized urban environment in Richmond, Va., students have the opportunity for real-life engagements with diverse people, museums and nonprofits in the Richmond community. In 2014, sophomore in the Graphic Design department won a city-wide competition for his design of bike racks that were installed in the city for the UCI Road World Championships that took place in Richmond in 2015.[31]

Many VCUarts Cinema students worked on the Stephen Spielburg film, "Lincoln," starring Daniel Day-Lewis, when that was filming in Richmond in 2011.[32]

In 2015, Cinema students and faculty shot and produced a film adaptation of "Macbeth" with actor Angus McFadden, Kevin MacNally and other actors who were in Richmond filming the first season of the AMC series "Turn."[33][34]

As an undergraduate student in the Photography and Film department, Mark Strandquist worked with a VCU Anthropology and Environmental Studies student Courtney Bowles, and Sculpture and Extended Media student Riley Duncan to developed the People’s Library project in which books from the Richmond Public Library that would otherwise be thrown away were re-pulped into blank books that members of the community were encouraged to check out and create their own memoir in for the library’s permanent collection. The goal of the project was to tell the diverse stories of the Richmond community. 1,000 books were made and they now have a permanent place in the Main Branch of the Richmond Public Library. The team earned several grants for the project, including a VCUarts Undergraduate Research Grant, and they’ve spoken at conferences and organizations in Oregon, Chicago and Philadelphia.[35][36]


Anderson Gallery[edit]

VCU's Anderson Gallery was established through a monetary gift given to the Richmond Professional Institute (RPI) in 1930 by Colonel Abraham Archibald Anderson (1847–1940). Colonel Anderson was a gentleman portrait artist who in Paris in 1890 founded the American Art Association, a mutual-aid society for art students [not to be confused with the American Art Association, an art gallery and auction house in Manhattan, New York City]. Anderson believed that Richmond would develop, with support, a thriving art community.[37]

In 2013 Anderson Gallery director Ashley Kistler announced that the gallery would be closing in 2015.[38] On May 12, 2015 The Richmond Times-Dispatch announced that Anderson Gallery was closed and that the Anderson Gallery collections would be moved to VCU's James Branch Cabell Library.[39]

The Depot[edit]

In 2014 VCU School of the Arts for the first time presented student exhibitions at The Depot, a renovated former trolley station located on Richmond's Broad Street.[40]

Institute for Contemporary Art[edit]

Due to open in 2017, the new Virginia Commonwealth University Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA,VCUarts) has been designed by architect, Steven Holl. It will be positioned as the new gateway to the city of Richmond.[41] The ICA will be a non-collecting institution. It will initiate programming and collaborate with other institutions around the world on traveling exhibitions and other events. The building will cost 35 million dollars.[42]

The ICA will include a 30-foot tall gallery, a 240-plus seat performance space, classrooms, a café, and offices. The design incorporates many environmentally friendly elements, meeting LEED Platinum certification standards.[41]

Arts Research Institute

The Institute for Arts Research supports faculty and students, translating their creative ideas into funded projects. The Institute aims to increase national and international recognition of faculty research and encourage the research culture across the institution. Sarah Cunningham, Ph.D., was appointed Executive Director of Research in 2011.[43] Cunningham was the former Director for Arts Education at the National Endowment for the Arts.[44] She and her team provide guidance, grants and facilitates third-party grant opportunities for students and faculty research initiatives. From 2012–2015, the Office of Research raised more than $1 million to support individual faculty projects. VCUarts is set within a major urban research university with national rankings in sponsored research. In fiscal year 2015, VCU had $270 million in sponsored research.

In 2015, associate professor in the Department of Art Education, Melanie Buffington, Ph.D., was awarded a $179,946 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities[45] for her project leading workshops with K-12 teachers exploring symbols and memory of the Civil War.


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