Theresa Pollak - Reminiscences
AN ART SCHOOL
An account of
the early beginnings
of the School of Art
of the Virginia
told by its first
PART I: 1928 - 1948
Memo from Dr. Henry H. Hibbs, Jr.
Remiciscences of my first twenty
years at the School of Art of the
Richmond Professional Institute,
PART II: 1948 - 1968
Memo from Dr. Herbert J. Burgart
Further Reminiscences--my second
twenty years at the School of Art
of the Virginia Commonwealth
University, December, 1968
Afterthought and Acknowledgments
November 18, 1948
TO: Miss Pollak
FROM: H. H. Hibbs
Will you please prepare and send to me some reminiscences of
the early years of the School of Art. We are engaged in writing
some articles about the history of various departments of R.P.l.
and would particularly like to have a statement from you about the
beginning of the Art School and the later development of the Fine
Arts Department. You have been such an important factor in the
establishment of the school and its success that we would like to
have your part in it and your memories of the early days set forth fully.
Return to An Art School / Some Reminiscences
MY FIRST TWENTY YEARS AT THE
SCHOOL OF ART
OF THE RICHMOND
As I look back over the twenty-year span from 1928 to 1948, which marks my association with the School of Art of the Richmond Professional Institute, it seems that those twenty years assume the nature of a complete unit in themselves, one of stimulation, richness, and fulfillment, and had all the other areas of my life been omitted, I would even so have lived fully and with meaning.
It was soon after returning to Richmond in the spring of 1926, from my years of art study in New York, that I first became aware of the School of Social Work and Public Health, later the Richmond Division of the College of William and Mary, and later still the Richmond Professional Institute, when a friend invited me to attend with her some folk dances on the lawn of 827 West Franklin Street, which was then the only building of the school. At about the same time I heard that Miss Antoinette Hollister, the sculptress, was giving instruction on Saturday mornings in the basement of "827." This interested me very much for, since the days of the old Richmond Art Club which I had attended as a child and in which Miss Nora Houston and Miss Adele Clark had taught, I had not known of the existence in Richmond of anything even approaching an art school.
In the spring of 1928 I participated in a group showing of paintings at the Woman's Club after which Mr. Charles Smith, then a free-lance commercial artist, and Mr. William Young of Young's Art Shop, both having seen my work, told me that Dr. Hibbs was building a studio in a remodelled stable and planning to start a real Art Department with classes in drawing, painting and related subjects. They both suggested me for the Drawing and Painting job and so I had my first interview with Dean Hibbs.
I emerged with a contract for the following fall which read that I was to teach a day class in the school if I had as many as five students. I was simultaneously told, however, that there would be in all probability no students unless I produced them. I was young and inexperienced in such matters, being just out of art school, and was naturally taken aback, but fortunately I had lived in Richmond all my life and so had many acquaintances. Forthwith I spent hours at the telephone, calling up everyone who to my knowledge had ever evinced an interest in art. I can remember to this day my feeling of pride and achievement when the first student actually registered in July for the coming fall semester. When the class convened in September there were, to my amazement, about twenty students. With this success assured, I was allowed to offer a night class and one for children on Saturday morning, as part of the extension program beginning October first. These, too, emerged at the proper time as full sized classes. And thus began the nucleus of what has later become a real art school in the broadest sense of the word, drawing to its doors creatively interested and talented people, largely from Virginia and the South but also from many parts of the country.
Believing that the night class would be small, it had been scheduled to meet above the newly constructed studio in a little loft room which had been assigned to me mainly for my private use. (The old stable in which these rooms were located was on Shafer Street and later became the first partial art building.) There were so many students on the opening night that they literally filled the room, overflowing onto the stairway and leaving no space for easels or other working equipment. We could only wait until Dean Hibbs came to relieve us of our dilemma by moving the class into the larger studio below. However, as we waited we discussed plans for the work ahead and I left that night, somewhat exhausted and disheveled from the overcrowded condition of the little room, but greatly encouraged and excited by the enthusiasm of the group. This night class had been made up of people of all age groups and walks of life who had a common interest in art, a desire for creative activity and a willingness to come at night, exhausted after daytime jobs, to fulfill it.
Considering day and night enrollment as a whole I was surprised at the creative material at hand just in Richmond alone, from which most of the first students came, and thrilled at the opportunity which presented itself for future growth. Other teachers were gradually added. Miss Ann Belle Eubank taught a class in Decorative Arts and Mr. Charles Smith one in Advertising Art. Miss Anne Fletcher and Mr. Ferrucio Legnaiolli soon joined me in Fine Arts with classes respectively in Portrait and Sculpture. In 1936 came Mrs. Hazel Mundy who was to establish and develop with such marked success the department of Fashion Design. And so the school grew; more teachers and courses were added and new studios emerged from the continuous remodelling of the old buildings and the gradual acquiring of others. Students came and went and we soon began to have a past and with it a tradition. Our old students continued to create and to become acquainted with the new, and a body of practicing artists, all products of the same school and possessing a common spirit and incentive, began to develop.
In 1934 came Mr. Marion Junkin, who was to be for eight years my associate as Professor of Fine Art. Mr. Junkin and I were a good team and worked well together. As one student put it at the time, he and I were a good "mama and papa" for the school. The two of us together planned and formed the character and objectives of the art school in many ways, always working for higher quality and greater completeness. We analyzed our own New York instruction, trying to develop in this new school the best of what we had had, but tirelessly seeking out the weaknesses in those metropolitan schools and trying to overcome them in our own. We strove to develop compactly organized programs of work which should give the student a complete and coordinated approach to art, but which would also be flexible to the needs of the individual. We strove always to put the emphasis on the learning experience of the student rather than on the completed product. We wanted to teach him to think and develop, rather than to turn out exhibitive work. We always steered clear of competitions or the awarding of prizes as we believed that this would tend to develop false standards and also that no two students' work could be judged on the same basis. But while we believed in this integrity of the individual we also discouraged an atmosphere of artiness or Bohemianism in the school, stressing rather the need for the artist to be a genuine individual of real character. And most of all we believed in the teaching of sound traditional principles, balancing these by a progressive approach which was to hold up to the student the aliveness and ever-changing nature of art in a changing civilization.
These in brief, as I look back, seem to be the basic principles on which we built and toward which we shaped. The school has changed greatly since those days. Mainly it has grown larger and more and more departmentalized. The number of teachers has increased from the handful of those earlier days to eighteen of today, and the departments of Commercial Art, Fashion Design, Crafts, Dramatic Art, Interior Decorating, and Fine Arts each has its own head. Correspondingly, the number of students has increased from a total of perhaps not a hundred at the beginning to over five hundred of today. But the basic principles which Mr. Junkin and I felt to be so important in those early days and which we consciously and deliberately wove into the pattern of the school in its more formative stage are to a great extent still a part of it. Only today they have become the accepted nature of the school, the basic substances as it were, of which it is made. Highly complex in its departmental setup, it yet remains sufficiently unified by this traditional spirit which in large measure continues to permeate the whole.
In recent years, with separate heads for each department, my main concern has been with the Fine Arts Department. It no longer being necessary for this de-partment to take care of the needs of a wide variety of students as heretofore, a larger degree of unity in its aim and direction has been possible. The basic principle by which we are guided is still the importance of a sound traditional training for our students with the realization that from this they are to build an art that is expressive of themselves as individuals and of the age in which they live. The instructors have been chosen with this in mind so that while they differ in approach sufficiently that each may make his own contribution and not overlap with that of others, there will, at the same time, be no confusing discord in credo amongst them. With Mr. Maurice Bonds handling mainly the classes in Art History, Anatomy and Graphic Arts; Mr. Wolfgang Behl those in Sculpture; and I those in Drawing and Painting, we have a small but well integrated Fine Arts Faculty. Mr. Glinn Casey in the Craft Department is close to us in activity and direction as is the Stage Craft work under the direction of Mr. Raymond Hodges.
We have been unusually fortunate also in having the cooperation of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the Art Department of the Richmond Public Schools, both of which have been akin to us in aim and direction and have afforded excellent material for study in the form of exhibits and lectures. It is also in these organizations that our students obtain respectively their museum apprenticeships and their practice teaching experience.
Most gratifying has been the fact that the students have held their own professionally, outside of the school as well as in, close to a dozen of them having been awarded one of the ten scholarships offered annually by the Art Students' League of New York to students in the whole United States. Others have won fellowships from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and have had their work included in professional jury ex-hibits there and at other museums. One even had a painting purchased by the Virginia Museum for its permanent collection. On graduating they have obtained positions in museums in Richmond, New York, and elsewhere and have been active as instructors in the art departments of both colleges and public school systems. Several have become affiliated with first class galleries in New York where they exhibit regularly. This success outside of the school characterizes not only the fine art students but also those from all other departments in the art school. A list so long as to be unwieldy could be compiled of our former students who hold excellent positions in various fields of the art world.
In brief, such has been the origin and development of the art school as a whole and of the Fine Arts Department in particular. Instead of going into this more fully I am desirous rather of attempting to account for some of the particular circumstances that have allowed for and encouraged this growth and to recall some of the incidents that stand out in my mind with humor or with meaning as I think back over the years.
Perhaps the one circumstance that has differentiated the Richmond School of Art in my mind from other schools and colleges is the broad context, so to speak, of its existence. Unlike most art schools, it has the advantage of being associated not only with the enriching cultural qualities of the academic college work of the Institute but also with the varied approaches to art in general afforded by the School of Music and the departments of Dramatic Art, Modern Dance, Industrial Arts, and Occupational Therapy. Thus an art student may not only take electives in related fields but also literally lives in a world of all the arts that takes form in widely different but significantly related activities.
It is not just the art school, however, that enjoys a richer background than other art schools but the whole Institute differs from the majority of colleges in being situated in the heart of a city. The sequestered remoteness of the typical college campus is replaced by the every-day throb of city life and so the students seem to partake of a certain awareness of life in its most active sense. They see and brush shoulders with people of all kinds as they cross the streets from one building to another. They study and philosophize and create at the same time that they feel themselves to be actually part of a modern city, aware of all its struggles and tensions--rather than apart in an illusory world of abstract thought. Also, they are in easy distance of the Mosque where opera, concert and dance recitals are held; to the theatres, libraries, art museums, and public schools. It is this character of life in the midst of the city which, to my mind, is so largely responsible for the spirit of aliveness that seems to qualify the student of the School of Art of the Richmond Professional Institute.
This same aliveness and sense of freedom stems also from the nature of its founder and director, Dean H. H. Hibbs. Seldom have I known a man of high position with such a complete absence of false pride and dignity. Simple in his manner and untrammeled in his thought, there is around him none of the stuffiness of many institutions of learning--but rather a freedom for growth and new ideas. One rarely feels cramped or controlled in what one thinks or teaches. One's activities are limited only by one's own energies. The Dean has never liked a "yes man." l remember with a certain sense of amusement but also with strong satisfaction an incident that occurred after my first few months at the school. I was young and somewhat timid but at the same time very determined in my ideals of what I thought this new art school should become. Since the conditions necessary to the working of an art school are somewhat different from those to which Dr. Hibbs had become accustomed in other departments, I often had to argue long and strenuously for what I believed to be right. I began to be a little self-conscious about this, wondering if my director wouldn't think I was an awful nuisance. So after one especially stubborn session on my part I said apologetically, "Dr. Hibbs, I'm terribly sorry to seem to argue so much." "That's perfectly all right, Miss Pollak," was the prompt rejoinder, "I admire your energy." This has always stood for me as a keynote to the Dean's character and of what he expected and wanted of his teachers, and I feel that the school has been built largely by this realization on the part of the teachers that the Dean does want the best we have even if we have to at times fight for it.
Flexibility seems to me another strong quality of the Dean's upon which the school has been built and one which I have learned from him with profit. He has always held before us the need of adjusting a situation for the individual student rather than forcing him into one for which he is unsuited. He also has a great respect for the intelligence of the students and has held before us the importance of satisfying them. When I first started teaching I was somewhat anxious as to how the Dean would know whether I was doing a satisfactory job. "The size of your classes will tell me that," was his answer. At the time it seemed to me that this test of popularity was a rather superficial one. I came to learn later, however, through several years of teaching experience, that the student usually knows what he's after and whether he is getting it and that he is not to be fooled by inferior or sloppy teaching.
Perhaps the most unusual trait, however, of Dean Hibbs in my eyes is his love and understanding of art--and of all kinds of art. His open acceptance of new things is evidenced in this area as well as in his administrative ideas of education. There is in his approach to art little of the narrowness of the lay person, either about the nude in art or about the newer art forms that involve distortion, abstraction, cubism, etc. They are equally accepted by him without surprise or question, seeming rather to represent the basic fact that life after all is made up of many kinds of forms and that, therefore, the same is to be expected of art. He surrounds himself in his home, the school buildings, and their gardens with paintings and sculpture and the Art School seems a logical growth with such a man behind it.
Last but not least in the factors building the school are the students, without which no school could exist. Attracted by the inherent qualities of the place a certain type of student has in the main developed. A school which grew somewhat without plan, not possessed of elegant or pretentious buildings but rather crude ones, often having had their origins in old stables, built for use and work, a school in the heart of a city, and, therefore, vibrant with life, up-to-date, not afraid to be modern--from this a practical, down-to-earth, independent art student body has emerged. The student comes to the school to learn art as a career, he means business and has little time or concern for social affairs; he is interested mainly in good literature, music, the arts and a progressive approach to life and his work.
Out of this student body has grown the highly complex and vital organization of the Art Students League, composed of the individual clubs or groups from each department in the art school. Each acts separately in carrying out its own discussions, programs and exhibits toward a further understanding of art within the department, as well as attempting likewise to bring it to the Institute as a whole. The annual Art Auction of students' work has become a real institution with the fine art students. In the old days Mr. Junkin was the peppy, witty auctioneer and in the "twenty-minute" period often brought in sixty dollars or more from students and teachers as buyers. In recent years the Richmond public has also been invited and it is not uncommon for close to two hundred dollars to be realized in an evening, with Mr. Hodges of histrionic fame acting as auctioneer. The annual trip to New York and the Mardigras Ball have also become traditionally important events in the activities of the League as a whole.
Several institutions which formerly characterized and enriched the school have unfortunately disappeared. There were the prominent visiting artists who came down from New York or elsewhere to lecture and criticize students' work. This was in the days when the school was small enough to meet as a whole for such sessions. They were days of excitement and stimulation and I remember with pleasure and benefit the visits of such men as Kimon Nicolaides, Edmund Archer, Edward Rowan and Harry Sternberg. The visit of the latter, artist and teacher at the Art Students League in New York, will always bring to my mind a mixed feeling of amusement and chagrin. Late the night before, we had arranged on the bulletin board the work to be criticized by him the next day, dropping many tacks in the process and taking for granted that the janitor would be at work before class the next day. When the session started and Mr. Sternberg began pacing up and down as he talked, which seemed to be his habit, we realized with alarm that he was walking on tacks, trying very carefully to choose a path between them with one part of his mind, as he talked with the other. We could hardly wait to call a rest period and get to work with a broom. I suppose we were especially anxious about getting the usually disheveled studio in shape before these visits because another cleaning problem comes to mind in connection with guest artists. It was during the time when scholarship students were used to clean the studios. The guest was expected at 9:00 a.m. Something told me to get to school early that morning. To my horror on arriving at 8:15 I found that all the dirt and confusion from the drawing class of the night before was untouched. The boy who was to have cleaned was nowhere around. Two students sauntered in. I sent one to recruit others and kept one with me to clean. Soon we had a fair sized clean-up crew which worked like fury for a half hour, bringing the room to order. At the end of that time the scholarship boy wandered sleepily in, announcing calmly that he had over-slept. After the morning studio sessions the art faculty always had the guest artists to lunch in the private dining room at the Chesterfield Apartments. We had to pay for these luncheons out of our own pockets and we used them to get the most out of our speakers, probing them throughout the whole meal with every manner of problem on art and teaching. On one occasion we had splurged a little more than usual, ordering ahead individual steaks for lunch. To our dismay we learned at the last minute that the guest, Mr. Edward Rowan, head of the Public Works of Art program in Washington, had not understood about the luncheon and insisted that he and his wife must go instead to gather wild plants and flowers from the Virginia woods. Much to our relief, Mrs. Willingham at the Chesterfield took the steaks off our hands, but we were a rather let-down crowd.
The Anderson Art Gallery, now the school library, is another disappearing institution which has been sorely missed. The money for this was given by the late Colonel Anderson and it was built from the rather lovely stable back of the Administration Building. It was an art gallery of real distinction and, for the few years that we enjoyed it before it was made into the general school library, we had many interesting exhibits. We were the first organization to bring a modern exhibit to Richmond. As much as I credit Dr. Hibbs with being progressive I wonder now as I look back how he ever gave his permission for this. The Richmond public came in large numbers. Several people really admired, others wondered and returned to wonder again, and some few were literally infuriated. I shall never forget the Saturday morning when I took my children's class over to see it. I had looked for no trouble, knowing that children will accept with pleasure and interest the new and unstereotyped, if left to their own reactions. However, on entering the gallery I was aware of the presence of a somewhat pompously dressed woman, literally bristling with disapproval to the mild little man who accompanied her. As soon as the class and I were well established in the room she approached us and, in a tone of aggrieved indignation, let go at me with a vengeance. "I could dip my skirt in a bucket of paint and do something better than that," she snorted, designating a very lovely Kandinsky of the early free-flowing period, "and it is an insult to God and humanity for you to bring those innocent children to see these monstrosities!" With that she flounced out of the gallery and down the steps, the little man following meekly behind. I was left standing open-mouthed, the onslaught had been so sudden. My first conscious consideration was, "What will the children think now?" I dared not face them. Then with the courage and understanding of children they rallied to my rescue. "I wonder what kind of pictures she has in her home?" said one with scathing contempt, whereupon the tension was broken and they all laughed and began to enjoy the paintings. A very bitter recollection of this same exhibit was the night that I gave a gallery talk to a widely mixed audience composed of the public at large. I was greatly moved by these pictures and intensely eager to put them over to others. I doubt if I have ever spoken with more sincere conviction. After the talk a friend told me that a wealthy collector of conventional "objets d'art" who had been present had remarked to her about me, "I wonder how much of that she really believes." Reminiscent of this is the first lecture I ever gave to which the public was invited. Naturally I was nervous and my mother who was in the audience told me afterward that my voice shook noticeably. However, I was quite sure of myself until Mrs. Hugh Meade, who was later to do such a splendid job at our school as teacher of ceramics, stumped me completely by asking what the fourth dimension was. Fortunately I was sensible enough not to bluff and to admit that I didn't know. So there were baffling days and still are, along with the more successful, happy ones, in the building and conducting of an art school.
Construction work has always been an integral part of the Richmond Professional Institute, especially in the early days when buildings were constantly being remodelled. It really became rather symbolic to me of the changing life and thought of the place. Just as the buildings never stayed the same for long, neither did anything else, and it seems impossible that anyone here could ever get in a rut. When teachers complained of the noise of hammering while trying to lecture Dr. Hibbs would say, "Well, it's just like a major operation, painful while you're going through it but beneficial afterwards," and so we resigned ourselves and raised our voices. There was a joke among the teachers about Dr. Hibbs being so fond of "tearing down and building up." When the new kiln was ordered for the Ceramic Department it was obvious that he was but indifferently interested until he found that it was too big to go through the door. Then it assumed great importance and value in his mind as he had a wall knocked out to get it in. My most vivid building experience however was the time that I went to one of the class studios to teach a night class for which a nude model was to be used. I had just taught in the same studio that morning and found it intact. When I arrived that night one complete wall was missing from the room. Needless to say, I didn't use the nude model.
Models were always a problem, too, at the art school. Not enough models are used in Richmond to warrant the existence of a professional model class and so we have always had to literally create our own. They were much harder to get than students in the early days, and they had to be greatly catered to. We had all kinds and varieties and a writer would have had good material for character studies. However, the development of the nude was one of the most amusing aspects. Straight from a New York art school, it was at first hard for me to accept the fact that nude models could not be used in Richmond. However, I soon came to realize that our students were unsophisticated and that the parents of many of them, from small country towns in particular, would object. Then the fact that the school was situated in one of the most conventionally proper residential sections of the city added to the situation. So models in bathing suits were used as substitutes. Later the bathing suits gave way to two-piece adagio costumes. Then Dr. Hibbs returned from a trip to New York with the idea of the attire used in burlesque. So I wrote to a "show-girl" friend of mine in New York for a pattern which was promptly dispatched and made up by us. After a while the "bra" section was left off and only the G-strap remained. Finally the "strip-tease" act was completed, and today nude models are used without question in our art school just as in those of metropolitan centers. I believe ours is one of the few schools in the south in which this is true.
Perhaps the public knows us best through our annual student exhibits occurring at the end of the school year when our studio walls are literally plastered with work from every student in the school, and the courtyard back of the Dean's house comes alive with the many and varied examples of students' sculpture. We shall always remember the hanging of these exhibits, in the hottest spell, it seems, of May, when the studios are completely cleared of all the accumulation of the year and ladders and perspiration are the order of the day. The students hardly recognize the place and are amazed at the importance and quality of their own work when presented in a well organized and discriminating arrangement. The public really comes, too! I shall never forget my gratefulness of their appreciation one year when, after working particularly hard in hanging the show, it poured rain the whole afternoon of the opening. "It was all for nothing," I thought at the beginning, "No one will come." But they did come, in crowds, and I felt that here was genuine proof that we were accepted and recognized by the community of Richmond as having a real and valued contribution to make.
So the years spread out behind me, full of struggles, discouragements, and exciting fulfillment, and I number with a warm glow the friends that have piled up through these years--teachers and former teachers, students and a whole succession of former ones, hostesses, office workers, and even janitors who have been faithful and interested, each of them having contributed in some measure to my own painting and my own life.
1948 - 1968
October 28, 1968
TO: Miss Pollak
FROM: Herbert J. Burgart
Attached is a copy of your "Some Reminiscences of My Twenty
Years at the School of Art of the Richmond Professional Institute,"
which Mr. Bonds so kindly forwarded several years ago. I was
delighted to have this record of events for our files as well as for
my own personal education.
I have an Imposing request to make of you. We need now your
"Reminiscences of Forty Years at the School of Art of the Virginia
Commonwealth University." While I realize this is asking a great
deal of you, your time and energies, I feel that such a document
would add such a great deal to our archives which source is not
usually available to schools such as ours.
"What's happening now is an immigration in time, with the people over 40 the migrants into the present age and the children born into it the natives. The world the youth are in tune with and take for granted is different from the world of their elders, and the children who have grown up in the space age understand things out of their continuous experience that adults have to learn."
"It is not thinking with the primitive ingenuity of childhood that is most difficult, but to think with tradition, with its acquired force and with all the accumulated wealth of its thought."
MY FIRST SECOND YEARS
AT THE VIRGINIA COMMONWEALTH
My second and last twenty years at what is now Virginia Commonwealth University! Somehow it seems a very long time since I wrote that other edition, in 1948--long perhaps because it is difficult to decipher, within it, specific landmarks. Again I see it as one highly complex unit, event shifting into event with kaleidoscopic sequence, unpredictable and yet inevitable. The world has changed so much--do they say more in the last twenty years than in all of history put together?--and the school, being a vital part of the world, has changed with it. What was once relatively clean-cut--certain basic standards about life, a somewhat universal concept of art, a more or less established manner of presenting this to students, together with a reasonable assurance of their acceptance of it--most of these things are no longer true. You begin to question principles in which you always believed, the props are knocked out from under you and you begin to wonder to what extent you can even trust or accept yourself. Life has become frightening: students at times have seemed strange, unkempt creatures, with flower disturbingly painted on cheek or eyelid. Music has become in large part noise; subjective, expressive painting has become hard, schematic, ugly, or minimal. A shoe, any object, becomes ART because an artist deigns to sanctify it with his signature.
Where can I, who received my education and art training in the twenties, and believing that art is a profound expression of the human soul--where can I fit into this picture? Many times in the last several years I have asked myself this question and, more specifically, the question, "What can I offer the youth of today, the product of this strange new world? No, I can only harm and hold him back with my anachronisms of another age." And so I have often been tempted toward, and strongly considered, retirement before the end of my allotted time.
On a particular Monday morning two years ago, I walked to school with the definite intention of giving notice that this would be my last year of teaching. Over the weekend I had considered the matter fully, discussing it with my family and a few intimate friends. Yes, I would leave this confusion, this tax upon my time, energies, nervous system, this third floor that was always too cold or too hot, that was always so crowded that one fell over easels, paintings, trash cans (one day I counted sixteen that had strangely accumulated in the melee of the studio), those pneumatic drills and riveting machines that threatened torture as I tried to speak above them. I would have freedom at last, time to paint, to read, to garden, to see my friends; in short, to find myself within my own life.
As I walked down Grace Street my mind was made up. I turned into Shafer and approached the seething, churning busyness that was RPI, students hurrying in crisscross patterns, in confusion that seemed to make no sense, though undoubtedly everyone was going somewhere. I looked across and saw my destination, the "Gym" building, with its several steps leading to the first floor landing. Next year I would not be mounting those steps. Suddenly, instead of the feeling of elation which would normally be expected, there came over me a great sense of loss, as though I were being robbed of something that was rightfully mine. So bitter was the wave of premature homesickness, the desperation and resentment of what I would be losing, that I had to tell myself, "No one is making you do this. It is your own decision." I approached the building, climbed the steps, entered the elevator. A small girl, a freshman, was already inside. As we started upward she looked at me with a certain assurance. "You are Miss Pollak, aren't you?" she asked. "Yes," I answered, feeling somehow as though I were a character in a play and that destiny was controlling me. "Well, next year I want to get in your class, because I need discipline," she stated, completely confident that, to this quality, somewhat rare and unsought in the permissive society of today, I held the key. I looked at her strangely, and with a strong sense of guilt, thinking, "I will not be here next year, but she does not suspect this." Instead, she continued to gaze at me with such complete faith that it shook me.
I began to consider. Conceivably I did have a place in this strange new world. This girl, and possibly others like her, was expecting something of me. I could not let her down, I could not leave. This was my life, a part of my being, ingrained into me through long years of involvement, struggle, excitement, challenge. Perhaps this new breed of student did need something that I had, a certain steadfastness, an insistence that there are enduring standards that do still exist and that are to be adhered to in both life and art; a realization that art was not just a set of styles that changed with the seasons, but that underneath there was a permanency and universality that one could, to a degree, get hold of and build on.
And what were these students doing for me? Most importantly perhaps, by getting to know many of them and brushing shoulders with others, I was finding out what many persons in conventional society never have the opportunity to learn; that is, that these young people, strangely attired as they are, are not merely the curiosities they are usually considered to be. An incident well illustrating this impression, often held by even young outsiders, is that of several students from a neighboring university who came to the VCU store to buy art supplies. On returning and being asked by their instructor where they had been for so long, they answered, with a look of fascinated glee, "Down there looking at the characters!" But I have found these "characters" to be, on the whole, sentient human beings, innately courteous and considerate. I never cease to be touched when an art student, often sloppy, longhaired, bearded, one whom I've never taught and to whom I deem myself completely unknown, passes me on the street and with genuine warmth, greets me by name. It is with a real sense of delight that I return the greeting, deeply pleased that I am a cognizant part of this youth's world. And so, even though I realize that there are many areas of his life in which I would be a complete stranger, I am led, nevertheless, to believe that the "generation gap" is not so wide as to frighten and that there can exist, between old and young, a measure of sympathy and understanding.
But most important, these students are seeking, and perhaps this has been their greatest influence upon me. At the very time that I might possibly have been giving them some measure of faith or belief, they were shaking mine. It has therefore been necessary that I, also, question, think, and seek. I could not follow an easy acceptance but rather I have been tormented always, torn between concepts of yesterday and today, striving always to understand the new and re-evaluate the old. Thus it became a never-ending search to find out what was really permanent in an ever-changing world.
Likewise a challenge, in keeping me "on my toes," has been the faculty. Sixteen of the total eighty-five, thirteen of whom I have taught, are graduates of VCU. That this number of "our own people" are with us in the teaching capacity has tended to maintain a certain unity of concept within the school and to perpetuate the initial spirit of progressiveness, tempered with soundness. In most cases these people have done graduate work elsewhere before joining the faculty here, thus enabling them to bring in new ideas and enlarged horizons. However, in order that we not become too ingrown, the policy is now, when possible, to engage teachers from other institutions, thus adding new blood and fresh vision.
The majority of these teachers, both from within and without, represent an entirely different generation than my own. Not only have I learned from them but I had to learn, because of them, in order that I not be relegated entirely to the status of "old fogey" or "has been." If now, at the age of retirement, I can flatter myself that I do not "feel my age," it is largely because of this constant contact and involvement with the young, teachers as well as students, and the excitement and challenge of art and life at this unique place that is called a school.
In the foregoing pages I have attempted to give some of the causes for my long stay at VCU. Now I wish to mention certain incidents and aspects of the last twenty-year period, as they come uppermost in my mind.
I feel it important to emphasize at this time, as I did twenty years ago, that wide-open quality, that tremendous sense of freedom that has always seemed to be an inherent part of this institution. Again I am inclined to trace it to the fact that its founder, Dr. Hibbs, was by vocation a social worker and so looked upon all people as being of interest and value, no matter from what walk of life. At any rate, in my forty years here I have rarely seen evidence of pretentiousness, bigotry or prejudice and I believe it would be very difficult for such roots to establish themselves in our soil. Everyone is accepted for what he is, with no ulterior considerations, racially, religiously, or socially. It is this spirit, I am sure, that has thus far prevented the setting up of fraternities at VCU. These, of course, may yet come, but I cannot envisage it happening in the climate and framework of this institution.
Likewise in all these years on the faculty I have never been told how I should teach a class, nor have I been interfered with or supervised in this respect. At the request of faculty members themselves, content and method of courses have been discussed in meetings but the ultimate decision has always rested with the individual. I have felt the assumption to be that if I am qualified to teach the class, I am qualified to do it in the way I see most fit. Needless to say, this sense of freedom, carrying with it the faith and confidence of others in me, has also been one of the contributing factors in my being able to remain, with happiness, at one place for so long.
For the student, too, academic freedom is a very real thing and he is allowed and encouraged, especially in his upper years, to develop in the direction of his choice. The need to find oneself in art, the realization that art is a personal expression and not a system or dogma, is still strongly stressed and our students seem somehow to absorb from the air here at VCU the meaning of art in its broadest sense.
However, between the creative spirit of the art school and the necessity for discretion on the part of the central administration, occasional clashes are almost inevitable, especially in the area of censorship. An instance of this occurred a few years ago when a painting, hung in a student exhibition in the Shafer Street Playhouse, was objected to by certain members of the college community as being pornographic. A meeting with the art school faculty was then called by an officer of the administration. A full discussion ensued, during which members of the faculty freely expressed their opinions on the subject, at the same time presenting reproductions of paintings by Francis Bacon as evidence of the prevalence of such work by accepted contemporary masters. The upshot of the matter was that the art faculty agreed to remove the painting from the theatre, on the basis of its being exposed there to a captive audience, but with the understanding that it be rehung in its own third floor "Gym" Gallery. Thus the principle was maintained of not bowing to censorship in the realm of creative expression, but at the same time realizing that there are certain considerations of fitness to be observed and respected.
Related to this matter has been the generally prevalent and somewhat over-emphasized one of beards and long hair. The author of the aforementioned painting, along with several other students who refused, as a matter of principle, to shave, or cut their hair, was forced for this reason, several years ago, to drop out of school. Later, with a change of policy on the part of the administration, this ban was lifted and the particular student, who had continued in the interim to paint and develop on his own, is currently a senior in the School of Art. Faculty members, as well as students, are now free to sport long hair and beards at will.
Thus, with the rapid shifting of attitudes it is possible that the event next described might not, if occurring today, have brought criticism. However, several years ago the art school was severely censured, again by the central administration, for presenting, as part of its Art Festival, the dance act of Robert Morris and Yvonne Rainer. As I think back on the great beauty of this performance and the lasting effect that it has made on me, I cannot but feel that it was well worth the reprimand which it brought upon us and that the whole matter of censorship is, at best, highly difficult and perplexing. The large gymnasium, functioning as an auditorium, with platform set up at the front, was filled to capacity; some outside guests were among the audience but it was largely made up of students and faculty. The few stage props were first arranged by members of the dance group, in the presence of the audience; several large amorphous forms indicating boulders were placed against the deep blue backdrop, while further forward a crude plank, slightly raised, constituted a walkway, running the complete length of the stage. For several minutes thereafter there was silence with empty stage. Then, emerging from the wing at the right, the dancers, completely nude and facing each other in close embrace, advanced slowly and rhythmically across the narrow walkway, steps measured to loud-speaker music and accompanied by readings from the notebooks of da Vinci. Back of them, in rhythmic counterpoint, a young woman passed slowly from left to right, unwinding with measured cadence a ball of twine, fastening it, as it gradually ebbed, first on one side and then the other. The sound of boulders and of roaring surf filled the background while the endless volume of the music and the prophetic words of Leonardo continued to beat upon one with relentless solemnity and power. The feeling produced was that of the universal passage of time and eternity as the couple, man and woman--elemental--made their way gradually but inevitably, across the stage, reaching at last the other side and disappearing into the unknown as the last bit of string was unwound. The effect was pure and classic. One felt that somehow the whole of life and its meaning had passed before one. From the audience there was, during the entire performance, complete silence and then at the end, after a moment in which to return to this earth, tremendous applause. Later the dancers expressed their appreciation of the absorption and empathy of the audience; the first, they said, before which they had enacted this drama, that had not given evidence of self-conscious jittery nervousness, or derision. It is this kind of sensitivity and respect, in their recognition of what is fine, that gives our students their certain rare distinction.
The thought of this dance group brings with it the recollection of the many other distinguished artists and scholars that have, in recent years, visited the school. Some of these have come through the University Center while others were invited by the school, often as part of the Art Festival. On the whole they have been invaluable in giving both student and faculty new points of view as well as providing a sort of measuring rod against ourselves. However one of my greatest interests in these occasions has been that they have tended to satisfy, to a degree, the absorbing curiosity that I have about people and what they are like. Especially one wonders about "famous" people. I have, of course, found in them tremendous differences, some giving generously from a full personality while others seemed thin and superficial, having little sense of the need to fulfill a commitment.
Of these visitors I find myself thinking often of Ladislas Segy, sent by the University Center and owning the gallery in New York of that name. Segy's love and enthusiasm is African sculpture, this being the art form handled in his gallery. Although I remember his fine scholarship, his love for the sculpture and the peoples who produced it, the thing that most impresses was the man himself, with his deep rich personality, the sensitivity of his feeling for the sculpture, his tireless search for the subtleties of the form. And after he had gone one could ex-perience an added satisfaction through the enjoyment of his authoritative and attractive little book on African sculpture in the school library.
Possessing the same willingness to give as Segy, yet differing from him in being themselves creative artists, were Jack Tworkov and George Segal. They were casual, warm-hearted men who told freely of their own creative experience and of the way in which they had arrived at their particular art form. They generously and sympathetically answered student questions, and, by their sincerity and enthusiasm, stimulated one's mind and instincts toward a real desire to work. It was particularly interesting to hear Segal tell of the feeling of unfulfillment that led him from two to three-dimensional work. Likewise, I remember the honesty with which Tworkov stated that he had early determined to make a living by his work, even in view of the ensuing struggle to achieve this end, while yet maintaining his integrity as an artist. Also, I was especially interested when someone asked him why he had lately joined the art faculty at Yale after having for some time previously worked full time as a creative artist. The answer was that, at his age, (well past fifty), he felt the need of contact with the young student. Others stand out, such as Larry Rivers with his magnetic personality and spirited showmanship; Will Barnet, deeply conscientious, serious and intellectual; the vigorous little South American sculptor, Crevo, with great pride in the progressive new "Brazilia," and Hobson Pittman, whimsical, sensitive, and outgoing.
Then there were the disappointments: notably, the panel made up of Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Allen Kaprow, Ernest Trova, Barnett Newman and moderator, Tom Robbins. After the spirit of high expectation generated by so many big names there was a terrific letdown. Perhaps somehow the circumstances were not right, for, with the exception of glib, self-confident little Allen Kaprow, a duller more listless group of men could hardly be imagined. To questions directed at Ernest Trova there was the answer "no comment" and, when people seated in the back called that they could not hear, the reply of another panelist was that he couldn't think when he raised his voice. Perhaps their lack of concern for the interests and needs of students, their seeming irresponsibility in such a situation, might be in keeping with the thinness of quality in the work of some of these "bright boys" of today. Even more of a fiasco was Howard Smith, critic for the Village Voice, and the affected, superficial "phonies" who came with him. This type of experience is enlightening at best, serving as a revelation of the values that make for much of the popularity of today.
Another panel which certainly made much more of an effort to give was made up of Thomas Hess, Ivan Karp, Roy Lichtenstein, Larry Rivers, and Sidney Tillim. Here of course, with two exceptions, were gallery men or critics who were accustomed to verbal expression and so the discussion was livelier and more articulate. Outstanding to me also was the talk given by Katherine Kuh. Being past middle-age she was able not only to see trends in art with long-range perspective but also had the courage to speak out at times counter to contemporary thought, even at the risk of seeming a bit "square." To me, her contemporary, she seemed genuine and intelligent.
There have been numerous others: Buckminster Fuller, of geodesic fame; experimental film-makers George Manupelli and Richard Myers; Judith Dunn, Jill Johnson, Twyla Tharp and Company in contemporary dance; Robert Ashley, David Behrman, Bill Dixon, Jesse Fuller, Alvin Lucier, Gordon Muma, Alan Silva, Joe Ware and others, in experimental music.
In this latter field the coming of John Cage and David Tudor was for me a real event, as Cage has always been a person who greatly fired my imagination. The whole day of his arrival had been spent by the two of them, with the assistance of several VCU aids, in the setting up of electrical equipment in the Gaslight Theatre, the stage that night presenting a strangely complex appearance of what seemed to be hundreds of sound devices, combined and wired together in an inexplicable maze of confusion. At the time of my arrival Cage and Tudor were still working on the connection and adjustment of these endless paraphernalia, which included among other things, twelve tape recorders, numerous radios, and an electrically altered piano. Although I understand from persons who had heard him before that Cage was not at his best that night, the wild discordant sounds that eventually emerged were strangely exciting to me and I had a compelling desire to take a tall narrow canvas and, starting at the top, splash it with brilliant notes of color in rapidly cascading descent. In connection with John Cage, I think of the visit to our University of the contemporary composer, Aaron Copeland. Although conducting sessions primarily with the School of Music he gave an open talk on a Sunday afternoon in the science auditorium. I was somewhat shocked at the small attendance but suppose that everyone is always so busy in his own specific area. This is one of the things, however, that I feel to be deplorable about VCU--the fact that not more interdepartmental interest is shown and greater benefit derived from the richness of the whole. At any rate Aaron Copeland, again my contemporary in age, interested me greatly, stressing, in relation to music, the same problems that exist in art, especially the importance of the traditional background as a stepping--off ground for experimental music. He mentioned, with genuine fondness and admiration, John Cage who, he said, was a neighbor of his but added with a somewhat rueful smile, that he did not find it possible to go along with him in his latest musical adventures. Again I was impressed with the man, warm, simple and kind. And I realize that in the long run it is not so much what these men said that matters now--or that one even remembers--but rather it is the impact of the personality. It is this that stays with you and in some indefinable way adds something to the sum total of what you are as an individual.
This list of "well-knowns" who have been at VCU would, however, be in no way complete unless I go back in time to mention a man who came to us, not as a guest, but as a faculty member-and during the first twenty-year period. Yet I did not mention him in the earlier section of this manuscript because at that time he was virtually unknown and I was unaware of his coming importance. It was in 1943 that the man, Clyfford Still, joined our faculty, staying for a period of two years. We learned of him through a teacher's agency, receiving along with letters and a personal photograph, reproductions of his paintings. These, in the main, were semi-abstract structures of the human figure and, while revealing a sound inventiveness of pictorial organization, were strangely morose--neurotic--in nature, so that I had, even then, premonitions of a difficulty on his part to adjust. But because his background and qualifications so far exceeded those of other applicants, we engaged him. Coming all the way from Washington State, he was to meet me at a prearranged time under the clock in the hall of the Administration Building. I still remember him vividly as he appeared to me that day--a tall gaunt man, much older than the photograph would have indicated, rising to greet me with quick, jerky movements. He was exceedingly dark in complexion and mien, and when a sudden smile momentarily and unexpectedly flashed it was like lightning out of storm clouds. Later we became well acquainted and, made possible by a feeling of confidence that had built up between us, there was the excitement of meeting with him one Saturday afternoon in old Studio 35, atop the Shafer Street Playhouse, the only painting studio then existent in the school. The occasion of the meeting was that I might see his paintings and, with a large roll of canvasses under his arm, he strode into the room. Shutting the door behind him and in the quiet and isolation of the Saturday afternoon, he spread the paintings, in chronological sequence, across the floor. Stemming from the vast stretches of North Dakota farmland, his early work was realistic, stark, and somber. There was about the man a strange dark kind of bitterness which the paintings re-flected. Large, brutal carcasses of beef, reminiscent of Rembrandt, Daumier--and today of Francis Bacon--great shafts of ocher wheat blades rising upward from a relentless earth, these are the impressions that I most remember. Becom-ing gradually more and more abstract, the paintings yet retained the initial brooding quality of mood, the somber-ness of color and motif of the heavy carcasses and of the vertical slashes of growing wheat. One can see now in retrospect how the dark weighty canvasses by which he later became famous grew so logically and inevitably from the initial inception of these early paintings. A clique of worshipful students soon formed around Still and were cultivated by him. Due to their adulation, however, their paintings were little "Stills," his extremely personal idioms being picked up by them and becoming dead in their hands. What they did not realize--and this for me has been the great significance of the man--was that these abstract forms grew from his early environment, becoming part of him and coming out in his work. It was this that gave them their strength--that they had not been picked up lightly from someone else's work or developed as a gimmick. It was so with Miro, whose strange other world kind of forms developed so logically from the transmutation of his early impressions, also on a farm. Still's stay with us was of short duration. Forming at first a few friendships and joining somewhat freely into community activities, his suspicious, oversensitive nature soon caused him to lapse into an unrest of bitterness and resentment, and it was in this mood that, at the end of his second year, he severed his connection with the school. To my knowledge no one in Richmond has since heard from him and there has been but one mention, of which I am aware, in any biographical material of his stay here. Yet it did constitute a definite period in his somewhat erratic existence and it is interesting to me that I did briefly know him and so have a bit of an inkling, unknown to many, as to the nature and development of this strange, aloof man and his work.
But, returning to the present, I wish to move from the persons and programs brought in from without to the great richness of dramatic experiences, or "happenings," presented by VCU students and faculty. These have been largely in conjunction with the forementioned art festivals, the first occurring in 1963 and being referred to as "Bang!", the second, "Bang, Bang!", and so on, increasing with another "Bang" each year.
I believe it was in connection with the first of these that the students put on the great "War" spectacle, when the gymnasium was transformed into a seething, frightening well of darkness, from which multiple events momentarily emerged, to be instantly swallowed up with amazing rapidity by countless successions of others. There were the pompous black-suited little men with their attache cases--the politicians and diplomats who, with cold impersonality, shape men's lives. There were marching regiments, violent hellish explosions of light and sound, raucous cries and the frenzied, sensual dances of soldiers with native girls. There was about it all an overwhelming madness, a violence and confusion, an excitement and horror that is still vividly with me.
Also remarkable was "Bird Park Lake," the strangely surreal multi-media, visual experience produced by six members of the art school faculty. Here four or five movie projectors, in conjunction with the use of stills, were used to give multiple and overlapping images that played in, out, and around huge boxes that had been constructed on stage. Intertwined ambiguously with the projected images were the six producers themselves who appeared at intervals in person with the inexplicable, and weird intensity of a dream. Between the strange beauty of form and the unreal distortion of space, one had the sense of being moved into rare new areas of insight and perception.
Thus realizing that this delving into the vast storehouse of the last twenty years, with its attendant nostalgic pleasure, could continue on indefinitely, I must bring it to an end with the two incidents described above, for they, as well as any, serve to symbolize the spirit of creativity and exploration that marks the nature of the art school. However, before altogether concluding this manuscript, it seems important that I consider some of the more far-reaching changes that have occurred at the University, their causes, and the subsequent state in which we now find ourselves.
Because of the deep shift in values and the confusion of thought prevalent in society today, coupled with an urgency to meet the new attitudes and needs of youth, our greatest concern has been that of re-evaluation and restructuring. This necessity for self-evaluation, which has seemed to develop at VCU into a never-ending process, existed in its greatest intensity in 1962, when we gained our independence from the College of William and Mary, and were thus faced with the problem of becoming accredited in our own right. Toward this end committees were formed to investigate every area of the college, specific assignments for study being given to individual members of the faculty. Out of the blue there descended upon me the assignment for research on "Organization and Management," not just of the art school but of the Institute as a whole. If the idea in making these assignments, as I later heard, was to pick someone far removed from the scene in order that he could bring to the work a completely objective and unbiased point of view, then certainly they succeeded in choosing me for this task. For I could not have known less about business organization and what went on in those offices of the school. I spent what must have been several months on this assignment, interviewing all eighteen officials of the College. These included, among others, the president, three deans, a hostess, the school nurse, the auditor, the director of the Evening College, several teachers, and the managers of the bookstore and of the cafeteria. The result was a twenty-three page document with foreword, chapter headings, etc. I called it, with mixed feelings of loathing, relief that it was finished, and secret pride in accomplishment--my "Thesis."
This marked for me my first realization of what has now become a major factor in college life today, i. e. the participation of the faculty in the over-all administration of the school. This of course has become a universal trend, growing to great extent no doubt from the dilemma in which the colleges now find themselves. No longer is it possible for a central administration, removed from the specific area concerned and therefore not intimately cognizant of its problems, to determine policy in that area. And with this growing crisis in the colleges the responsibility can no longer be assumed even by deans of schools and department heads. Every teacher, whether he likes it or not, must bear a part of this burden, this tremendous problem of finding an answer to society's dilemma. I feel that this constitutes one of the greatest changes in the status of the teacher today. Formerly, in the art school, even when carrying certain administrative duties, a teacher felt that he was primarily a teacher and an artist. His life and his thinking, the set of his mind, was geared to this. Today he must serve on committees, undertake research studies, render reports; in short, he must become a person of wider capabilities and concerns--rather than one of deeply concentrated talents and goals. As a citizen of the world or of the community this is good. As an artist--if an artist be thought of as one who delves, in isolation, deeply into the soul--it is destructive. But then--it is not popular today to be an artist of the "soul" and to isolate oneself in contemplation becomes definitely an act of withdrawal.
However, to return to the art school and its structure! In the beginning--in 1928--we were first one class, then several classes--then a department--then a school. After I gave up the chairmanship in 1950, at the time of my mother's illness, this office was assumed in turn by several different people. Later, due to certain tensions which arose, the chairmanship was allowed to lapse and then to completely dissolve and with it, the last vestige of any sense of unity within the school. This unity, which had been increasingly threatened by varying and dissenting points of view, now with no coordinator, disappeared altogether. There followed what was indeed a precarious period in the life of the school. One might almost say that there prevailed a sense of interdepartmental animosity and division, contagiously felt and spreading even amongst the students. It became increasingly difficult to effect any action that required behind it the weight of the school as a whole.
Fortunately the faculty, even while pulling apart, had the wisdom to realize its plight and was in a sense, united by it. We began to realize that if the whole unwieldy structure were to be saved there must be some coordinating person, someone in command to put us back together and to exercise over the whole some degree of authority. Here again, self-evaluation was used as a means, with repeated meetings and discussions toward this end. Though strong conviction existed that this coordinating person must be brought in from the outside, there was, at the same time, the fear that such a person, a stranger to our direction and ideals, might take away from us the qualities of creativity we most cherished. Also, how could any one person manage to pull together, with any degree of harmony, the diverse interests and ambitions inherent in the various departments of the school?
But we were uncommonly fortunate! Dr. Herbert Burgart proved to be this man. Coming to us in 1966 as Dean of the School of Art, he has seemed to embody the impossible. Young, vigorous, enthusiastic, he has the ability to see things in the large and thus to organize, while at the same time he is aware of and sensitive to the individual, his problems, his weaknesses, but above all, his worth. Teamed with his gracious wife and family, the somewhat acrid good humor and efficiency of "Gerrie," the faithful and interested secretary, and of "Chuck" Renick, now Assistant to the Dean, the art school has become reinstated as such and, with a sort of magic, all the warring factors have been pulled together. There is a feeling amongst us now that we are not standing alone but that there is back of us a strong degree of security and solidarity that tends to engender morale and, perhaps, even a certain sense of pride.
The sense of pride might well stem in part from the fact that the faculty is deeply involved in what has now become a closely knit organization. For the first time the art school has its own constitution drawn up and voted upon by the faculty at large. This embraces the faculty committees which have been set up to function in each area of activity, these being subject to the Art Council, with its representatives from the various departments. Also a student committee has been created with a representative chosen by the students from each of the eight departments in the art school. Thus the students, faculty, and, administration are brought into close relationship in the creating and carrying out of school policy. With all concerned parties participating to so large an extent in the functioning of the school, we can hopefully expect that our school might possibly avoid the turmoil that is prevailing today in so many colleges throughout the world.
Due to this re-unification of the school, with the attendant necessity for soul-searching, many changes in internal organization and policy have been brought about. One of the most positive of these is the setting up of the Foundation Program, into which all freshmen art students are entered, regardless of their specific field of interest, and from which they make application, toward the end of the first year, for admittance to the department of their choice. Such a program, of necessity, has certain strengths and weaknesses and, now that it has been in effect for a year, an evaluation study of it has been initiated and is under way. An attempt will be made to compare the abilities of these second-year students with those of other years, when the student entered in the beginning the department of his choice, thus being immediately oriented into the concepts and motivations of his particular field.
Another change, due to the growth in size and to the expanding curriculum within each department, has been the breaking down of large departments into smaller ones of autonomous nature. Thus, there is no longer a Fine Arts Department but, rather, the separate ones of Painting and Printmaking, Sculpture, and Art History. The latter, as is true of many of these units, is building up into a department of real magnitude, offering not only an extensive range of courses in its immediate field, but embracing such related subjects as aesthetics and museology. Of course one can envisage an endless process of departmental break-downs, as individual areas grow larger and larger, assuming a life and importance of their own. Thus, quite recently, a complete program on the graduate level has been set up in the field of museology. In fact, the Graduate School of Art, now boasting its own director, has developed rapidly and extensively, many courses being offered on the five and six hundred levels, a student being able to earn a master's degree in the areas of art education, art history and museology, or in-depth studio work. Also the number of faculty members holding doctoral degrees is on the increase in the art school.
The long-felt need for a positive exhibition program at VCU is now a major concern and for the first time in many years there is a sincere and positive emphasis toward effecting practical achievement in this direction. The office of Exhibition Coordinator has been set up and capably filled, with efforts meanwhile on foot toward regaining the old Anderson Art Gallery--when the library moves out--or other suitable exhibition area. A projected program of real magnitude is in formation, including not only local but important out-of-town shows, with an eye also toward the possible building up of the permanent collection. Steps are also underway toward the rebacking, rematting, and otherwise rehabilitating those works already owned by the school. These include a small number of paintings and a goodly group of very fine and valuable prints, acquired many years ago by Dr. Hibbs.
Already in the last two years, even without a gallery, progress has been made in the direction of exhibitions. Using the city Carillon as space, the first complete faculty exhibition in the history of the school was held in the fall of 1967. The opening proved to be a gala occasion of great moment, an air of formal though festive dignity permeating throughout. It was as though the art school, for one night, stepped out of its usual dowdiness and became a Cinderella. Handsome and expensive invitations had been issued and the affair was well attended by most of the really important personages of Richmond. The refreshment table was lavish and attractive, a trio furnished by the School of Music added a sense of richness and elegance, while the little mini-skirted hostesses from the Department of Fashion provided the final touch of gaiety and charm. The exhibit itself was felt by all to be strong and impressive, proving to be a great source of interest to public, students, and faculty alike. There was about the whole a kind of confrontation. These paintings and sculptures, weaving and crafts, faced you, and I felt that there we were--this was what we could do--this was what we stood for!
The faculty show was followed in the spring by the first full student show in many years, and then in the fall of 1968 there was the second faculty show. Now these have become established patterns to recur regularly every year.
In this attempt at summary there are several matters that might be touched on. One is the two-year-old Student Union, struggling to establish itself, in lieu of the one-time Art Students League, as a significant organ for student expression. Then there is the Art Auction that seems to have disappeared and which I felt to be so vital an expression of the spirit and talent of the school. This exciting event, looked forward to and well supported by Richmond's art-minded public, could certainly bear revival, whereas the sidewalk sales, haphazardly presented and poorly attended, should be studied with an eye to improvement or else be discontinued. There should certainly be an effort to revive the annual Art Festival, but with a deeper consideration of the selection of the guest artists--not so much from the standpoint of men who have "made it big" and happen to be on the top--but of those who can and will give more of value to the student. Serious thought might also be directed toward the setting up of a functioning placement service for our students, if not by the whole university, then at any rate within the art school.
My last thoughts, perhaps fittingly, are in consideration of the status and well-being of the art student and of the art teacher at VCU. The well-being of the latter can definitely be said to be improving. Certainly, salaries have been and still are on the rise and, while committee and paper work can be time-consuming and distracting, there is a slow but decided move to reduce the teaching load. Also, a small fund has been set up to help defray faculty expenses for submitting work to exhibitions, all with the purpose of encouraging and giving opportunity for a higher degree of professionalism on the part of the faculty. Another matter to which I feel strong consideration should be given is that of salaried sabbatical leaves, with the realization that the faithful teacher who establishes roots at an institution would not only benefit as a teacher from the broadening experiences of a year with time and means to travel, study, and paint but that he deserves some tangible help and recognition from the university in return for his faithfulness. The lot of the teacher is, of course, closely tied in with that of the student, with the quality of the instruction which he receives, the general format of the classes, etc. Fortunately with the great growth of our school--numbering eighty-five faculty members and over eleven hundred students and said to be the largest art school in the United States--there has been a corresponding policy toward the limitation of classes to smaller enrollment. This not only helps to alleviate the crowded condition in the studios but makes possible a more personal student-faculty relationship. The cause given today for so much of the student rioting in colleges--that the student feels lost as an individual in a largely computerized world, with no real contact with his instructors--certainly this situation does not exist in the VCU Art School. I do feel however that our minds are often so much geared to the problems and business of committees and over-all organization that teaching seems almost incidental, and the student for whom it is ostensibly being done tends to become somewhat lost in the process.
However, as I have indicated earlier in this paper, the greatest problem con-fronting the teacher of art today hinges on the overall uncertainties of the times and the resultant state of art. So rapid are the changes occurring in art forms and concepts and so diversified the approaches that, together with the tendency toward permissiveness in our culture generally, the professional teacher suffers from a painful sense of confusion and an underlying lack of security, stemming from the question as to what he should teach and to what extent he should teach. Believing that this was personal to me because of the generation gap, I am now coming to realize that this is part of the syndrome of our age and is almost universally felt. Though perhaps not generally or formally admitted, indications of it manifest themselves not only at unexpected moments in impromptu conversations but also in the complete inability of a group of teachers to arrive at any common denominator of belief as to what is basic and important in regard to the teaching of art today. Realizing the immediacy of this problem, Dr. Burgart has taken the leadership in proposing a "Conference on Art in Virginia Higher Education" to be held at VCU in the not too distant future. In issuing the invitation to college art teachers throughout the state, he has written, "For much too long those responsible for Art in Virginia Higher Education have remained aloof, and somewhat removed from our common concerns. Individual faculty members have suffered from this isolation as well as entire departments without lines of communication or a sense of cooperation. This letter is an appeal to your professional interest and a call for assistance." Whereas the type of discussion possible at a formal meeting might solve little, tending in one sense perhaps to further confuse--on the other hand the very opening up of the matter is highly important and must certainly in the long run prove to be greatly beneficial.
There is also, of course, in connection with the teaching of art on the professional level, the problem of the status of the artist in relation to the society in which he lives. The fact that the artist of today can hardly expect to make his living at his profession unless he be fortunate--or unfortunate--enough to break into the gallery racket is a dilemma at best. So he teaches as an alternative. And he knows that as he teaches students to become "artists" the whole vicious circle is at work and that they too, will end up as "teachers" who will teach others to be artists, who will in turn teach--and so it goes on.
Yet I do not wish to end on what might seem so dismal a note. Our students are certainly to be proud of. They distinguish themselves by being accepted and winning awards in numerous professional exhibits, alongside the faculty. Alumni hold positions of real prestige. For example, two are employed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, another at the Guggenheim Museum, while several hold positions at the Valentine and Virginia Museums in Richmond. Many go from VCU for graduate work to major universities throughout the country, holding their own well in relation to the other students. Two, after earning master's degrees at Hunter College and at Yale respectively, were retained as teachers. A former VCU student is now assistant professor at the University of Georgia as well as being a practicing artist of real distinction. Also, given teaching conditions that are bearable, the teacher-artist will, with stamina, continue as a painter. Likewise, in his relationship with the students and in his creative work, he is dealing with values that are not of a material nature. He lives in an exciting world of thought and action. He sees beyond the futility and emptiness of much of the life around him and his is a sphere of wealth and wonder. The milieu of the art school is challenging and exciting and there exists, in spite of tensions, a sort of unspoken but deeply felt brotherhood, a singleness of purpose, that is felt by each faculty member in relation to his fellow colleagues and students.
These things I have learned in my forty years at VCU and I would not have had it otherwise. And I see these forty years of the growth of an art school in terms of a huge everchanging canvas on which one works endlessly, painting in and painting out, struggling always for a stronger degree of formal integration and significance and, though the canvas remains always imperfect, there is achieved and maintained within it a high degree of the sharp keen savor of life. And this is the wonder of creating art--of teaching art--of living art, and again I say--that altogether it has been a rich, full and happy life, and one that has well prepared me for the next twenty-year period in which I shall see what I can bring out of it all--on my own.
Afterthought and Acknowledgments.
In the writing of this second section, wherein the sources were so great and the sides to a question so varied, the choice of material and attitude became exceedingly difficult; so much so that what I did not include seemed in a sense to haunt and sometimes to give the lie to what I had written. For this reason I refrained almost entirely from using the names of particular persons at the school, because of the others that I would not have been able to mention. At any rate I do want to acknowledge indebtedness to Bernard Martin for supplying me with much factual material, to Sophia Hodges for her kind assistance in editing, and to Maurice Bonds and Dr. Herbert Burgart, without whose gentle persuasion this would never have been written.
APPENDIX The appendix consisted of Theresa Pollak's Curriculum Vitae.
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