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Give Me an "M-F-A!"

The Art Cheerleaders want to talk aesthetics, censorship and creative originality. With high kicks!


It's an intellectual's fantasy: witty, sardonic cheerleaders, high-kicking not about the wide receiver, but about the plight of the artist in modern society. Wait — as long as they still have the little skirts. They do? Oh, good.

On the empty stage of the Firehouse Theatre last week, Rebecca Goldberg Oliver stands in a black uniform with pleated skirt and a shirt that says, in sparkly print, "SMFA Cheerleaders." She's pleased.

"After two kids, I still fit into this skirt," she says. The other women on the stage with her — Mary Burruss, Meghan Healy and Rebecca Berhman — give a sort of cheer at this. Pep is running high this evening as the Art Cheerleaders take their first tentative stomps, synchronize their first claps, smile their first insane smiles.

They're practicing the flagship cheer for the fledgling group, What Can You Be With an Art Degree? which includes the sort of call-and-response that (especially with the short skirts aflutter) really focuses the attention of the audience. The cheer asks the age-old question of where a master's degree in fine arts is going to get you, shouting out options such as waitress, bike courier, erotic dancer, drug dealer.

And that's the goal of the Art Cheerleaders: addressing the weird world of art and artists, from the pitfalls of buying art and coming up with an original idea, to the bigger issues, like censorship. Because it's coming from a bunch of cheerleaders, the theory goes, it's easier to take. Short skirts are the new medium.

Plus, as Burruss says, "You get more attention when you're funny than when you're serious."

But let's go back 12 years or so, back before Oliver's two kids and her portraiture business existed, back to those sparkly letters of SMFA, the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where in 1995 some art school kids went to a lecture by performance artist Kim Irwin on "How to Be a Feminist Cheerleader."

Those kids, Oliver included, started then and there using cheers and chants to get across messages about life as an artist. They opened for bands, marched on Washington, D.C., with the National Education Association, crashed a lecture by author Camille Paglia, and ended up in the Boston Globe Sunday and the August 1997 issue of Playboy. And the Boston museum school had its own cheerleading squad.

Just imagine a pep rally for the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

So Oliver migrated down here as many young artists do, lured by love and cheap beer. She got married, had the two children and met Mary Burruss in — where else? — a yoga class, where Burruss told her about her plans for Wearable Art, the interpretive art fashion show that 1708 Gallery hosted annually at La Différence. This is the 10th and possibly the year of the show, and organizer Burruss thought it would be a perfect time to reincarnate the Art Cheerleaders.

"We kind of fit in anywhere, and that's the beauty of it," Oliver says.

So here we are again at the Firehouse, where Oliver reminds us that the goal of cheerleading is also to bring people together. Artists in Boston, she says, weren't the tightest-knit group.

"Richmond's artists aren't necessarily cohesive either," she says. "And everybody loves cheerleaders." Oliver thinks the subject matter in this version of the Art Cheerleaders will include big-kid concerns too: cheers about being a stay-at-home mom, for example, or being a working artist rather than a student.

"I just found that all of a sudden I had a lot of new fodder," she says.

And they have until November to put it all together, when the group will usher in the final Wearable Art. Oliver says they've already received requests to perform for other events, so they must look their best. No more old costumes.

On to the next short skirt!

But that's a little down the road. Right now they have to synchronize those handclaps. Oliver and her team line up and she begins — her eyes go bright and varsity-blank, what she calls an "absolutely frenetic smile" takes over her face, and she begins chanting about art degrees to an invisible audience. S

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