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Renowned VCU Arts Dean Takes Job in Savannah

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After 34 years at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts, Associate Dean Joe Seipel has taken a job as vice president of academic affairs at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Ga.

Seipel, 61, leaves at the end of the spring semester. He's best known for building VCU's world-class sculpture department, which he inherited in the mid-1980s.

“When he took over the department there were open discussions about closing it down because there were no students in it,” recalls John Bryan, a former VCU arts development dean who heads up the Arts Council, a fundraising group for local arts organizations.

U.S. News & World Report now ranks VCU's sculpture department as No. 1 in the country for graduate programs. The school has also produced three recipients of the MacArthur Foundation's genius award in five years.

The Savannah college is the country's largest art school. There, Seipel will oversee 8,000 students, 450 full-time faculty and seven deans. “I hate to say no to any opportunity,” Seipel says. “I'd hate to grow old and say, ‘What if?’”

Bill Bosher, executive director of the Commonwealth Policy Institute, says part of Seipel's administrative success can be attributed to his business sense. “He's really an entrepreneur at heart,” says Bosher, who served with Seipel on the board of River City Bank, which merged with Village Bank in March.

Seipel also was part owner of the Texas-Wisconsin Border CafAc for nearly two decades, a place where patrons could order sausages imported from the Midwest and Texas widow-maker chili.

Seipel's mix of artistic and business know-how was forecast by a project he worked on as a graduate student in Baltimore.

His “gully-plug” sculpture — an imaginary device meant to fill gaps in mountainous landscapes — looked more like industrial equipment than artwork. So Seipel rented booth space in the New England Industrial Show, helped orchestrate sham environmentalists to protest and kept a straight face right up to the end when he revealed his stunt to enraged event organizers.

Afterward, Seipel rented the penthouse of the Playboy Club in Baltimore and hosted a shareholders party for the faux investors in the gully-plug manufacturing firm.

“The bunnies said it was the best party they'd ever thrown,” he says.

Seipel says he'll keep his home here. Even so, Bryan says, “this is wonderful news for the [Savannah] College of Art and Design and bad news for VCU.”

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