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Slip Sliding Away?

Because of budget cuts, VCU's impressive slide library has an uncertain future.


It's stocked with art books, exhibition catalogues and — most crucially — a colossal collection of slides that is widely held to be not just the best such assemblage in the region, but one of the best in the country. There are almost a half-million of these slides, stored in neat rows in sturdy metal cabinets with precise, multitiered labels like "Africa: Egypt: Middle Kingdom: Sculpture: Male Figures." Together, they tell the story of visual art from Oslo to Oceana, from pre-history to the present.

"It began in the early '60s as a closet-sized room and grew into this," says Boone, gesturing from her desk toward the center's carefully consolidated holdings. Petite, soft-spoken, sharp and composed, she is as pleasant to visit as her workplace, where warm lighting and quiet classical music create a calm atmosphere for concentration. Used by students, scholars and teachers, the V.R.C. slide library is a vital tool for the school of the arts, especially its art history department, and Boone has lovingly cared for it since she assumed its directorship in 1991.

"Not very many people have a job that they thoroughly enjoy," she says, "and I've thoroughly enjoyed getting paid to look at art and build up this collection ... I've been truly blessed. "

Her use of the past tense is, unfortunately, significant. Due to crushing state-mandated budget cuts, the school of the arts is doing away with her position as of July 2004. In addition to forcibly ending her affiliation with the V.R.C., the slide library's future is now up in the air. "All I know is that my position has been eliminated and that no one can give me a specific answer about what will happen to the collection," she says soberly. Solutions suggested to her include letting students or a part-time hire take over the center's operation, but both ideas leave her depressed. "People have worked too hard to do those things," she insists. "We need a full-time professional."

Boone knows of what she speaks. She became that full-time professional after working for 11 years as staff photographer for the V.R.C.'s founder, a now-retired slide librarian named Joan Muller. When Muller left, Boone took over as director.

Since that time, she has worked tirelessly to systematically expand, update and improve the collection, and her efforts have paid off magnificently. The V.R.C. now has one of the five largest slide collections in the country, and it comprehensively covers a staggering array of art forms, styles, cultures and historical epochs. Western art is exhaustively covered from the cave paintings of Lascaux to the golden age of the High Renaissance to the bewildering pluralism of styles in our own Age of Anxiety. But substantial space is also given to non-Western art, folk art and the art of African-Americans. There are sections for decorative arts, crafts, interior design, graphics and comic books. There's even a tiny section of "VCU Streakers," containing blurry images of hirsute young Virginians cavorting nude in the days of "women's lib" and Spiro T. Agnew.

Almost all of these slides were produced in-house. Boone or one of her assistants photographed them from books to fulfill the request of teachers or students. They are used by faculty from VCU as well as other schools. Between 7,000 and 10,000 new slides were added last year. Maintaining and adding to the collection takes countless hours of photography, filing, record-keeping and general office work. Part-time assistants and work-study students help her keep the center running.

"It's a huge operation," says Bruce Koplin, a professor who chaired the art history department from 1990 until 2002. "It's vital to the department because you must have visual material to teach art history courses." His praise for both the facility and its director are effusive. "Jeanne is very, very good at what she does. As for the collection itself, there's simply nothing in the state of Virginia to compare it with — it's one of the best in the country.

"In fact," he admits, "my only complaint is that it isn't open on weekends."

Boone hopes it will stay open, period. She isn't worried about herself — she has a home health-product business and an energetic 14-year-old daughter to keep her busy. But she worries that the fruits of her 23 years of labor may be lost.

"Even if we don't lose it, it still has to be managed by a professional. Somebody has to monitor it, somebody has to guide it, or it will degenerate into utter chaos," she insists. As much as she wants the collection maintained for the public, it's also clearly a very personal issue for her. "I'm sad to be leaving," she admits. "When you put your heart and soul into something ..."

She trails off, and then speaks again.

"But I would feel good if I knew it will be in good hands ... If I knew that I wouldn't be so sad." S

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