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What's in a Rank

Five VCU art department heads discuss their success and just what’s going on down there.


Based on a peer survey of graduate arts programs, the rankings serve as an influential consumer guide for students and art professionals. Historically, VCU has always done well — in 1996, its master’s program in fine arts was ranked 25th in the country; in 1997 it got its first top-five rating when the sculpture department edged up to fifth place. But this year, the university struck oil with four top-10 rankings that have the school brushing shoulders with Yale, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Rhode Island School of Design. VCU ranked first in sculpture, fourth in graphic design, 10th in painting, and sixth overall for its master’s program in fine arts. In other words, VCU is now considered one of the finest art schools in the country.

We gathered five of the people responsible for this development to explain the programs causing such a stir: Richard Toscan, dean of the School of the Arts; Joe Seipel; director of graduate studies for the school; and three department chairmen, John DeMao from communication arts and design, Lester Van Winkle from sculpture, and Richard Roth from painting and printmaking.

Style: What strengths do you think differentiate VCU from other good art schools?

Van Winkle: We get very good kids. And there’s not a lot of negativity — if something good happens to you, you don’t get a lot of people going grrrrrrr, you have people lining up to shake your hand and tell you, “That’s great!” Even if it isn’t so great [laughter].

Seipel: There’s this real sense of connection. The students feel like they’re part of the program, they leave with good feelings about the program, and they stay connected.

Roth: I think it’s important to create a community where people can think anything and say anything — a place where hopefully there’s this hothouse of ideas where different views and backgrounds come together.

have heard students complain that VCU favors ambition over talent. Any response to that?

Seipel: Well, it’s probably how the art world works [laughter]. I think those students who really do well in the profession have a mix of both.

Roth: I would say that we do value a kind of aggressive sense of self-worth or chutzpah that I think is incredibly necessary to be an artist today. If you have a bunch of students who are just sort of meekly following directions — well that’s not really how we’re defining talent today.

What about students who complain that VCU is too conservative?

Van Winkle: Well, one of the latest trends is all this retro design. What a conservative position! Thomas Jefferson said there would never be any great sculpture in America because there’s no pure white marble to be found here [laughter]. And he was right at the time, because the prevailing sensibility was neoclassicism. So conservative might not be all bad.

Seipel: I would also submit that if we had a student body that didn’t think we were a little old-fashioned we wouldn’t be doing our job [laughter]. That’s what they’re supposed to think!

Roth: Someone once said that the secret of a great art school is to have the best faculty, and the best faculty will attract the best grad students, and the best grad students will teach themselves. I think that grad students should be doing things that confuse the faculty — we should be running behind them saying “What the hell are they doing?” I think that’s the natural order of things.

Is it archaic in this age of multimedia and cross-disciplinary art to have discreet departments like painting and sculpture?

Van Winkle: You know, we have a department that has no formats, no materials that a kid has got to address in the classroom structure, and it’s called sculpture [laughter]. How much more liberal can you get than that? The constructivists said in 1914 that all materials are fine — any material. Space is a material, you know — if you want to use space, use space.

Roth: The reality is that there isn’t that great of a divide between these areas. If you go to shows, it’s very difficult to tell the graduate painters from the graduate sculptors.

Richmond has an unusually active art community for a city its size. Does this play a role in the vitality of VCU’s art school?

Seipel: I think you’ve got that backwards. If you take VCU out of the mix there’s almost no serious art community.

Toscan: It seems really bizarre to have a major art and design school in the old capital of the Confederacy. But we have this tremendous museum, what, 10 blocks away? And we’re close enough to New York to be really connected to it, but far enough away to not be corrupted by the really lousy parts of its art scene [laughter].

Roth: I can’t even imagine the school without the Virginia Museum, or places like Reynolds Gallery or 1708. But Joe’s probably right that all these institutions together have really made this place. This art community wouldn’t just spring up out of nothing.

Most presumptions about the definition and function of art broke down during the 20th century. Without clear-cut aesthetic and artistic philosophies, how do you teach students to be “good” artists?

Seipel: Well, there are people here who have clear-cut ideas about what’s good art and what’s bad art. Fortunately, there are enough people here that they don’t all agree, and that’s why it stays interesting.

Roth: How to teach art today is a huge question. People in contemporary art have to love the gray areas because it’s all gray — there is no black and white anymore, everything’s contested. But that makes it very exciting. We really are teaching people to be the artists of the future even though we don’t know what the art of the future will be.

Toscan: Joe always talks about the fact that our sculpture graduates actually know how to make things. Students are expected to have the skills to be able to do what they think they want to do.

DeMao: I think students, especially in design, not only have to have good ideas, they also have to be able to produce those ideas. Because if they can’t produce them, they’re …

Van Winkle: … Seldom better than the articulation [laughter]. I mean, face it: We’re supposed to teach kids to make weird stuff. That’s our job. We tell kids: “You’re supposed to make weird stuff.” Not dumb weird stuff — you’re supposed to make intelligent weird stuff.

Will VCU’s rankings go even higher in the future?

Toscan: You know, we had this graduate painting exhibit open in New York for the first time this year, and one of our alumni got onto an elevator with Roberta Smith, the art critic for The New York Times. She said “Where are you going?” The student said “Up to the VCU painting show.” And she said something like, “Oh, I’ve been hearing about VCU. What’s going on down there?” S

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