Back in 1985, when Joseph Seipel started as chairman of Virginia Commonwealth University's sculpture department, the school was limping along so slowly that the state was threatening to cut off funding. By 2008, though, the department had been named No. 4 among art schools by U.S. News and World Report.
Seipel ascended to become associate dean of graduate studies at the university, but in 2009, the artist, teacher and one-time partner at the Texas-Wisconsin Border CafAc on Main Street left Richmond for another challenge: serving as vice president for academic affairs at the Savannah College of Art and Design.
After two years there, Seipel is coming back. Back to Richmond, and back to the university, serving as dean of the School of the Arts. And he already has one big project on his plate: Style Weekly caught up with the dean as he prepared to transition back to the school he helped make one of the best. He talks about today's VCU, Richmond's place as an arts town and his goals for the art school's proposed new Institute for Cotemporary Art.
Style: So, you just can't stay away, huh?
Seipel: Richmond has been our home for years. We're looking forward to getting back to our community of friends and faculty and greater Richmond. … My wife, Suzanne, and my daughter, Chloe, were born and raised in Richmond. Suzanne's family is from Richmond, so part of the thinking when we moved to Savannah was that we'd always be able to come back.
What will your new role entail?
It will mean working with faculty and leadership for both campuses in Richmond and Qatar, developing a strategy for the future of the school of the arts. It's finding ways we can move forward with an agenda that is workable. We're at an incredible time in our history when creative thinking is so important.
When you took over the sculpture department, enrollment was down and the state felt it wasn't doing so well; it was actually being considered for diminution. Now the school is one of, if not the best, art graduate schools in the country. Do you feel any pressure to top yourself?
We're in great shape to continue to be a leader in the arts across the country and around the world. I think VCU now has a reputation around the country as one of the leading schools of art certainly. You don't often find a school so focused on teaching as well as research — it's usually really one or the other. They really care about the students, and that's something that will not change. We're making sure they're prepared for their careers. We have to keep letting people know the good things happening and then the ranking and reputation will follow. The school's faculty and administration really care about the students, and that's something that will not change.
How integral do you think the school is in being a part of the art scene in Richmond or even just Richmond overall?
Richmond is an interesting place. We're fortunate to have a city that understands the contributions of the creative community. We're located right in the heart of Richmond providing the city with theater and music and dance and gallery exhibitions and important art historical research. The VCU School of Arts' creative footprint reaches across the city. Along with the [Virginia Museum of Fine Arts], it is the creative heartbeat of the region. We are a vital piece of creative energy for the region and the United States. There are now exciting ongoing efforts for VCU to build an Institute of Contemporary Art. I am convinced that with the spectacular newly renovated VMFA, the impressive refurbished Carpenter Center, the University of Richmond's Modlin Center, and with VCU's proposed new Institute for the Contemporary Art, Richmond will become a destination city for the arts. Once we are able to put a shovel in the ground that's going to be a huge boost to the creative energy of the city of Richmond.
Did you miss Richmond when you were gone?
Well, at VCU what's really interesting is that we're not just teaching. As faculty, it's making sure your own creative development continues. That's something I missed a bit. Richmond is bigger than Savannah, and it's close to New York City and its interesting opportunities.
I think there are real opportunities at VCU to connect more with the business community. It's already happening with the Da Vinci Center where business engineering and art students do research and development for major corporations.
I think there are opportunities to make sure students find seamless ways into careers. The economic times behoove us to make sure students can use the rich opportunities provided by the greater university to understand the world and assist them as they prepare for their careers so [after graduation] they can move on to their professional life.
What are the metrics of success? How will you know if what you're doing is working?
There are both subjective and objective measures. How engaged is everyone in the community and the greater community and region? It's subjective. How are your undergraduates doing when they apply to graduate school? Are they getting in? Are you getting the best faculty? Is the faculty's research at the highest level it can be? You look at student, faculty and alumni achievement — we have MacArthur alumni at major museums around the world. We have people winning major grants and fellowships. There's lots of metrics. I think the other thing is how we fit into the greater university. We're in the middle of a comprehensive research university. If people have an interest in anthropology or medicine or the humanities they have contacts in all those areas.
What do you see as your biggest challenge?
I've had a look at the budget; I think we're going to have to take a good look at the budget to make sure we're making best use of dollars we have. I'm interested in more ways to integrate with the campus in Qatar — the campus in the Middle East is an incredible opportunity that very few universities have. So it's making sure there's great communication between the two. … Moving into this century there's going to have to be some changes. Students are very different than they were 10 years ago. Some of the careers we see now may or may not be here in 10 years. The world is changing so fast. How do we adapt to those changes? We're going to have to stay nimble, flexible, and make sure we're giving the best education to our students so that upon graduation they can maneuver in this atmosphere.
What's your biggest dream for the school?
I want to see the Institute for Contemporary Art a reality. That is going to be such a major institution that will have enormous impact on the creative community in the city. It's going to be spectacular when it's finished. I want this school to be one of the greatest for art and design in the country and be known as such … with performing and visual art and academics … to not only be the best but be recognized as such.