Transformer: A New Book Chronicles VCU’s Most Famous Arts Building 

"Anderson Gallery: 45 Years of Art on the Edge"

click to enlarge A history of the Anderson Gallery is shown in microcosm by the hundreds of layers of paint applied to its walls, carved out by artist Matt Spahr.

A history of the Anderson Gallery is shown in microcosm by the hundreds of layers of paint applied to its walls, carved out by artist Matt Spahr.

It seems fitting that in spring, Virginia Commonwealth University’s Anderson Gallery held its last round of graduate theses shows, Dean Joseph Seipel announced his retirement and the book “Anderson Gallery: 45 Years of Art on the Edge” debuted.

From the beginning, the Anderson Gallery was cutting-edge, in 1973 mounting Richmond’s first exhibition of art by only women.

“Of the 45 years covered in the book, Joe was there for 42 years. The point that he’s retiring added poignancy to the release of the book,” says Ashley Kistler, former director of the Anderson Gallery and editor of the book. “For me, it reinforced how important it was to capture that history in a lasting document before it is lost.”

The monograph does just that. It beautifully presents an archival document from 1970 to 2015 that includes photographs, exhibition posters, art, an exhibitions timeline, essays by former directors or people associated with the gallery, catalogs, handwritten notes, newspaper clippings and six artists’ folios.

The book is a must-have for anyone interested in the evolution of institutional art galleries, the Richmond art community, the university, higher education or contemporary art.

Seipel is only one character in the ongoing narrative that has transformed the small art program started by Theresa Pollak and others in 1928 into the current School of the Arts, which is tied with the University of California at Los Angeles for the best graduate arts and design program by U.S. News and World Report.

Working closely with graphic designers Angeline Robertson and Charlie Foley of Scout Design — both alumni — Kistler and the rest of her team, Michael Lease and Traci Garland, winnowed through thousands of documents for more than two years.

The book shows only a smattering of the institutional files and 3,200 works in the Anderson Gallery permanent collection, which are stored in the James Branch Cabell Library archives. For the interested researcher, that material is being sorted by staff, Kistler notes, adding that “there are plenty of research projects that could take place.”

Professor Kirk Richardson’s assessment perfectly sums up the history of the Anderson Gallery: “[It] was a genuine space of education. The place opened up thinking.”

Kistler agrees. “I was a grad student here in the early 1980s,” she says. “The Anderson Gallery introduced me to so many different artists and ideas.”

Broken into four decades, the book tells the story of a gallery that, since its first director Bruce Koplin, presented exhibitions that balanced “student and undergraduate work with new projects by faculty while bringing in challenging work by regional and international artists,” Kistler says.

During the 1980s, the Anderson Gallery continued to show “aggressively experimental art,” Robert Merritt wrote in The Richmond Times-Dispatch. Like many other state-funded institutions, the Anderson Gallery encountered controversy in the 1990s over the public funding of the exhibition “Anonymity and Identity” (1992), an action that the then-university president, Eugene Trani, called “disturbing” because college campuses were a “sanctuary” for “new, untried ideas in the … arts.”

During the 2000s, the already collaborative space extended its reach, inviting critic Gregory Volk, graduate students from the art history department, and John B. Ravenal, then of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, as guest curators. For the last six years, the Anderson Gallery has been taking a victory lap so to speak, continuing its presentation of challenging exhibitions while preparing to pass the torch to the Depot and the Institute for Contemporary Art.

Six artist folios are interspersed throughout the book. Kistler chose the artists because of their recent involvement with the gallery. For example, Michael Lease included photographs of university employees, such as painter Hubert Anderson or grounds worker Lois Milone, while Matt Spahr carved into the wall itself, revealing a colorful timeline of paint that chronicles recent exhibitions. Both seem like fitting commemorations to a building that has seen its share of reinventions since its humble beginnings as a stable and carriage house.

The artist folios work to turn the building inside out and reveal its hidden charms. They’re another stirring tribute to a building and the people that made the success of the Anderson Gallery possible. S

“Anderson Gallery: 45 Years of Art on the Edge” is available at the VCU Barnes & Noble. Or contact Jason Roundtree at jroundtree@vcubooks.com, 804-828-1678.

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