The state of the arts at Virginia Tech

by Sherry Bithell

Polytech MarkerDon't blink or you'll miss it.

Tucked against the wall of the University Bookstore facing Newman Library is the easily overlooked sculpture, "Polytech Marker." There is no plaque to indicate that Tech commissioned Beverly Pepper, an artist whose works are found in museums around the world, to create it in 1983. The piece has received so little fanfare, in fact, that grounds crews--unaware that the "rust" faŤade was intentional--painted it brown.

A painting by early 20th-century artist Frank E. Schoonover, "Whatever He Did, He Did Well," which depicts George Washington as a surveyor, was similarly overlooked. For years, it hung on a nail in a corridor in Patton Hall--because no one who knew its worth realized it was there.

Concerts, theatre performances, and art exhibits have been part of the fabric at Virginia Tech since the late 1960s, but--due to inadequate space and resources--the campus lacks a true arts presence. Now, administrators and faculty hope that an initiative known as the Arts Blueprint for Virginia Tech will make the university a place where the arts are interwoven more noticeably into daily life.

Appreciation for the arts
When Charles Steger was installed as president in 2000, he acknowledged the absence of major arts facilities as a detriment to Tech's stature as a major university, reiterating a need that administrators and faculty have recognized for decades. In 1967, President T. Marshall Hahn mandated that art, music, and theatre be emphasized to create a truly comprehensive university. Later, President James McComas began a campaign to build a fine arts center on campus, but the project stalled after he became ill.

One reason that administrators advocate boosting the presence of the arts at Virginia Tech is to attract high-caliber faculty. "It's an added enticement for them to move here, especially with budget cuts reducing some of the other benefits," points out Don Drapeau, department head for theatre arts.

"I've talked to potential faculty from engineering and other areas who want to know what's going on here in the arts," says John Husser, head of the Department of Music. "If we're going to be a comprehensive, top university, there are expectations that go beyond engineering and biotechnology, and one is being a cultural community.

"Schools like MIT don't have to worry about it because they're in places like Boston, where there's already a lot of culture," he adds. "We don't have that luxury--we're here by ourselves. If we're going to have the arts and culture, we need to produce them."

Penn. barn
N.C. Wyeth's "Pennsylvania Barn" currently hangs in the Newman Library lobby.

Likewise, it is imperative to fully expose students to the arts--to educate the whole person. Steger noted in his Founders Day 2000 remarks that "the study of the arts is compelling because it enables us to sort and select, to analyze and interpret sense data that structure experience in ways that educate us as rational thinkers and moral actors. We owe students more than a preparation for life at work; we owe them the opportunity and means to educate themselves beyond work and after work."

One step in this direction was the creation of the School of the Arts (SOTA) in 1996, which combined the departments of art and art history, music, and theatre arts to create an interdisciplinary educational experience. Two years later, then-provost Peggy Meszaros challenged SOTA Director Tony Distler to increase the on-campus presence of the arts. Distler was thrilled, and consolidated several ideas he had pitched over the years into the multi-initiative Arts Blueprint for Virginia Tech.

The Fine Arts Center
Steger addressed a major Arts Blueprint goal in his 2000 Founders Day comments, calling for a commitment to "improving the university's currently inadequate fine and performing arts spaces." That there is a need for such a facility is widely recognized on campus. Although Burruss Auditorium has been the site of countless concerts and performances throughout the years, it is a far-from-adequate venue.

"Burruss just doesn't cut it," Drapeau says. "There has been a lot of time and energy put into arranging for performances, and that's too bad. The sets don't always fit on the stage, the acoustics are bad. For those experiencing the performing arts for the first time, it is impossible to have it be a successful experience."

Another challenge has been the limited space for art exhibits. Bailey Van Hook, head of the Department of Art and Art History, says she has struggled with "the lack of an exhibition center, where works of art could be safely and securely exhibited and stored. Without that space we are severely limited in what our students can see. The Armory Art Gallery, Perspective and XYZ [galleries] all serve an important purpose, but they are not comparable to the types of exhibition spaces our peer institutions have." Distler points out that a storage room in Henderson Hall is packed with artwork that cannot be exhibited because of these space constraints.

Today, plans for improving visual and performing arts facilities are moving forward. On Nov. 5, Virginia voters approved a $900-million bond referendum to support capital projects at all colleges and universities in the commonwealth, including $6.5 million earmarked for the renovation of Henderson Hall, where the SOTA will be housed. A Fine Arts Center, which is now included in the university's six-year plan, is currently proposed for inclusion in the university's upcoming capital campaign.

The Fine Arts Center will be built along the north side of Alumni Mall in the vicinity of Schultz Hall and will consist of two components: a $40-million, 1,300-seat, multi-purpose performance hall and an $8-million art gallery. At present, the estimated time frame is for construction for the performance hall to be bid out in April 2004, with completion scheduled for April 2006.

After the Fine Arts Center is completed, the university will implement the Visiting Artists Fund initiative, to bring a variety of artists to the Virginia Tech campus. In the meantime, Distler is also trying to create fall and spring arts festivals and a Virginia Festival of Jazz--a three-day event with concerts, courses, and master classes--that he hopes a corporate sponsor will help fund. The jazz festival planed for June 2002, which would have featured Arturo Sandoval, Maynard Ferguson, and other artists, was cancelled for budgetary reasons.

Art on campus
art in the classroom To enliven a sterile teaching environment, particularly in classrooms with cinderblock walls and no windows, Distler introduced the Art in the Classroom initiative. Today, 400 prints, including such works as Vincent Van Gogh's "Self Portrait," Georgia O'Keeffe's "Sunflower, New Mexico," and Roy Lichtenstein's "Blam," hang in all the centrally scheduled classrooms on campus.

During the planning process, a committee visited every classroom on campus to decide where paintings would be needed and which prints would be used. One hurdle, Distler says, was the strict criteria: There could be no nudes or religious themes, for example, which eliminated hundreds of years of art history.

Still, says committee member and Assistant Registrar Marvin Foushee, "We wanted to present a diversity of interests and cultures and ideas." The committee also kept themes in mind, he adds. "In Norris, Randolph, and Whittemore--traditionally the engineering quad--we selected prints conducive to those students' interests, such as one showing the Golden Gate Bridge or other structures. In Pamplin, perhaps it would be an image of Wall Street. In buildings like McBryde, where there are all types of classes, we would have a mix."

However, whether it's art appreciation or outright theft, 25-30 of the prints have already disappeared since being installed in fall 2001, despite tamper-resistant mounting. In Derring, four were removed from one classroom.

Overall, the results have still been positive. Foushee says the committee has received feedback from faculty and from students, who often study the prints between classes. "The sense is that it gives [students] an exposure to art. It adds to their total education, providing exposure they might not have as an engineering or agriculture major."

Another Arts Blueprint initiative designed to expose the campus community to the arts is "Art in Public Places," which calls for sculptures to be placed in high-traffic areas of campus. Currently, there are three sculptures on campus: Pepper's "Polytech Marker"; "Kish," by faculty member and nationally known artist Steve Bickley, located by the Smith House; and "Animals," by retired faculty member Dean Carter, located in front of the veterinary hospital.

The Pepper sculpture will be moved to the intersection of Burruss and Norris halls, where it will be visible to a heavy flow of pedestrian traffic. The move is projected to take place by the end of the year, after the sculpture is stripped of the brown paint and sanded. In its new location, a plaque will name the artist and the sculpture.

The next step in the initiative is to acquire and install several pieces of outdoor sculpture. A program request to this end has been submitted for consideration in the next university campaign.

Works of art already owned by Tech have been showcased in the Arts Postcards and Notecards initiative. A series of limited-distribution cards features five images from the university's collection, including the Schoonover painting, a gift from J. Thompson Brown '02; "Pennsylvania Barn" by N.C. Wyeth, donated by Robert C. Dorey Jr. '44; and"je revais (I was dreaming)" by LeCorbusier, purchased by the College of Architecture and Urban Studies.

Distler says that response to the cards was positive and a second series is being discussed. If he can secure funding to package the cards, he would also like to sell them to the general public.

The five featured paintings are just a few examples of the approximately 600 works of art that Tech has in buildings around campus (not including the prints in classrooms), necessitating the Visual Arts Inventory and Catalogue initiative. Students from the SOTA are inventorying the works, which an appraiser will then evaluate.

Once they are photographed, Tech's own works of art will be added to the Art on the Internet project, for which the art department is digitizing its 35mm slide collection of approximately 45,000 examples of visual arts, such as famous paintings and sculptures. By doing so, these examples of art will be available online to students and the general public.

Educating the whole student
Another Arts Blueprint goal is to increase the number of hours of arts classes that students are required to take. At present, this initiative is at a standstill because Tech's core curriculum is about to undergo a major review; however, all current students must take at least one hour of an approved arts class, such as Distler's FA2004: Creativity and Aesthetic Experience.

"We deal with general concepts: What is art? How is it communicated?" Distler says of the course, in which students review four major areas of the arts: film, music, theatre, and the visual arts. For each of the forms, they hear an artist talk firsthand about his or her work. Students then experience the work, whether it is watching a film, attending a concert or a theatre performance, or viewing an artist's works, after which they meet again with the artist to discuss the creative process.

The feedback from this class has been extremely positive, Distler says, with student surveys rating it at 90-percent efficiency in its goals.

Another popular means of fulfilling the arts requirement is Introduction to Acting--a course that, according to the Registrar's office, is the most difficult course on campus in which to enroll. Because the theatre department only allows 20-25 students in each section, several hundred students are turned away each semester, says Drapeau.

The future of the arts
As with every area on campus, the budget is a concern. Husser points out that the music department lost 17 percent of its faculty in the spring budget cuts and will likely lose more during future reductions. "We've kept afloat, sometimes just barely," he says. "We're just at the point where we can't keep doing what we've been doing."

Distler says that although several Arts Blueprints initiatives are completed or well underway, the next round of cuts will have an impact on a number of areas, such as not replacing the prints stolen from classrooms and further delaying the arts festivals, but particularly in the classroom. "We have lost faculty and graduate assistantships, and we will be offering fewer classes and they will be larger. The academic aspect of the arts will be damaged badly."

Drapeau says that "there is an invalid assumption that it takes no money to support the arts--that you can get a few actors together and put on a play, get a few musicians together and have a band. It is possible to create an aesthetic experience with good teachers, good exposure, and good opportunities. So it is not only about money, ...but money does allow for a more intense experience."

Which, Van Hook says, is why the Arts Blueprint is vital for educating students. "It will educate their eye and stimulate their brain, providing both an alternative and a counterpoint to popular culture, as expressed in music, television, and films."

Distler remains hopeful for the future of the Arts Blueprint plan. "If it all happens, I think it will change the character of this university."

And its perception of the arts.