Joe Seipel, the outgoing dean of the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts, will retire June 30 after 42 years with the school. (Photo by Adam Ewing)
We bid farewell and good wishes to Joe Seipel, the outgoing dean of the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts, who guided Richmond toward becoming a place for the new rather than the hidebound.
Seipel, who is retiring June 30 after 42 years with the university, started building things while a youngster growing up poor in Spring Valley, Wisconsin. He used blocks and Lincoln Logs to create structures throughout the house. As a mature artist, and a professor of sculpture at VCU, he made colossal ceramic objects and tinkered with robotics and multimedia platforms. During his five years as dean of VCUarts, the Institute for Contemporary Art materialized from blue-sky dreams into steel and glass at Belvidere and Broad streets.
In that time, too, VCUarts’ graduate fine arts program has climbed in the rankings compiled by U.S. News & World Report to number two in the nation, behind Yale University (and tied with the University of California-Los Angeles). Seipel guided the transformation of the Depot Building on Broad into space for classrooms, studios and a student gallery, and continued the art program’s growing international reach with its fully accredited branch campus in Qatar, and exchange programs with art and design schools in Finland, India, Israel and Korea. The list of accomplishments goes on.
Seipel’s influence on the city’s arts movement stretches back to his earliest years at VCU. In 1978, he co-founded 1708 Gallery, the nation’s oldest artist-run nonprofit for contemporary art, and, four years later, he partnered to open the Texas-Wisconsin Border Café, where Richmond’s art crowd gathered, and where he met his wife, Suzanne. He was chair of VCU’s acclaimed sculpture department for 17 years. For these contributions and more, Seipel received lifetime achievement recognition in the 2012 Theresa Pollak Prizes for Excellence in the Arts.
In announcing his retirement, Seipel called the opportunity to play a part in transforming the lives of hundreds of students, “a gift of immeasurable scale.”
The Seipels will travel but are remaining in Richmond, a city they love. He’s resuming his studio practice. “In some cases, I’ll be returning to pieces I started years ago and never finished,” Seipel says. “For the first time in a long time I’ll have a chance to go into the studio, work, go home, think about it and return, and re-establish that regimen. I call it getting my studio legs back.”
For his efforts in bringing arts and culture into the forefront of Richmond’s contemporary life, and for his influence — with good humor and Midwestern grit — on a generation of students and art makers, we name Joe Seipel Richmonder of the Month.