VCU School of the Arts
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Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts (also referred to as VCU School of the Arts or simply VCUarts) is a public non-profit art and design school located in Richmond. One of the 13 degree-offering schools at VCU, the School of the Arts comprises 18 bachelor's degree programs, six master's degree programs, and one doctorate program. Its satellite campus in Doha, Qatar, VCUarts Qatar, offers five bachelor's degrees and one master's degree. It was the first off-site campus to open in Education City by an American university. As the most prominent art school operating in the Commonwealth, VCUarts advertises itself as an institute that fosters interdisciplinary collaboration and research across departments, along with a curriculum that focuses equally on arts conceptualization and physical practice.
|RPI School of Art|
|Type||Public art school|
|Virginia Commonwealth University|
Founded in 1928 as a single painting class by artist Theresa Pollak, VCUarts became the official art school of the university in 1933. Since the early 20th century, the school has benefited from the funding and support of Virginia's state government and wealthy patrons of the arts, which has subsequently aided in the growth of Richmond's cultural profile. The school's Anderson Gallery, established in 1931, was the sole venue for arts exhibitions in Richmond until the opening of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in 1936. The incoming Institute for Contemporary Art is a project that was initially affiliated with the School of the Arts before ownership was transferred to VCU.
VCUarts has been consistently ranked among the top 10 art programs in the country by U.S. News & World Report, with its Sculpture MFA program occupying the top spot across all U.S. programs. As of 2016, VCUarts has the top ranked visual arts and design graduate program among public universities, and tied for second overall.
VCUarts was born within Richmond Professional Institute (RPI), the historical predecessor to Virginia Commonwealth University, as the "School of Art" in 1928. At first a modest operation, the school relied on private donations and the solitary work of its first teacher Theresa Pollak for funding and admissions.
According to Henry Horace "H.H." Hibbs, the first director of RPI, the catalyst for the school's establishment as a formal institute of art and design was an inaugural gift of $1,000 from Colonel A.A. Anderson, a New York portrait-painter, designer, and conservationist. In 1928, a board of private citizens (later to be known as the RPI Foundation) purchased for $7,500 an old brick and concrete stable on Shafer Street; earlier that same year, Anderson—who traveled much of his life—had bought 900 acres of land where Richmond International Airport currently stands. Hibbs, learning of Anderson's career as a painter and philanthropist, appealed to the Colonel while he was in Richmond by informing him of the board's acquisition of the old stable and their intention to convert the loft on the property into the school's first art studio. Immediately interested, Anderson offered his $1,000 gift. Additional contributions by the citizens of Richmond totalling $24,000 allowed the school to open for classes by September.
Two years prior, artist Theresa Pollak had returned to her home in Richmond after four years studying in the New York Art Students' League. Hibbs also approached Pollak, proposing her a position as an hourly drawing and painting teacher. (According to Hibbs' History of RPI, her lack of salary pay was allegedly a common practice in music schools of the time.) Money was tight for the fledgling school, and Hibbs explained to her frankly that in order for her to begin classes, she would have to corral her own students. Before the school's very first fall semester, Pollak "was on the telephone every day contacting everyone I knew who evinced even the slightest interest in art"; within the first year, she was able to enroll eight full-time students and nearly 30 on a part-time basis.
The School of Art generally grew in accordance with leading philosophies in global art culture, but at times the new school was hesitant to transpose certain educational standards. In a letter to Theresa Pollak, dated November 27, 1928, H.H. Hibbs expressed stern opposition to the employment of traditional nude models for RPI's art students. "The final decision is that we will not use such models for a number of years, if ever," wrote Hibbs. "In the morning class models in bathing suits or track suits may be used at any time, but if used in the evening it will be necessary for the teacher to be present at all times." The director's opinion softened quickly however; in the 1930s, after attending a burlesque show in New York, he would suggest to Pollak that models appear in bra and G-string. Although rules on nudity were steadily relaxed over time, art models would not appear fully unclothed at RPI until the 1960s.
By 1930, the state government began to show interest in supporting the School of Art as a public institute. The State Board of Education ruled that RPI's art school had become eligible for financial aid from both the Commonwealth of Virginia and the federal government, a decision that placed the school on steady footing. The sudden influx of funding allowed the school to expand beyond drawing and painting. In addition to what is today known as the department of painting and printmaking, over the next 17 years the School of Art would add the departments of commercial art (1930–'36), interior decoration ('34–'36), costume design and fashion ('36), and art education ('47).
The Anderson Gallery of ArtEdit
In 1931, A.A. Anderson donated an additional $10,000 to the School of Art, which was used to found the Anderson Gallery of Art in a former carriage house behind Lewis Ginter's mansion. From the gallery's first exhibition—a solo show of Anderson's paintings—to its closure in 2015, the Anderson Gallery was a magnet for contemporary artists visiting Richmond.
For five years, the gallery was the only exhibition space in Richmond where modern art could be seen first-hand, which brought new visibility to the city as a cultural destination. Remarking on the success of the first 1931 show, H.H. Hibbs said:
We have had an unprecedented amount of favorable word of mouth publicity since the exhibition started. Nothing like it has happened here before in the field of art. ... The people here certainly like the pictures. Many return again and again. I have never heard anything that I have worked on, in the 15 years I have been here, so highly praised and so universally pleasing to all.
When the VMFA opened in 1936, RPI decided to convert their venue into a library, which slowed its programming until the gallery's original intentions faded away. During this time, and for the next 33 years, RPI continued to develop the Anderson Gallery, hiring full-time librarian Rosamund McCanless and adding a third-story reading room, a mezzanine, an extended book stack five stories tall, and safety features. However, the library continued to keep a selection of artist's prints, many of which were donated from Hibbs' private collection.
Hibbs himself bemoaned the school's many alterations to the space, noting that the changes were made to appease the Southern Association of Colleges, RPI's accreditor. Over three decades later, Hibbs would play a role in reviving the gallery's use as an art space.
Expansion and new leadership (1935–1966)Edit
From the 1930s to the 1960s, as RPI itself expanded rapidly, the School of Art sought to organize itself into a more formal place of learning rather than a small curriculum of courses taught. Marion M Junkin joined Theresa Pollak in 1934, and together they ran the school for eight years until Junkin moved to Washington and Lee University. "We were a good team," wrote Pollak. "The two of us together planned and formed the character and objective of the school." During their joint leadership, students at the School of Art would win about ten scholarships from the New York Art Students' League by 1948.
In the years before RPI became VCU, the School of Art became one of the largest schools within the institute. By 1941, two photographs from the art school had been published in Life magazine. During the mid-20th century, the leadership of each department within the school would help to shape its character. Raymond Hodges served as chairman of Theatre, founded in 1942; he directed over 100 stage productions and guided the department until his retirement in 1969. The Raymond Hodges Theatre at the W.E. Singleton Center for the Performing Arts was named for him in 1985.
While the school was still small, Pollak was able to easily invite famous New York artists down to Richmond for critiques and lectures, such as Kimon Nicolaïdes, Edmund Archer, Edward Rowan, and Harry Sternberg. Abstract expressionist Clyfford Still was hired to teach at RPI from 1943. While Still's students and Pollak herself grew to admire the artist and his work, he departed RPI after only two years. "Forming at first a few friendships and joining somewhat freely into community activities," recalled Pollak in 1969, "[Still's] suspicious, oversensitive nature soon caused him to lapse into an unrest of bitterness and resentment, and it was in this mood that ... he severed his connection with the school." In her writings, Pollak claims that no one in Richmond heard from him again, and that his stay at RPI was omitted from most of his biographical material.
Though Pollak was not enamored with all modern art (she remarked in 1968 that "subjective, expressive painting has become hard, schematic, ugly, or minimal"), she worked to ensure that the School of Art was an active steward of contemporary work. Sometimes, this would result in backlash from the traditionally conservative Southern community in Richmond, but nevertheless she continued to push the school toward the standards set by New York. In particular, her school and leadership endured considerable censure by the administration of RPI when sculptor Robert Morris and dancer Yvonne Rainer performed nude at a school art festival. Pollak, however, was enthralled with the work despite the controversy.
Pollak would step down from head of the school in 1950, though she remained on the faculty in a teaching capacity for 19 years. During this period, the former head would later write, the various departments in the School of Art were disjointed and at odds with one another. Pollak opined that through the 1950s and early '60s, "the last vestige of any sense of unity" had been lost, and doubted that any incoming leadership would be capable of reining in each department into an harmonious and unified institution.
The arrival of Dean Herbert J. Burgart in 1966 changed her mind. Writing in 1969, Pollak said, "He has the ability to see things in the large and thus to organize, while at the same time he is aware of and sensitive to the individual." Burgart received a master's and doctorate in education from Pennsylvania State University, though he did not possess formal training in the arts. Dean Burgart's work would be remembered as primarily research-based, with the school today claiming he pioneered studies into the "affects of hands-on studio art on creativity."
Transition to VCU (1966–1968)Edit
By the mid-1960s, many staff and students at Richmond Professional Institute wanted to transition RPI into a full university. The institute had only recently severed ties with William & Mary, which now allowed RPI to offer degrees in the humanities. Coinciding with the implementation of new bachelor's programs in English and history, enrollment skyrocketed at the start of the fall semester in 1965. As the Medical College of Virginia (MCV) already maintained an existing and healthy partnership with RPI, in 1966 Governor Mills Godwin recommended the General Assembly form a commission to combine MCV and RPI into a single state university. On July 1, 1968, Virginia Commonwealth University was formed. One year later, in June 1969, founder Theresa Pollak would retire.
Revival of the Anderson Gallery (1969–1976)Edit
In 1969, coinciding with the retirement of Theresa Pollak from the School of the Arts and RPI's merger with the Medical College of Virginia, the retired H.H. Hibbs was contacted by head of Art History Maurice Bonds about acquiring and resuscitating the Anderson Gallery (which had been a library for over 30 years) for VCUarts. By 1970, the building was officially returned to its original role as an art gallery, and continued to show work by practicing artists until 2015. Its spiritual successor, the Institute for Contemporary Art, Richmond (ICA) also known as the "Markel Center at the VCU Institute for Contemporary Art", resumes the gallery's role as a space for contemporary art. The Anderson Gallery's collection of over 3,100 works of art is now housed at VCU's Cabell Library. In 2016, the gallery reopened under the name "The Anderson," which now exclusively exhibits BFA and MFA student programming.
Notable exhibitors over the course of the Anderson Gallery's history, both under RPI and VCU, include Wassily Kandinsky, Ferdinand Léger, Pablo Picasso, Red Grooms, Stephen Vitiello, Larry Miller, Howard Finster, Sue Coe, Steve Poleskie, Walter Dusenbery, Komar and Melamid, Dotty Attie, Miles B. Carpenter, Hunt Slonem, Sonya Rapoport, Yoko Ono, and Judy Rifka. Former exhibitors also include Richmond's own Theresa Pollak, Joseph H. Seipel, David Freed, Davi Det Hompson, Richard Carlyon, Lester van Winkle, Frank Cole, Milo Russell, Teresita Fernández, Elizabeth King, Reni Gower, Sonya Clark, Babatunde Lawal, and Myron Helfgott.
DePillars shapes the modern VCUarts (1977–1995)Edit
In 1976, Dean Burgart resigned in favor of a new position, and Assistant Dean Murry N. DePillars became acting dean and eventually assumed the formal role of dean of the School of the Arts in 1977. DePillars, who also received his doctorate from Pennsylvania State (albeit not in education), was the first African-American dean to lead the School of the Arts. The new dean would oversee the evolution of VCUarts into one of the largest art schools in the United States.
DePillars would serve as dean until 1995, and under his leadership the school would continue to grow in size and sophistication—particularly in regards to the departments of Music and Dance + Choreography. He was a practicing painter and illustrator, but he had a deep adoration of jazz. DePillars's youth in Chicago brought him into contact with many prominent jazz performers; composer Anthony Braxton's 1969 double album For Alto includes a song written for DePillars, "To Artist Murray dePillars." While at VCUarts, DePillars would oversee the birth and rapid maturation of a new jazz program. Founded in 1980 by Doug Richards—who had only been at VCU for a year and continues to teach today—Jazz Studies would become an award-winning and widely admired institution at the school. With Richards as director, the VCU Jazz Orchestra would win three consecutive awards at Notre Dame's annual Collegiate Jazz Festival within the decade, and Down Beat magazine would bestow a Student Music Award on the group for their record The Tattooed Bride.
Under the new dean's leadership, the performing arts departments expanded into a number of new facilities. In 1976, the RPI Foundation acquired the Grove Avenue Baptist Church and renewed the building as the VCU Music Center, today known as the James W. Black Music Center. The W.E. Singleton Center for Performing Arts opened in 1982; its first concert was by the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, in its first U.S. performance in a decade. 1980 would mark the year that the Dance program would move to VCUarts from the Department of Health and Physical Education, and begin offering bachelor's degrees; DePillar's tenure at VCUarts would steward the opening of the VCU Dance Center on North Brunswick Street. The Lee Art Theatre on West Grace Street, a neighborhood cinema turned burlesque theater, was purchased by VCU and converted into the Grace Street Theatre, where students studying cinema, film, animation, and dance now perform and exhibit their work.
Perhaps most significantly, DePillars was instrumental in positioning VCUarts as a cultural axis point for the city. The new dean remarked in 1985 that upon arriving in Richmond he was "simply overwhelmed" by the quality of work, and the happy and cooperative relationship students and faculty had in the art school. By the mid-1980s, the School of the Arts would be the third largest art school in the U.S., with over 2,000 full-time students taught by 150 faculty members. During this period, it was also the publisher of Richmond Arts Magazine and the School of the Arts Journal.
In 1989, as a gesture of international solidarity with the victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre, VCUarts students erected a "Goddess of Democracy" statue on the university commons lawn as a memorial to their slain Chinese peers. They sought the help of local artists, Richmond's Chinese community members, and the generosity of nearby merchants to complete the project.
Global influence (1996–2012)Edit
Upon Dean Murray DePillars' retirement in 1995, he received the title of professor emeritus from the university and later VCU's8 Presidential Medallion. In 1996, Richard Toscan would assume the role of dean of VCUarts; over the next 14 years, the school's graduate program would see its ranking shoot from 25th in the nation (according to U.S. News & World Report) to fourth. Dean Toscan would also be key to the planning and execution of the School of the Arts' first branch campus in Doha, Qatar.
In 1998, VCU opened the Shaqab College of Design Arts—the first American university to open a campus in the Gulf state—in what would become Education City. The Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development, founded in 1995, was interested in bringing particularly reputable higher education organizations to the capital city of Doha, and VCU School of the Arts was the very first to strike a deal with the Foundation. The school offered programs analogous to those at VCUarts in Art Foundation, Communication Arts + Design, Fashion Design + Merchandising, and Interior Design. At first, Shaqab College was managed by VCU, but in 2002 control was handed over to VCU School of the Arts, and the name was changed to Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts in Qatar (also known as VCUarts Qatar), under which it continues to operate.
The diverse makeup of VCUarts Qatar reflect the expatriate population of the state itself, with students hailing from across the Middle East, North and South America, Western Europe, and the Pacific Islands. Until the fall of 2007, the campus exclusively enrolled female students as part of a stated mission to educate and empower young Qatari women. As a near 20-year mainstay of the higher education community in Qatar (predating the entrance of Cornell, Carnegie Mellon, and University College London), VCUarts Qatar has partnered with the host country to expand the local design industry through a number of initiatives. Since 2005 the school has mounted Tasmeem Doha, a biennial conference that invites artists, designers, and related guest speakers to symposiums that vary in theme. One year prior, VCUarts Qatar, VCU, and the Qatar Foundation sponsored the Hamad bin Khalifa Symposium on Islamic Art, another biennial event that similarly invites speakers to discuss the history and trajectory of Islamic art and culture. It has been hosted in Doha, Richmond, Cordoba, and Palermo.
The ICA and arts research (2012– )Edit
Dean Toscan's successor was Joseph H. Seipel, popularly known as "Joe" Seipel. Seipel, who would head VCUarts from 2011–2016, was already a prominent figure within Richmond's arts community before his ascension to deanship. Upon his retirement, he had spent 42 years with the School of the Arts—17 of which were as the Chair of Sculpture. During Seipel's tenure the ranking of the program rose to first in the nation. In 1978, Seipel would make his first mark on the city as co-founder of 1708 Gallery on 1708 East Main Street (which moved to 319 West Broad Street in 2001) and the Texas-Wisconsin Border Café in 1982.
For the five years he spent as dean of the School of the Arts, Seipel made the construction of the Institute for Contemporary Art a top priority. Though he would depart the school before the completion of the ICA, his leadership would prove to be the catalyst of the project, shepherding the museum from concept to reality. When it opens, the privately funded ICA will be the most visually prominent contemporary arts venue in the center of Richmond, and the largest undertaking ever by the university. In June 2017, the project was pushed back to the spring of the following year, with no concrete opening date announced.
In 2017, Shawn Brixey became dean of the school following a year of leadership by Interim Dean James Frazier. Brixey previously served as dean of the School of the Arts, Media, Performance and Design at York University in Toronto, Ontario. He is a graduate of the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in design, media science and engineering. Described by a Style Weekly writer as "part of a rising generation of hybrid artists educated with a more pluralistic, interdisciplinary mindset," Brixey's artwork and philosophy often merges the tenets of arts and engineering.
VCU School of the Arts on average services a student body of 3,000 students, of which 200 are enrolled in graduate programs. The class of 2019 consists of approximately 600 freshman students, out of a pool of nearly 2,500 applicants. The average student in that class possesses a 3.7 GPA and a 1147 score on the SAT. 45 percent of incoming students are afforded merit-based scholarships. Prospective students of fine arts and design are asked to submit a portfolio of work along with their standardized test scores and high school transcripts. Through an online submission page, applicants submit between 12 and 16 works of art that they have created over the past two years. The work is expected to be exemplary of their current skill and potential in any chosen discipline. The school does not accept physical portfolios.
VCUarts offers bachelor's degrees in disciplines ranging from the fine arts to performance, design, and scholarly research. As a prerequisite, all students who wish to enter into any of the school's fine art and design programs must first pass a year of Art Foundation, or "A.F.O." The 16 graduate programs at VCU School of the Arts, particularly Sculpture + Extended Media, are among the most highly ranked in the country according to U.S. News & World Report's 2016 rankings.
- Art Education (BFA, MAE, and PhD)
- Art Foundation
- Art History (BA, MA, and PhD)
- Cinema (BA)
- Communication Arts (BFA)
- Craft/Material Studies (BFA and MFA)
- Dance + Choreography (BFA)
- Fashion Design (BFA)
- Fashion Merchandising (BA)
- Graphic Design (BFA and MFA)
- Interior Design (BFA and MFA)
- Kinetic Imaging (BFA and MFA)
- Media, Art & Text (PhD), also known as MATX.
- Music (BA, BM, and MM)
- Painting + Printmaking (BFA and MFA)
- Photography + Film (BFA and MFA)
- Sculpture + Extended Media (BFA and MFA)
- Theatre (BFA, BA, and MFA)
The school is on the university's Monroe Park Campus, west of downtown Richmond and north of the James River.
1. ^ RPI was formerly known as the "Richmond Division of the College of William and Mary" until 1939, when its name changed to "Richmond Professional Institute of William and Mary." Due to political squabbles between RPI and William & Mary (described once as "coeds" in a North Carolina newspaper of the time), the institute and college severed their partnership long before RPI's consolidation into VCU in 1968.
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