Richmond Professionals Institute alumni artists’ work showcased

Theresa Pollak started fine art classes at the Richmond Professionals Institute, which would later become the VCU School of the Arts. Photo courtesy of VCU Libraries.
Theresa Pollak started fine art classes at the Richmond Professionals Institute, which would later become the VCU School of the Arts. Photo courtesy of VCU Libraries.

Michael Todd
Assistant Spectrum Editor

Eighty-five years ago, Virginia artist Theresa Pollak began the first art classes at the Richmond Professional Institute. These courses would serve as the foundation for what would become the VCU School of the Arts, which Pollak played a crucial role in founding.

Pollak is credited with bringing the Modernism movement to Richmond and persuading the then fairly conservative city to accept more updated artistic trends. Over the next four decades, from the late ‘20s to late ‘60s, what is now called the Monroe Park Campus of VCU underwent a series of changes concurrent with social and artistic trends before Pollak retired in 1968, just as the MCV and Monroe Park Campuses merged to become VCU.

The RPI Retrospective, “40 Years of Creative Excellence,” now on display at the Richmond Public Library, features artwork by both professors and graduates created during the 40 years Pollak was in charge of the art programs, from 1928 to 1968. Including examples of painting, jewelry, fashion and more, the work displays the various art movements, both past and then-current, that impacted the students and professors, including abstract impressionism and hardedge painting.

Diane Sadler Martin, an RPI alumna, both organized and helped to curate the show. Martin is also a member of the RPI Alumni Steering Committee, which sponsors the show. While Martin claims the idea had been brewing in her mind for some time, she began putting the plan in motion sometime last spring.

“I know the importance of reconciling one’s life story and seeking meaning,” said Martin, who ended up working in geriatrics after earning her degree in art education. “You have to feel like your life has meaning.”

Martin said she felt that the retrospective was an appropriate and past-due opportunity to have the work of the first VCU art students recognized, and for these graduates and professors to reflect back on their artistic careers.

The unjuried show was curated entirely on a volunteer basis. While calls for art were delivered by emails and letters, the show was advertised mostly by word of mouth.

Artists were encouraged to submit at least two works, one from their student days and one that is more recent. Children of the artists, regardless of whether the artist was deceased, submitted many of the applications. Martin is unsure of how many of the artists have seen the show at this point in time.

The show opened during the First Friday event on April 5 and will run until June 5. During April and May, additional talks are being held on Thursdays, from 11 a.m. to noon, with past professors and students. These talks are referred to as oral histories, which are recorded and archived, and cover several topics.

On April 25, Martin met with Chuck Scalin, a previous VCU professor, and Trina Sheckels-McFarland, both a RPI graduate and current high school art teacher. They discussed how artistic movements influenced RPI professors who in turn influenced RPI graduates, and how this influence is still resonating in education systems today.

“The difference, when I arrived here, was night and day,” said Martin, who spent the first two years of undergrad studying in Maine. “I realized later that my art didn’t change much … from the time I was in high school till I graduated (RPI) … and one of the reasons is all of my art teachers were trained under Theresa Pollak.”

Additionally, an alumni weekend was hosted the weekend of April 20, with over 30 RPI graduates in attendance. The discussion between these alumni was also recorded and will be archived. 

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