Ebonique Little, Spectrum Editor
Black Lives Matter protests last summer sparked VCU’s reckoning with a history tied to the Confederacy. As Confederate monuments and plaques are taken down across campus, new signage honoring more diverse figures are instated.
The Fine Arts Building, located at 1000 W. Broad St., will soon be renamed the Dr. Murry N. DePillars Building. The resolution began in 2017 after a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and was finally approved by the board of visitors in September.
“The protests this summer underscored our need to continue our commitment to a more diverse, inclusive and equitable School of the Arts,” said Teresa Engle, senior associate director of communications, in an email.
DePillars, who died in 2008, served as assistant dean of VCUarts beginning in 1971, and then as dean from 1976 until 1995. During his tenure, he nearly doubled student enrollment and expanded funding for the program.
“He provided the creative and intellectual foundation for Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Arts and is largely responsible for the school’s growth,” Engle said.
After receiving community input through interviews, group forums and presentations, VCU President Michael Rao led the Committee on Confederate Commemoration regarding the decision to remove exclusionary symbols while also recognizing distinguished figures in the university’s history like DePillars, Engle said.
“I think it’s good that Black artists are getting the right representation that we need to have. However, I don’t know if it’s like serving them or serving the community by just having their name on a building with nothing being done under that.” — Maya Mangum
Engle noted significant contributions DePillars made to the arts community as VCUarts became a hub for performing arts facilities, jazz festivals and fashion shows.
“Dr. DePillars also had the ability to engage with and bring together diverse communities, elevating one of VCU’s core values,” Engle said. “He ensured a climate of trust, honesty and integrity, where all people are valued and differences are recognized as an asset.”
Outside of his service to VCU, DePillars was a renowned artist whose work highlighted social injustice and African traditions. His art was featured in museums such as the Paul Robeson Cultural Center, the African American Pavilion of the World Expo and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
VCUarts kinetic imaging senior Lauren Baines said she was compelled to research some of the former dean’s artwork after the announcement of the name change. With the new commemoration of DePillars, Baines believes this is an important step for VCUarts.
“Since that’s like a prominent building for VCU, I think it definitely gives the artist this recognition that he deserves,” Baines said.
Prior to this recognition, senior painting and printmaking student Maya Mangum said she was unfamiliar with both DePillars and his work, despite most of her classes being held inside the formerly named Fine Arts Building.
Mangum said she is pleased with the change but looks forward to bigger steps VCUarts can make in the future to continue this trajectory of greater inclusion.
“I think it’s good that Black artists are getting the right representation that we need to have,” Mangum said. “However, I don’t know if it’s like serving them or serving the community by just having their name on a building with nothing being done under that.”
The date for the new signage is yet to be determined, but Engle said VCUarts is planning a series of virtual events that will feature speakers who were influenced by DePillars.
“Dr. DePillars believed strongly that the arts empowered communities,” Engle said, “and his work as an artist, educator and advocate brought a very diverse public together.”