DePillars building commemoration to celebrate late dean’s artistic, educational legacy

Illustration by Lauren Johnson

Jiana Smith, Contributing Writer

Former VCUarts Dean Murry N. DePillars, known for his wide-rimmed glasses and his pipe, was somewhat of a pleasant presence on campus. As the first Black dean of VCUarts and one of the only Black deans on VCU’s campus in the early ’80s, many students and community members felt a lasting impression from his commitment to artistic growth.

“It was really amazing seeing this man of my same race be in an office,” Suzanne Boone Gwathmey said during the “Memories and Milestones: Celebrating the Legacy of Dr. Murry N. DePillars” event held in April. “I had just never seen that. And to see that he was in a high position and could make decisions, I was totally amazed.” 

DePillars earned his bachelor’s degree in art education and master’s in urban studies from Roosevelt University, and later received his doctorate degree in art education from Pennsylvania State University. Before becoming dean of VCUarts in 1976, he started as assistant dean in 1971. He was credited with expanding funding for the arts and nearly doubling student enrollment before retiring in 1995. 

In addition to his achievements in academia, DePillars was a talented artist. As a member of the Chicago-based African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists (AfriCOBRA,) a Black art collective founded in 1968, he used his art to explore both African and African American culture and history.

“He believed that art unified and empowered communities and that art told stories that have not yet been told or listened to,” Holly Alford, VCUarts director of inclusion and equality, stated in an email. “He was an advocate for all types of art.”

DePillars’ artwork has been exhibited in the Paul Robeson Cultural Center, the African American Pavilion of the World Expo and the Whitney Museum of Art, among others. 

In 2017, the exhibit “Double Vision,” a retrospective of DePillars’ life’s work curated by Richard Woodward, founding curator of the African art collection at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and Ashley Duhrkoop of the VMFA, was held at Richmond’s Black History Museum.

In his later years, DePillars was the recipient of a Presidential Medallion and a Professor Emeritus title. In 2008, DePillars died in Richmond at the age of 69. 

“Many will say that Dr. DePillars increased enrollment at VCU and made the School of the Arts not only the largest in the country, but he brought worldwide attention to VCUarts.” — Holly Alford

Early this year, VCUarts renamed the Fine Arts Building, located at 1000 W. Broad St., to the Murry N. DePillars Building to honor his achievements in the field. There will be a commemoration celebration of the Murry N. DePillars Building on Sept. 30 from 5 – 6:30 p.m.

“The DePillars Building is a manifestation of our shared vision for the future of VCUarts,” VCUarts Dean Carmenita D. Higginbotham said during the “Memories and Milestones” event. 

The decision to rename the Fine Arts Building was recommended by VCU’s Committee on Commemoration and Memorials as part of a proposal to remove plaques and building names connected to the Confederacy after the 2017 Unite the Right white supremacy rally in Charlottesville. The board of visitors approved the name change in September 2020.

Alford stated that the renaming not only honors DePillars’ legacy but highlights the significance of diversity within the VCU community.

“Dr. DePillars is a national figure and the Richmond community and future students and young boys and girls need to know the accomplishments of this prestigious artistic figure at VCU and his contributions and accomplishments in American arts history,” Alford stated.

DePillars’ passion for Black art and stories carried over into his role as an educator. Many of his former students, such as Gwathmey, Alford and painting and printmaking alumni William E. Johnson, describe him as a warm, caring mentor who challenged them academically and artistically. 

Alford, an alumna of the master’s in fine arts in the costume design program, expressed how DePillars helped her find ways to fund her education. 

Many will say that Dr. DePillars increased enrollment at VCU and made the School of the Arts not only the largest in the country, but he brought worldwide attention to VCUarts. For me and others, Murry DePillars always placed students first,” Alford stated. “He was not only an inspiration, but he counseled so many students.”

DePillars was also an avid jazz enthusiast. He showed his love for jazz at VCU not only through the creation of the jazz studies program but through the establishment of the Richmond Jazz Society and the Richmond Jazz Festival. 

“I just feel very fortunate to have been there when it was all taking shape,” musician and jazz studies alumni Steve Wilson said during the “Memories and Milestones” event, stressing DePillars’ commitment to VCU and the Richmond community. 

Registration for the DePillars Building commemoration celebration opens in September. For more information about the event visit the VCUarts event page.

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