UVA Arts, University of Virginia

Vol 09 Winter 18 Library

Giving Spotlight: Joe Erdman of the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation

Georgia O’Keefe once said of an artist’s life: "It isn’t just talent…it’s mostly a lot of nerve, and a lot of very, very hard work."

Joe Erdman

The truth is, no amount of talent or hard work survives in this world without the people whose passion and generosity nurture and support it. People like Joe Erdman. When Erdman was a UVA student in the 1950’s, he felt like there was something missing when it came to the arts. “We had Virginia Players at the time,” he said. “But the museum was almost nonexistent. The Bayly was just a building. There was really nothing going on.”

Today, more than 60 years after his graduation, there is a whole lot going on. Art and artists are thriving all across the Betsy and John Casteen Arts Grounds, plans are in the works for new facilities to position the arts for 21st Century success, and Joe Erdman is at the center of it all. He is a trustee, along with Richard Ader, of The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, a charitable trust created by the will of the acclaimed 20th Century artist Joseph Cornell (1903-1972) that honors the memory of the artist and his disabled younger brother. The trust supports a variety of nonprofit beneficiaries, with an emphasis on the arts. 

“Joseph Cornell was an artist of great stature,” Erdman said. “And it seemed to me that he would have wanted nothing more than to support the arts. His interests cut across all of the arts. He was interested in film, he was interested in opera and ballet, he was interested in music, and of course he was interested in the visual arts. I thought that if we could do anything to increase the ability of the University of Virginia to deliver arts to the University and greater central Virginia community– from the Museum to the Symphony to the theatre programs and to arts organizations in the Charlottesville area – we would be fulfilling, to a great extent, most of the wishes that Joseph Cornell would have wanted.”

The fit was also perfect for Erdman personally. His own interest in the arts continued to grow since his UVA days. He was a partner in a law firm, Greenbaum, Wolff & Ernst, which for much of the 20th Century was known for its work representing high-profile literary and artistic clients. Erdman clearly brought this passion home to his family. “Both of my sons were theatre majors and have PhDs in the field,” he said. “My oldest son is a Professor of Theatre at the University of Massachusetts and a talented playwright, and was, for a time, the chair of the department. And my younger son did a lot of improvisational theatre while in college and after graduation, taught theater and film. So, within my family, there was already a predisposition toward the arts.”

Those combined passions, for UVA, for the Foundation, and for the arts in general, have today put Erdman at the heart of a sort of renaissance on the Betsy and John Casteen Arts Grounds. It is a renaissance that, just like Joseph Cornell’s artistic interests, cuts across the entire spectrum of creative disciplines and endeavors. Yet, as Erdman points out, the kind of growth he is seeing in each and every arts constituent on Grounds must be supported by institutional growth, something that is essential to raise the University’s profile and honor the founding vision that put the arts at the heart of the educational experience here. 

“We need to continue to give students a place to appreciate the arts and a place for the community to come and enjoy theatre, music, film, opera, art exhibits of various kinds, discussion, talks, and lectures,” he said. “There is no doubt that we are a first-class university, ranking #3 nationally in terms of state public universities. My view is that we should strive to achieve a parallel high ranking when it comes to the arts.”

“It is my great hope and vision that we will achieve this stature, and my belief that, in order to do so, we as a university need to continue to invest in the arts,” Erdman said. “I believe that in order to live up to the reputation we have built, and to provide our students the best possible educational and cultural experience, it is important that we work toward building a performing arts center, where music ensembles and orchestras can play in a proper setting, and with enough seating, great acoustics, and all of the other features expected of a modern performing arts center..”

The needs, he said, extend throughout Arts Grounds, pointing out The Fralin as an example. “The Fralin Museum, as currently constituted, is not big enough to house large exhibits,” Erdman added, and cites the museum’s current expansion campaign as crucial to the efforts to create and maintain a true 21stCentury Art Museum. He is hopeful that this time is coming. “I am tremendously heartened by the discussions now underway to address some of these issues, and I look forward to working with President Ryan, and all of the leadership at UVA, to explore the ways in which we can give all of the arts programs the platform they need, in order to stand alongside the other pillars that make UVA’s one of the best educational experiences in America. The momentum begun by Presidents Casteen and Sullivan should continue. Melissa Young as Executive Director of the Cornell Foundation brings great energy and organizational skills to all our efforts.”

Erdman said that part of the positive momentum he is witnessing is due to the leadership he is seeing from departments across Arts Grounds, and from excitement generated by these new leaders in programs like the Symphony, The Fralin Museum and Heritage Theatre Festival, among others, as well as the leadership for UVA Arts overall. “Jody Kielbasa has been a tremendous positive force in leading this effort. He has a great deal of energy and drive and I am very thankful we have him as our Vice Provost for the Arts at this critical time.”

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The true thanks, it seems, should be given to Mr. Erdman himself. It started many years ago when, he and his wife, Rosemary established an endowment for graduate students majoring in Drama. He is a man who is very committed to encouraging a dream to benefit generations of students, faculty, and community members, who in their own ways reward his vision every day…with their talent, with their nerve, and with their hard, hard, work.

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