UVA Arts, University of Virginia

Vol 15 Winter 21 Library
(L-R) Nicholas Rupert, Gabby Fuller, Jody Kielbasa (Vice Provost for the Arts), Savannah Hard, Amy Dalrymple, David Shim, Greatchen Tibbits (then Chair of UVA Arts Council), & Tim Michel (UVA Arts Council Member and creator of the UVA Arts Council Distinguished Artist Awards program) | Image by Tom Daly

The UVA Arts Council Celebrates 30 Years!

Anyone involved with the UVA Arts Council over the last 30 years will tell you that their efforts on behalf of the University and its arts-oriented students are about more than numbers. After all, it’s hard to put a price on the inspiration the members of the Arts Council have unleashed since its founding in 1990 and the dizzying spectrum of art that has made its way to the world with their support.

However, numbers do tell an important story. That is why one of its earliest members, and longtime Grants Committee Chair, Joanne Robinson, recently delivered news of a big number to Jody Kielbasa, Vice Provost for the Arts and Director, Virginia Film Festival. By Robinson’s calculations, she reported, the UVA Arts Council had recently topped $1.5 million in grants.

Founded in 1990 with Mort Caplin as its first Chair, the Council made its first annual fund grant to the University for a studio art building plan. What began as an informal process of contributions aimed at supporting the arts throughout UVA became a formal grant process in 2003. The Arts Council Grants program plays an instrumental role in supporting residencies, workshops, projects, and research-based endeavors across Arts Grounds each year. 

The most important thing to me was the opportunity to have a positive impact on students through these grants...
Sandy Miller, UVA Arts Council

Arts Council member Sandy Miller was first attracted to the fact that the Council’s work reached across the arts landscape at the University. “I was really interested in the fact that it was a pan-arts effort that covered so many departments and disciplines,” he said. “The most important thing to me was the opportunity to have a positive impact on students through these grants, which, while up to $10,000 each, have an amazing leveraged impact on the near-term life of an arts student.” 

Miller’s impact on arts students at UVA is well-known through the J. Sanford Miller Family Arts Scholar program and his support of The Fralin Museum of Art through the J. Sanford Miller Family Director and J. Sanford Miller Family Gallery. The Miller Arts Scholar Program accepts scholars each year chosen from the disciplines of dance, drama, music, studio art, and creative writing to create an interdisciplinary collective of active artists supported by grants and a creative community that serves to embolden their art.  Miller believes that the role the arts play at a university cannot be underestimated. “I don’t think you can be a great university without having strong arts programs. The arts at UVA are clearly strong and on the rise, and they are only going to get stronger. Programs like the Arts Council play a vital role in that rise.” 

For Miller, the love of the arts at UVA is a family affair.  “I have been privileged to engage in broader support for the arts here. My wife Ella and I just recommitted to the support of the Arts Endowment, and both of my adult daughters, who were art history graduates at UVA, are engaged in the arts as alumni.” 

The Arts Endowment, Miller said, is an essential outgrowth of the Arts Council that focuses on larger gifts and capital initiatives. “The Arts Council is a feeding ground for support for the arts, and it gives important visibility to the arts that then allows people to dive deeper into their own areas of interest. The Arts Endowment is a way to take the magic of the Arts Council to a larger scale and for the longer term. Since it is similarly pan-arts, it attracts people with a higher capacity to support the arts who might be attracted to the arts as a whole but who also want to focus on supporting a program or project that reflects a particular passion of theirs.” 

Joe Erdman, a trustee of The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, agrees. “You just can’t have Virginia’s major University exist without a strong arts component,” he said. “When I was a student here in the 1950s, I was hardly aware of what was going on with the arts at UVA,” he said. “Our museum was in a closed building, and now it is thriving. In terms of theater, we had The Virginia Players, which, while it was good, was nothing close to what we have today when you look at our vibrant Drama department and Heritage Theatre Festival. I am so encouraged by the fact that so many more people are involved with the arts at UVA than ever before.” 

Joe Erdman & Melissa Young, Trustees of The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation
(Photo: Ziniu Chen, University Communications)
It is so important to have alumni come back. There are so many (alumni, parents, and friends) who continue to support the arts, and we look forward to seeing that number grow even more, especially as these programs grow in quality and stature
Joe Erdman

A major reason, Erdman said, was the participation of alumni in organizations like the UVA Arts Council and the UVA Arts Endowment, in which he and his foundation play a major role. “It is so important to have alumni come back. There are so many (alumni, parents, and friends) who continue to support the arts, and we look forward to seeing that number grow even more, especially as these programs grow in quality and stature.” 

In addition to alumni support, he said, the participation of the community is another critical factor. “Charlottesville is no ordinary town in Central Virginia. It is the home of UVA, and a lot of people come here because of the many benefits a university town can provide. The arts are a major factor in that. This also helps draw outstanding artists to our area as well. We have an outstanding opera company and symphony, for instance. The amount of people that the Virginia Film Festival draws each year is truly remarkable. And none of this happens without people who recognize the value of, and who continue to support the arts at UVA.” 

Steve Smiley has had a front-row seat to the emergence of the arts at the University, and the evolution of the Arts Council, thanks to his two decades of service and role as the Arts Council Chair for several years. Like many others, he was brought into and guided through his early council experience by George Sampson, who played that important shepherding role for so many others. Over those years, Smiley said, the Council has been a strong and consistent advocate across administrations and through changing times. “We are very fortunate to have had leaders here who have appreciated and who continue to appreciate the importance of the arts,” he said. “At the same time, when budgeting time comes along, it is inevitable that splashier aspects of university life will get a lot of attention, making it so important to keep the arts center stage. Especially when you look at the remarkable work that our students and faculty are doing on a regular basis, it is even more important that a group like ours be a strong and consistent voice.”

Another critical factor in the Arts Council’s success, Smiley said, is its inclusion of voices of those beyond the UVA Grounds. “The Arts Council is unique in that it not only includes alumni, parents, and spouses, but it also includes townspeople who may not have attended the University. That adds such a valuable perspective in that it takes you out of the ‘bubble’ of UVA and provides perspectives that we have found to be very helpful.” 

UVA Arts Council members and faculty enjoy a reception honoring Moisés Kaufman at The Fralin Museum of Art during his mini-residency.
(Photo: Coe Sweet)

The needs of artists on Grounds often go beyond what the Arts Council Grants can provide, Smiley said. Yet, in many instances, members have taken it upon themselves to reach into their own pockets and support initiatives particularly important to them. “A few years back, the Dance Program needed a sprung floor in Mem Gym,” he said. “Anyone who knows dance will tell you it is awfully hard to run a successful dance program without a sprung floor. Several of my fellow council members, including John and Mary Scott Birdsall, came forward and provided funding that was truly transformational for that program.” 

Joanne Robinson and her late husband Jerry were also among the first on the UVA Arts Council train. As so many were, they were pulled aboard by the remarkable Mort Caplin, who shared a fraternity affiliation with Jerry. Joanne and Jerry were heading back to Charlottesville, where Jerry had attended UVA as part of the class of 1944 before he joined the service. “Mort invited us to meet with him in Washington in the late 1990s,” Robinson said. The meeting came just as the Robinsons were relocating from their native New York, where they both had enjoyed long and successful careers. “He told us about his hopes to raise the profile of the arts here.” 

A few Arts Council Grants throughout the years! Clockwise from Top Left: Wild Whimsy by artist Emily Moores in the Ruffin Gallery; Poems-on-Demand by the Creative Writing Program at the annual UVA Arts Welcome Picnic; The Inside World: Contemporary Aboriginal Australian Memorial Poles, a collaboration between The Fralin Museum of Art and Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art; Paper Monuments: Charlottesville © Omer Gorashi; Tony Award Winner Jessie Muller at Broadway Talks Back, hosted by Kristen Kelly (Comm ‘20); UVA Dance students in Benevolence by Artist-In-Residence Chien-Ying Wang, performed at the 2018 Fall Dance Concert, Artist Talk with Choreographer and Movement Director Maya Taylor. 

Soon after their arrival, the Robinsons began what became a remarkable legacy of support for the arts on Grounds – Joanne’s passion was inspired partly by her years as a designer in the legendary New York garment industry, and Jerry drawn to the arts, particularly Heritage Theatre Festival, gave thanks to his family’s theatrical background. 

For many years, Robinson chaired the Council’s Grants Committee, a job for which she characteristically refuses to take much credit. “The truth of the matter is it is not that complicated as long as one stays organized. You just have to read all the grants, rank each grant proposal as to the importance, and know when they are scheduled to come in. We conduct two meetings a year and every committee member ranks so it is a democratic decision on which grant proposals are supported. 

Robinson makes it very clear that she was just one person on a committee. “Everybody gets a vote, and our final choices have nothing to do with what anyone particular person wants; it’s the quality of the proposal. So it either stands on its own, or it doesn’t.” 

She may have even elicited a promise not to overstate her importance to the process. But this story just would be fiction if it were not revealed that Robinson has done a little more than wield a gavel. “Joanne did a fabulous job working with the grantees and setting them up for success,” Smiley said. “She would tell people when the proposals were not up to snuff and tell them what they needed to change. She wanted people to understand what would truly get the attention of those reviewing the proposals and took the time and energy to help them put their best foot forward.”  Robinson continues to support the arts across Grounds and is also a member of the Arts Endowment. 

A working landscape, part of the stormwater management system, will be part of the green space in the redesigned Ivy Corridor.

A key to the future of UVA Arts, Erdman said, and its ability to put its best foot forward is the construction of a Performing Arts Center in the Emmet-Ivy Corridor.  With help from Joe, an extraordinary lead gift for the Performing Arts Center was recently received from Tessa Ader. “I really feel strongly that you can’t have a major university without a first-class Performing Arts Center,” he said. “What we have now is fine. When you see the symphony at Old Cabell Hall, it is lovely, but you have 75-100 musicians filling a small stage. We need a more modern design where all of our artists can thrive and a more modern museum that reflects the world-class quality of the work being done and shown there.” 

UVA Vice Provost for the Arts Jody Kielbasa said that the success of the arts on Grounds is directly tied to the support that comes from those who donate their time and resources to ensuring that the arts remain at the core of the UVA undergraduate experience. "Recently, there is one person in particular who has gone above and beyond with her time and support for the arts. Gretchen Tibbits has served as the chair of the Arts Council for nearly a decade. Through her passion, vision, and determination, she has made a lasting impact on the arts community at UVA and has been an important partner in increasing the profile of the arts at UVA. She, now, takes the reigns of the Arts Endowment and will play an integral role in the capital campaign for the Center for the Arts”  

For more information on how to get involved...

...with the UVA Arts Council and/or the UVA Arts Endowment, contact Cameron Mowat.
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