A tour of the Depot, and a glimpse at art and the creative economy

John Guthmiller and Jody Symula discuss the use of space at the Depot on Friday at an event launc...
John Guthmiller and Jody Symula discuss the use of space at the Depot on Friday at an event launching the Make It Real Campaign for VCU.
Photos by Allen Jones, University Marketing.

The public launch Friday of the Make It Real Campaign for VCU provided a rare opportunity for the university community: a tour of the VCU School of the Arts' Depot and annex. Visitors were treated to a look at the building’s history, an overview of its programs, and demonstrations in the motion-capture and kinetic imaging studios.

The historic building, which underwent a massive renovation two years ago, demonstrates how physical space can be an agent for change.

“Even though we’ve had this building for just a few years, it’s really hard to imagine VCUarts without it,” said Jody Symula, assistant dean for student affairs in the School of the Arts. “With this space, we’ve been allowed to build up programming and opportunities for our students, for our faculty, for our staff in the university at large.

“All 16 of our departments and programs here at VCUarts are able to really truly benefit. I'm excited to give you a better opportunity to really see firsthand the magic that happens here from the people who know it best.”

 The Depot was built in 1907 as part of what New York financier Frank Jay Gould envisioned as the Richmond-Chesapeake Bay Railroad Line. A century later, the space has a new life as a multidisciplinary arts facility.`
The Depot was built in 1907 as part of what New York financier Frank Jay Gould envisioned as the Richmond-Chesapeake Bay Railroad Line. A century later, the space has a new life as a multidisciplinary arts facility.`

Leading the tour were the faculty that work with students on the very activities the Depot promotes, said John Guthmiller, senior associate dean of academic affairs in the School of the Arts.

“They're all about innovation, entrepreneurship, creativity, arts center research — things that attract some of the most promising arts students in the country and things that are going to attract even more of the better students that will make this place come alive in future years,” Guthmiller said. “We already have one of the largest pools of out-of-state students at Virginia Commonwealth University, and we know that when things happen like what you will discover here … that's going to get better.”

During the tour, John Freyer, assistant professor of cross-disciplinary media, and Jill Ware, Depot events coordinator, spoke about their collaborative RVArts cultural passport course, an online/offline hybrid that teaches digital and cultural competencies through experiential learning, ultimately creating lifelong ambassadors for the arts. The course is taught in the Depot’s interdisciplinary space, which also holds many of the events planned by the students for the class.

Matt Woolman, executive director of entrepreneurship, Andrew Ilnicki, director of academic technology, and Carlos Chafin, founder of In Your Ear Studios and an affiliate of VCU, presented the Center for the Creative Economy, which operates three programs of study, each providing an experiential learning environment. The Creative Entrepreneurship Program provides groundwork for entrepreneurial practice and emphasizes creative and design methodologies. The Collaboratory internship program provides opportunities in hands-on, innovative problem solving. The third program, Advanced Media Production Technology, is a certificate program in the expansive field of digital media production. Taught at In Your Ear, the program is open to students of all disciplines.

Pam Turner led visitors to the Depot Annex behind the main building for a tour of the Department of Kinetic Imaging, which offers BFA and MFA degrees to students pursuing video, animation, sound, emerging media and the many hybrids and extensions of those areas. Back in the main building, John Henry Blatter, interdisciplinary technologist, demonstrated the motion-capture lab with the help of dance students. Andrea Alvarez, director of exhibtions, introduced "Text Me," the Depot gallery's current exhibit. 

John Freyer, right, and Jill Ware present on their collaborative RVArts cultural passport course.
John Freyer, right, and Jill Ware present on their collaborative RVArts cultural passport course.

The Depot was built in 1907 as part of what New York financier Frank Jay Gould envisioned as the Richmond-Chesapeake Bay Railroad Line. The only part of the railroad that was ever built, however, ran from Ashland to Richmond. Richmond Glass Co. bought the building in 1938. Decades later, VCU purchased the then-dilapidated structure and, after state-of-the-art renovations, opened it as a multidisciplinary facility in 2014.

“We do need to mention something that we are very aware of,” Guthmiller said. “When this building was opened and during its time as a train station, it was a segregated facility with separate platforms and facilities for white and coloreds. We believe this is extremely important in this fresh renovation to remember this, to learn from it, and to incorporate it into the work that we do as consciously as we move forward and make a better future.

“It’s ultimately fitting that our wonderfully diverse student population is able to study and work here and have the opportunities to make it real — to make it really real for themselves and to make it whole in ways that were not accessible to previous generations. … It's not only a wonderful facility, it's great lesson itself.”