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Shaping the Curriculum

Children's Class Taught by Theresa Pollak at RPI

Pollak's art class for children.

Before Pollak's core classes formed into a fully accredited, degree-conferring art department, she taught a children's class at RPI on Saturday mornings. These courses were offered between 1928 and 1930. 
Letter to Theresa Pollak from Henry H. Hibbs

Letter to Pollak, dated 27 November 1928, in which Dr. Hibbs expresses his refusal to allow the use of nude models in class.

Having trained at the progressive Art Students League of New York, Pollak firmly believed in the educational value of studying the nude figure, and she felt that her own students deserved the same quality of training that she received. Dr. Hibbs, on the other hand, knew that the then-conservative Richmond majority would frown upon the college's use of nude models. As the letter at left indicates, Hibbs initially denied Pollak's request. 
Life Class Taught by Theresa Pollak at RPI

This photograph of a life class at RPI in the 1950s shows that, eventually, Miss Pollak succeeded in her appeal for the educational use of nude models in advanced art classes.

Despite Dr. Hibbs's apprehension, Miss Pollak was persistent in her petitioning for the use of nude models in advanced art classes. Over time, ballet costumes gave way to two-piece bathing suits, then to burlesque-inspired "G-straps," and finally—as this photograph shows—to the fully nude figure. Most significantly, the opportunity for students to draw from "life" (that is, from the human body) was a privilege which, at the time, set Pollak's budding art program apart from most other schools in the south.

See Pollak's An Art School: Some Reminiscences and Oral History interview, both on the previous page, for more detailed (and rather amusing) accounts of the School's gradual acceptance of nude models. 

Theresa Pollak and Maurice Bonds at VCU

Pollak (left) with close friend and fellow faculty member Maurice Bonds (right) at VCU.

In 1935, Pollak was promoted to full-time Professor of Art at the Richmond Division of the College of William and Mary. By that time, the School of the Arts had grown in both students and faculty, and Pollak had to assume more responsibility in fulfilling administrative work as well as choosing new instructors. At left, she is pictured with one of her earliest and most active colleagues, Maurice Bonds. Bonds joined the art school’s faculty in 1946. During his 32-year tenure, he taught classes in the graphic arts, fine arts, and art history, and he also served as the Chair for the latter two departments.

When Pollak wrote Part I of An Art School in 1948, the School of the Arts was made up of 18 instructors and 500 students, and it encompassed the departments of Commercial Art, Fashion Design, Crafts, Dramatic Art, Interior Decorating, and Fine Arts—each with its own department head. By 1968, the school had more than doubled in size with over 1,100 students, 85 faculty members, and greater opportunities for specialization within each department. Since then, VCUarts has only continued to flourish.

Theresa Pollak in Class at VCU

Pollak in her classroom, April 1969.

Despite the school's division into smaller departments, Pollak strove to unify VCUarts. She collaborated with Marion Junkin, a fellow fine arts professor, to form the basic "character and objectives of the art school"—namely, "the teaching of sound traditional principles, balancing these by a progressive approach which was to hold up to the student the aliveness and ever-changing nature of art in a changing civilization." [An Art School: Some Reminiscences, 9-10.] Their efforts later culminated in the establishment of the Foundation Program, which all freshman art students had to complete before entering their department of choice.

The Art Foundation Program remains an important component of VCUarts today, currently serving as a prerequisite for admittance into all of the school's fine art and design departments.

Theresa Pollak and Dr. Warren W. Brandt, President of VCU

Undated photograph of Theresa Pollak and Warren W. Brandt.

“I see these forty years of the growth of an art school in terms of a huge everchanging canvas on which one works endlessly, painting in and painting out, struggling always for a stronger degree of formal integration and significance and, though the canvas remains always imperfect, there is achieved and maintained within it a high degree of the sharp keen savor of life. And this is the wonder of creating art—of teaching art—of living art, and again I say—that altogether it has been a rich, full and happy life, and one that has well prepared me for the next twenty-year period in which I shall see what I can bring out of it all—on my own."

-Theresa Pollak, An Art School: Some Reminiscences