Silicon Valley venture capitalist Sandy Miller, a 1971 graduate of the University of Virginia’s College of Arts & Sciences, knows that a strategic investment can transform a promising enterprise into an outstanding performer.
His decision with his wife, Vinie Zhang Miller, to designate $2 million for the College Arts Scholars program – creating the J. Sanford Miller Family Fund for Arts Scholars – reflects his belief in the program’s high potential, both for individual students and for the University as a whole.
“I saw the opportunity to take a small, well-conceived and well-executed program and help move it toward becoming an Echols Scholar program for the arts,” he said. “The amount of leverage was extraordinary.”
Since 2011, 15 to 20 incoming undergraduates each year have been named College Arts Scholars based on the arts supplement package each submitted to the Office of Admission, highlighting talents in studio art, dance, drama or music. Once admitted, they interact closely with U.Va.’s most distinguished arts faculty and gather regularly for exclusive events. They are also eligible for summer research awards through the program.
“Sandy Miller is a passionate supporter of arts education and has a deep understanding of its vital role in enriching the student experience and the community,” said Meredith Jung-En Woo, the Buckner W. Clay Dean of Arts & Sciences. “We are profoundly grateful to Sandy and his family for his generous commitment to the College Arts Scholars program. It will ensure that the program reaches even greater heights in creating a vibrant community of artists whose creativity inspires others at the University and beyond.”
A 2011 gift from Evelyn McGee Colbert, a 1985 graduate of the College, and her husband, comedian Stephen Colbert, for intensive summer projects, raised the visibility of the Arts Scholars program and allowed it to shift to a full four-year program. The J. Sanford Miller Family Fund takes it to the next level.
“This gift changes everything,” said Michael Rasbury, the program’s director and an associate professor of sound design in the College’s Department of Drama. Although the specific uses for the additional funding have yet to be determined, it may be used to bring renowned artists to U.Va. and to offer Arts Scholars the opportunity to participate in internships or to travel to major U.S. and overseas art centers.
“At a moment when students are immersing themselves in the arts, this type of exposure can be eye-opening,” Rasbury said.
These new opportunities should be particularly appealing to exactly the kind of artistic students who consider attending the University, according to Cristina Della Coletta, associate dean for the arts and humanities in the College. Rather than apply to institutions dedicated exclusively to the arts, they choose U.Va. because they are interested in a broader experience.
Certainly, Miller’s career exemplifies the wisdom of this decision. A speech and drama major at U.Va., he secured both M.B.A. and J.D. degrees from Stanford University, going on to lead investments in such high-tech firms as Vonage and Zynga.
During this time, arts stewardship and collecting became major passions for him and his family. He is a member of the advisory board at The Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia, the University’s Campaign Executive Committee, the Arts Council, the Raven Society, co-chairs the San Francisco Bay Area Jefferson Scholars Committee and is an emeritus member of the College Foundation. His daughters, Christine Miller Droessler, a 2004 graduate of the College, and Charlotte Miller, a 2008 graduate of the College, have art history degrees and work in art galleries, and Droessler also serves on the Arts Council.
Sandy Miller has been active in the arts in the San Francisco area, serving on the boards of the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, American Conservatory Theater and the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University. He and his wife formed the Lijin Guohua Foundation to promote the appreciation of traditional Chinese culture in the United States.
“I’m attracted to the timelessness of art, which provides a counterpoint to my interest in technology,” Miller said. “Technology is in a constant state of flux, while the Chinese tradition in painting, for instance, extends back 3,000 years. The exposure I had to the arts as an undergraduate at U.Va. added an important and lasting dimension to my life.”
In addition to his support for the Arts Scholars program, Miller has recently provided a $2 million gift to the Fralin Museum’s capital campaign. In recognition, the museum’s main upstairs gallery was named the J. Sanford Miller Family Gallery.
— By Charlie Feigenoff