June 23, 2010
CIA President David Deming's retirement takes effect June 30, 2010. He talked with CIA Senior Writer Ann McGuire about a career that came full circle and will lead him back into his studio as a full-time sculptor.
When did you first realize you had artistic talent?
Not too many people would brag about remembering when they were three years old but…
I do. Maybe I was close to four. My dad would put me to bed and I’d wait to hear his knees creaking down the stairs… I would start drawing scenes between the flowers on the wallpaper in the hallway. I’d do that until I’d hear them coming up to bed.
When did they discover it?
Not until years later. They knew shortly after that how enthusiastic I was about drawing, especially drawing and painting. Both my parents were creative people in their own right, so they understood the creative drive and they were very helpful in just feeding me materials. My mom, typical of an art mom, kept everything I ever made. If I threw it away, she’d take papers that I’d crumpled up and iron it and put it in folders.
In elementary school, I had a difficult time reading; I had a form of dyslexia, and all of my teachers would say ‘David seems to be trying… but he’s so good at art.’ …they thought it was next to genius in terms of my ability to communicate visually, so that simply just got reinforced.
Did your parents enroll you in any art classes?
I did the Cleveland Museum of Art classes one year and when I was a senior at Lakewood High, I came to Saturday life drawing classes at the Institute. It was right up my alley; I really enjoyed that.
Did that seal the deal for you coming here?
I applied to Boston, what became Mass Art; the School of the Art Institute of Chicago; and here. I got accepted to all three places and frankly thought, why would I go anywhere else. I really loved it here.
It also helped that my primary art teacher at Lakewood High School was Daniel Hodermarsky (CIA class of 1949), who was an absolutely wonderful teacher and mentor to me. My dad actually found out, when I was in 9th grade, that he was offering an adult art class in the evenings. He didn’t want to take me because it was for adults but dad talked him into it. That was a great experience. I got to see these older people who were interested in art. I got to know him before I even got to the high school and he was just wonderful. He was just a very stimulating guy. He was just terrific.
So that’s what got me here; and I got a scholarship, which was nice. Five of us went to art school from Lakewood High School; four of them went to CIA and one went to Chicago. We carpooled, the four of us. That was a good experience, being with close friends from high school every day.
Did you live at home the entire time?
No. The second year, I wanted to live here in University Circle. I recognized that, with the commute, I wasn’t getting as involved in the school as I wanted. I had two brothers in college at the same time and a third brother getting ready to go to college… so I told my father I would pay my own rent, and I did.
How were you able to afford that?
I always worked every summer and I saved money and I would do all kinds of odd jobs. While I was at school, four out of my five years, I helped (long-time faculty member and 1940 graduate) John Paul Miller. I was his main assistant in setting up all of the exhibitions in the gallery. That was a fantastic experience working with John Paul that closely.
One year I had a working scholarship where I cleaned the sculpture lab every morning and every afternoon; that helped. And I was always a person game for taking on a commission or a project. A local entrepreneur once came in; he had seen someone who had commissioned 25 clown paintings by famous artists. So he wanted to commission 25 art students to do portraits of clowns. I ended up doing a couple for him. I was always finding ways to make a few bucks here, a few bucks there.
I worked a whole summer on the maintenance crew at the Cleveland Museum of Art and got to do a lot of things and got to know the museum really well. For a month, I was the only person that went up into the skylights of the original building and I had to remove all the grease sockets for the louvered windows. They had not been re-greased for 50 years. So I had to take them off, bring them down, clean them out and re-pack them in new grease. It was like Michelangelo; I had to lie on my back in the corners to get these things off and it was about 110, 120 degrees up there in the summer… It was a great experience working in the museum.
And it helped allow you to live in the neighborhood, which changed your experience of going to school here?
Absolutely. First I lived on Magnolia in an old house. The landlord rented six or eight rooms to art students and he ran a life drawing class for people on the top floor. I don’t know whether he was an alumnus of the Institute, but I do remember people who I thought were old timers coming over to draw… they were mostly former students who were active artists in the area.
Then I moved with another art student to an apartment building that was behind the Howard Johnson’s restaurant, which is now the Children’s Museum. They tore that building down… not long after we moved out (laughs). That was a great experience there.
Then I moved to Hessler Road, again in with a bunch of art students. That was absolutely wonderful because a couple of the students were older than I was. Chuck Henry (class of 1965) and Pete Zorn (class of 1965). Chuck was a sculptor and Pete was an industrial designer. Those guys were really great, especially Chuck in terms of being a motivating example to me. He’d wake me up at 6 in the morning. We’d go over to the cafeteria at Western Reserve University, as it was called then, and get some breakfast, and by the way, he and I washed pots and pans at the end of the day so we could get one meal a day. That’s how we ate. But we’d always be the first people in the school after the custodians and it was great, because I learned early to get into the studio early before anyone else was around. It was a great time when you could really have that thinking time and sort of get the momentum going. I still do that. And of course the work ethic is reflected in our current students. You get at it; you put in 15, 18 hour days…
How about sharing a few memorable experiences from your student days.
One of my favorite memories related to my life drawing class freshman year. Frank Meyers (class of 1950) was my teacher and he had been my teacher for the Saturday classes and I really liked him. But I remember the first time he graded us. He had never graded us in the Saturday classes. We all got our drawings back right before the 10:00 break. I got a C+. I’m thinking ‘Oh man, how could I only have a C+?’ I don’t think I’d ever earned less than an A on any art assignment. The other students all looked very concerned and upset and when we gathered at the sinks to wash up for the break we compared notes. It turned out I had the best grade. So I immediately thought, ‘OK, I understand what’s going on; he’s raising the bar.’ I was OK with it; I wasn’t upset. So we got back in the classroom after the break and one of my friends, I won’t say who, says ‘Mr. Myers, how come Deming only got a C+?’ He didn’t say how come I got a D. I wasn’t going to complain. He planned this, Myers did. He had 20 drawings saved from previous years and he had us pin them up around the room. I thought, ‘Oh my God, Michelangelo and DaVinci must have come here.’ These were absolutely stunning drawings and the whole point was: ‘So you think you’re good; look at this.’ These were art students here at The Cleveland Institute of Art. It was just a reminder: you think you’re good, work harder. I got my A at the end of the semester so it was OK but I appreciated the gesture that Myers did there.
And it stuck with you all these years?
Oh yeah. And I used techniques like that in my own teaching. So that was a fun experience.
I still have some drawings from my portfolios from freshman and sophomore years but when I re-look at them today, what they do for me is remind me of the enthusiasm I had at that time and how I was moving forward by leaps and bounds.
A lot of art students come in sort of thinking that everything they touch is gold.
A lot of times they were the best from their high school…
Well that’s it and it’s the development of ideas. And this is the thing that became the most important for me as I grew as an art student, was to recognize that my innate skill and ability was not the artist. What matters is the ability to communicate something, and the content worth communicating. The skill certainly adds to it, but it was always the combination of those things. And that’s where I felt that the faculty here were just terrific. They pushed you to understand that, as an artist, it’s one thing to strive for having a voice in your work, but what are you going to say with that voice? I think a lot of young artists get hung up on the craft and think if it’s done well and it looks good, that’s enough. Well it isn’t; you’re just another person who can do that. It’s what are you communicating. That’s always the biggest challenge in an artist’s life is to combine those things.
Who were some of your most influential professors at CIA?
Bill McVey (class of 1928), was my primary sculpture teacher here. I stayed in touch with him. The whole time we lived in Texas we came to Cleveland every summer to visit family and I would always take a drive out to Bill’s place. And I’d send him a letter every now and then and I’d always draw a little character on the envelope that was me, holding a sign that said ‘Support your local sculptor.’ And Bill kept all those and he loved my letters and he told me that the mailman loved them.
There were a bunch of us who had great respect for Bill and John Clague (class of 1956), who was also was teaching here. John had been a student of Bill’s. We’d go to coffee. One day McVey turned to me and said ‘Deming, one of these days you’re going to be a great department chair.’ I had no idea what that meant. At that time here at the CIA, there wasn’t structure like there is today… well they did have a structure but it wasn’t as elaborate so the students had no idea if one of their teachers was a department chair. So I had no idea what he was talking about. Looking back, I think one of the things that he saw in me was that I was a good listener and that I had a way of sort of cutting to the quick on things and understanding structure.
Bill did a lot of commission work, including figurative commission work which was a part of what I was interested in. I was curious as to how he got those commissions. And I had the privilege of working for Bill on a number of projects out at his studio so I got to know him and I got to sense how he did this. One of the things I recognized was that Bill was a people person; he enjoyed people. As I tell students here, if all of your friends are artists, you’re in trouble. So being engaged with a wider group of people and being a citizen is important. What I saw Bill McVey doing is Bill enjoyed going to parties and engaging with all types of people, lawyers and architects, and sure enough those were the people that were usually in the position to commission work from Bill.
How about your commissions in your student days? You mentioned the clown paintings; were there other memorable sales of artwork in your student days?
One time John Paul Miller got mad at me because I got a small wooden sculpture in the student show and priced it at $25. He was so upset with me. Somebody bought it before the show opened. He said I should have had a $250 price tag on it, not a $25 price tag on it. It’s one of the things that I think we do pay attention to now with our students. You don’t want to over price your work but you don’t want to give it away either. I was so naïve about those things. And 25 bucks was 25 bucks back then…
But one of my first commissions as a student was from Ford Motor Company, which wanted a bronze bust of a retiring Vice President. They had asked Bill but he was too busy so he recommended me. So I went to the Ford Plant at Brook Part. I was probably 22 but I looked 16. I walked in with my portfolio, they liked my portfolio and they had no time to look for anyone else. So they got me pictures of the retiring Vice President and I made the clay model and called them to come to my studio in my apartment on Hessler Road. I didn’t want to put the clay model in my car and drive it across town because I knew it might get damaged. So they show up in a Lincoln Town Car, these four guys in suits, and they come in my front door and had to walk up the creaky stairs and back then those houses on Hessler were in way worse shape than they are now. Anyway, I could see the looks on these guys’ faces, like ‘Oh God, what are we getting into here.’
I had the head facing the doorway so they would see it as soon as they walked in, and they were so thrilled, the man who was the manager of the plant was beside himself. He couldn’t believe how lifelike it looked. He was so taken by this that he invited me downtown to what was at that time the Sheraton Hotel to have lunch with the mayor at the time and a state senator. He just invited me to have lunch be he wanted to brag about this kid from The Cleveland Institute of Art that’s doing this bust. Twice he had me to lunch. That was fun for me because it was getting the recognition of the talent that I did have and it was, ‘Wow, this is a great way to get to meet people that I ordinarily would not ever get to meet.’ And that’s been true in my life as an artist.
After CIA, graduate school?
Right after graduation, when I was working for Bill McVey, I had been accepted into an MFA program at UCLA and was thinking I would go there; although the place I really wanted to go was Cranbrook, but I didn’t get in. Bill got a phone call from the head sculptor at Boston University. They had done a search for a sculpture instructor and they had 300 people that they looked at and they didn’t like any of them. What they were looking for someone who could handle the figure, and at that time in the late 60s, abstract expressionism was big and minimal art was on the verge so there weren’t too many artists out there really studying the figure and BU was a place where they liked to do that. So Bill knew that I had a passion for doing that kind of work so I put together a portfolio, sent it off, immediately got an interview, got the job. So instead of going to graduate school when I had no money, I decided I’ll take this teaching job.
I remember talking with Bill after my first semester of teaching at BU. One of the things I loved about him was he was a very honest guy. Almost all of my students were women and more than once a young woman came up and showed me her engagement ring and I started to wonder how many of these people really wanted to be artists. Bill told me a story about going to dinner at the home of a former student, a woman who had started a family and never pursued art professionally, and she had her children show Bill their artwork. Bill said it was like a lightning bolt had hit him; he saw what she had passed on to those kids and he realized that he had passed his enthusiasm on to her. So he said ‘Who am I to decide who I’m going to teach and how much I’m going to give. My job is to give as much as I can to everybody that comes in front of me.’ I realized he was right. Statistically, it’s a small percentage of people who 10 years out of college are doing what they started out to do. But it doesn’t mean that the remainder of those students aren’t having creative wonderful lives. And it is part of your job as a teacher to stimulate that; and you’re doing it through teaching art. That just reinforced my love for continuing to teach.
You only stayed at BU for a year?
Yes. I learned two important things at BU. One was I was going to enjoy teaching on a college level; the other thing I learned other was I was going to be paid based on my degree. I got $5,000 for being an instructor for the year at Boston University in 1967. I loved my experience there but I decided that I really did want and need to go to graduate school so I applied to Cranbrook again. I had been rejected from Cranbrook the year before. Well I got in and I got a scholarship.
After I was at Cranbrook for a month, I asked Julius Schmidt, who was my teacher at the time, why I’d been rejected the first time I applied. And he said something like ‘We always had 3 or 4 or 5 students from the CIA here at Cranbrook and I just wanted to run an experiment and see what it would be like if we didn’t accept any.’ They didn’t accept any of us that particular year.
I learned never to take rejection personally; that there are so many factors that go on, sometimes so far beyond what you could even think about. But I did get in and I loved my experience there.
At Cranbrook, George Beasley (CIA class of 1967) and I helped Julius pour a 2,500 pound bronze pouring all in one pour, we had an iron cupola so we all learned how to do that. We had learned how to do bronze casting at CIA on a small scale and having that experience allowed me to get right into the work I wanted to do in graduate school, which was partly casting work.
After Cranbrook you got a teaching position at the University of Texas at El Paso.
Yes. I was in El Paso for the first two years after graduate school. It was fun there but I recognized it was 600 miles from a real career. I then spent 26 years at the University of Texas at Austin, five of those years I was a Department Chair, but still taught; my last two years there I was a Dean and did not teach, although I had loved teaching.
When I first got there, I was given a lot of assignments on faculty committees, partly because the senior faculty were reaching retirement age and there was a big turnover about to happen. I was asked in my second year of teaching there to head the task force to design a new graduate program for the University of Texas’s art department. It seemed like a natural thing for me to do, maybe that was something Bill McVey saw in me, that I had the ability to understand a lot of different viewpoints about things. I’ve always had a lot of friends from different backgrounds. Even in high school, I wasn’t in a clique; I enjoyed everybody that I met and got a kick out of what they did and I think Bill saw that.
One thing I loved about teaching I got as a student at CIA because the students and faculty have always been so close here. And I would say that, unlike some other art schools, because of the intensity of the studio experience that we have here, it’s just a close-knit experience. And the faculty love it because they keep learning. And this is something I learned from my own experience in teaching: if you keep exposing yourself to young minds, it keeps you going. It even keeps you questioning what you’re doing. Is it relevant? You’re always on your toes. In some cases it just reinforces what you’re doing.
Once you’re a teacher, you’re always a teacher. You hope that people are learning something from you and, like any good teacher, I continue to learn from all the people that are around me. So I think it’s a two-way thing. A good teacher never stops being a student.
Was it difficult to make the transition away from teaching and into administration?
I had the inkling that this was an area that I could offer some ingenuity and creativity. When you’re in an art department in a big university, it’s easy to sit back and let others take the lead on things and just devote your time to your teaching and your studio and that’s it.
But I started at the University of Texas at a time when the bulk of the faculty were in retirement mode. They were at the end of 30- and 40-year careers and there were a lot of people at retirement age at one time. And so there was a lot of re-hiring going on and I was among five new hires in the studio area in one year. The older professors handed us things they were tired of, including restructuring programs. Because of that, I think I gained the respect of both my peers and students and the confidence that this is an area of interest that I could handle.
During my time in Texas I was twice the Chair of the whole studio area, which represented about 40 full-time studio art faculty. I was responsible for scheduling all those classes, taking care of faculty issues as it related to the department. Seven years before I came back to CIA, I was asked to be interim Department Chair over a department of art and art history with about 1,000 students. I took that on not really thinking that I would be the Chair permanently. I really took it on just because there was a need and I felt that I could do it and was encouraged to do it. But after doing it for a short time, I enjoyed it and it felt right and my colleagues seemed to appreciate the role that I had taken on.
What did you like about being a Department Chair?
When you’re just a faculty member, it’s easy to ignore what the structure of an institution really is and how money flows and how decisions get made. Sometimes it’s just easier to take potshots when you don’t agree with something but you really don’t want to know how all that stuff works. And this was an opportunity for me to really find out how things work.
As a sculptor, you work in three dimensions and you talk about structure a lot. Is that how you see things, in structures?
Sculptors sort of have to know what’s inside, what’s outside, if you turn it, do you get something else, does it all fit together. Yeah, there are some correlations there.
Anyway, that felt good; it felt like I was doing something I was maybe pre-designed to do. The other part is, I genuinely like people. And I even like difficult people, I’ll use that term, because in academia, it doesn’t even have to be an art school, there are a lot of very smart ambitious, aggressive people with a lot of great ideas and if you get in a position like a Department Chair or a Dean or even a President, you have to recognize that all of that exists and you can’t just blow it off. Whether you agree with somebody on a particular position or not, you become an orchestra leader and you have to build consensus and get people moving in a direction around an idea and don’t take anything personally.
I think I was lucky; I learned that very early in life. I very rarely take it as a personal affront when something goes sour.
So again, I enjoy working with people and I enjoy the fact that a great idea can come from anywhere. Part of your job as a leader is, instead of squishing a new idea before it can develop, is allow it to develop to the point where you can start making decisions about whether you’re going to implement it or not for various reasons. Ideas are what we’re all about; an art school is all about ideas.
So was it a good move for you, going into administration?
It’s always a mixed bag because you’re having to diminish another aspect of what you were doing. So by moving into an administrative position, structurally they allowed me to only teach one class, whereas I was teaching two classes before, but still devoted to my studio; there was no question about that. I never left the studio. On occasion I would miss going to the studio because of some obligation, but it just meant I’d work harder once I did get there.
I’ve never been the type of artist that sits around drinking coffee and smoking for an hour before I get inspired to do work. When I go to the studio, I’m at work; I plunge right in and I stay there until my wife, Annie, calls me and tells me to get home.
The other thing I can honestly say is that when I’m doing my job at school, I’m concentrating on that. When I’m in my studio, I’m not thinking about anything else; I’m thinking about my artwork.
But I’ve always had the curiosity about how things get done. And when I became a Department Chair at a big university, all of a sudden I was pulled into meetings across the university for different things and I started to more fully recognize the wealth of knowledge and the creativity of people all across a big university and I also recognized the input that I would have. So it was a good experience. It was another reinforcement of my instinct that told me that artists need to be part of a bigger community. I tell students all the time, ‘If 10 years after you graduate all your friends are artists, you’re in trouble. You really need to understand what your community’s all about, what you can be doing toward the betterment of that community.’ I think artists are sometimes surprised when they finally start to engage and other people respect what they have to say. So I felt the warmth of that camaraderie with a lot of other administrators.
When you get to that position, you also get to travel around the world for conferences and those experiences certainly open your mind to other ideas and other systems and other ways of doing things.
Is it a stretch to talk about applying the problem-solving skills you honed as an artist to the problems you confront as an administrator in higher education?
Like the artist in the studio, the administrator in higher education trying to define directions and programs has to try things out sometimes and sometimes you won’t get it exactly right the first time you try it out so you tweak it and revisit it and see if it really has the legs that it needs and then go with it.
Talk about the decision to take the job at CIA. You had a pretty good job at the University of Texas at the time.
Every year that we were in Texas we would come back to Cleveland to visit family. I would go see Bill McVey (class of 1928, taught at CIA 16 years), sometimes I’d see John Clague (class of 1956, taught at CIA 12 years) and Jerry Aidlin (class of 1961, taught at CIA 21 years). So I would make the rounds and see some of the folks, John Paul Miller (class of 1940, taught 53 years). I knew Joe McCullough very well from my time as a student (class of 48, director of CIA for 34 years).
Then the last few years Bob Mayer was President, he told me he was going to retire and he told me I should consider taking the job. I had never thought of it and I was taken aback, but I pretty much blew it off. This was at a time when I was the interim Dean in Austin, and my hat was in the ring for becoming the Dean.
One day somebody asked me if I would ever leave the University of Texas. Well I’d been there 26 years and my response was, ‘I couldn’t imagine what could ever pull me away.’ My career had been there, my studio was there; I had a great job as Dean. The next morning, the President of the University called me and offered the job as Dean. Half an hour after that phone call was over, someone from the executive search firm for CIA called me asking if I might want to consider being the next President of The Cleveland Institute of Art.
I had just accepted the Dean’s job. I basically said ‘Gosh, there’s no way I could consider this at this time.’ But I do remember that the last thing I said to him was, ‘You’ve got to know I’m tearing up on this phone call saying that I couldn’t consider this position because I love the place and I’ve always considered The Cleveland Institute of Art the place that made me who I am as an artist, so my loyalty is always going to be there. So I hung up and pretty much thought there goes that.
Near the end of the day, I got a call from Paul Brentlinger, who was the Chair of CIA’s Board at the time. He said he understood I was pretty well locked in at University of Texas. He asked if I’d be willing to help with their search effort. I said I would do whatever I could, offered to talk to search committee members when I was going to be in Cleveland in the next few weeks and share my ideas about what they should be looking for. When I got through a two and a half hour meeting with them, I realized that they were interviewing me.
After the meeting I told Paul that I was very moved but that nothing had changed for me at the University of Texas in the two weeks since we’d spoken. He said ‘We’re prepared to put in an interim President and wait for you.’ Probably in my gut I thought, ‘How can I not think seriously about this?’ It was a hard decision, making a move from being planted so securely there in Austin. I loved Austin; there’s no question about it. But your appreciation for your alma mater sometimes can win out. It was coming home…
(Longtime faculty member) Franny Taft was an influence too. Franny came to my studio one time in Austin, as much as seven or eight years before this, and I think Franny’s encouragement had some influence on my coming back. It wasn’t hard to come back to Cleveland; but it was hard to leave Texas.
What were some of the challenges you faced when you took the helm at CIA?
When I came back to CIA and got a good look at the curriculum, there was so much great stuff going on but there was no real digital art program at all. Some faculty had interest in this and some students were doing some work in this area, but there were no courses, there was no curriculum and no real goal for those artists. I recognized that this was a field that was gong to be changing dramatically year by year and growing, just because of the proliferation of computers.
I fairly quickly assembled a task force of alumni who had gotten into animation, even though they didn’t study it at CIA, to look into the development of a digital arts program and I’m very glad we did that. This is not an area of my personal interest at all, but when you get to the role of being an administrator, you can’t design things based on what you do. You shouldn’t be doing that as a teacher either; I learned that early on. I look at the bigger picture.
The other issue I saw immediately was that we had two buildings falling apart, literally falling apart, and I recognized the simplicity of the problem. The acquisition of the McCullough building was a great buy, but I don’t think anyone was ever thinking about moving the whole Institute there. So the plan to make it usable was to rent out some of the space, which the Institute did.
But it didn’t get renovated enough to get usable enough and attractive enough; what it did was add a dramatic amount of space for the number of students we had. As I traveled around the country other AICAD Presidents were so impressed with the amount of space we had. But it was a blessing and a problem at the same time.
Early on, after arriving, I recognized the problems of the split campus, having two buildings half a mile apart. It wasn’t conducive to having the kind of camaraderie and learning by osmosis that happens at the level that I had felt when I was here, because when I was here we were all in one place. It was crowded, but crowded to me is always better than too much space. When you’re crowded, you have people running into each other and having dialogs about your work and what you’re doing and your thinking and that was what was exciting about The Cleveland Institute of Art. You all felt you were all students in the art school and it didn’t matter what your major was. So on that level alone, I thought we needed to do something about it.
When I arrived, the board handed me this plan for re-skinning the Gund building and asked what I thought about it. I did think a lot about it. I questioned how we would raise $10-18 million to re-skin one building and you still had the other building that needed dramatic help; and how were you going to raise that money to fix this building up? I just didn’t see that as fixing much.
So it wasn’t hard to convince most of the board members that we needed to consider a consolidated campus; in my view the challenge was to get them to think about the McCullough site as the site rather than the Gund site. We had to do an analysis and we did. We hired a consultant to work with us to do an analysis of what it might cost to consolidate at the Gund site VS the McCullough site. The bottom line was that it was going to cost way over $100 million to consolidate on the East Boulevard site. It would have required underground parking, at a very high cost.
While that was happening, MOCA Cleveland (the Museum of Contemporary Art) approached me about wanting to be closer to us, and then Case Western Reserve University was talking about wanting to change the environment so there was a vibrant day and night life for students in University Circle. So that’s when we realized that the McCullough site could be a major part of a broader development effort that would bring new excitement to University Circle. That’s when we all started to partner, and fortunately it’s going to happen. That simply reinforced my notion that building the single campus around the McCullough Center was the thing to do.
The historic nature of the McCullough building also opened the possibility of generating significant tax credit dollars. The $17 million in historic and new market tax credit dollars that we’re getting for our new campus project at the McCullough site helped make it possible.
It was the only way we could really take care of rebuilding our campus and getting our facilities to the point that we didn’t have to worry about something falling apart and costing us a ton of money and having to jack up tuition or raid the endowment to get the money to pay for repairs. My mission was to make everything sustainable going forward.
We also recognized that the value of the Gund site was a major asset toward our goal, whether we sell, lease, or keep it for programmatic purposes, it’s still an important piece of what we do.
If we sell it or lease it, that money can help create an endowment to cover the care for the facilities.
I have no question in my mind that the decision to move the entire school to the McCullough site is a good thing. It puts our students in an environment where you can go out and get something to eat, you can get your laundry taken care of you can buy what you need, you can go out at night and enjoy yourself. It’s more like being in the kind of urban environment that exists at many of our competitor schools in Chicago, Toronto, New York, and Providence, where the immediate environment is rich. Being an eight minute walk from the Cleveland Museum of Art isn’t going to keep any of our faculty, staff or students from going there and continuing to build that relationship.
Being close to MOCA is very important, from my point of view, especially for the fine arts students as they start to get more deeply involved in their major work; they’re going to be less in tune with history and more in tune with what’s going on today and where they’re going with their work and that’s why being in close proximity to MOCA makes so much sense for us. Our students intern there, they help living artists who are often just at the beginning of their career and they get to see what that’s like and talk with those people and often get to be friends with them. That’s important to the development of contemporary students.
From fairly early on, you pushed for better career preparation. In fact, you made the Business and Professional Practices course mandatory for graduation.
I saw when I got here that there was a really good elective course on business practices. I’d get invited to visit the class and participate every now and then. My observation was that probably the bulk of the students that elected to take the class were the ones that needed it the least and that this needed to be mandatory and that it needed to be more than just a class. I think the faculty have done a pretty good job preparing students for the world out there. It’ll never be enough; we’ll be constantly fine tuning it.
It used to be that many art school grads could make a living teaching art while they continued to work on their artwork. There are not as many opportunities to do that now so people have to be more inventive. I think more professional preparation is happening now so I take some pride in helping to influence that.
I really believe that if you have any kind of a developed antenna of your own, you can sniff out opportunities and figure out how you’re going to live… I think the school always did a pretty good job of that but in these days you have to formalize that. Developing a strong career office, as we have recently done, is a great step in that direction.
The Director of our Career Center likes to help students see what transferable skills they already have and can apply toward careers, even as they continue working on their art.
Which is great. Art schools should be all about developing transferable skills. I really believe that. I think some of our graduates may not ever be designers or artists. They may choose to be something else but they will be good at that something else because of the skill development that they had when they were here. They have transferable skills and you see that all the time.
Early in my Presidency, I went to visit Jack Wrobbel (class of 1953). He was one of the two people who established the licensing and developed the visual identity and branding for the NFL. He was very successful, was able to retire early. I asked him how he applied what he learned in art school. He said ‘I was always the guy with the ideas at the table. I could always think through how to develop an idea and pursue it.’ So his art school experience was very important to his success.
Sort of like a football player who goes to a big university hoping to play for the NFL. He may not make the NFL, but that training and that focus helps him to be successful at whatever he does pursue. It’s the same with art students; they have skills that can be transferred to whatever they want to apply them to. The percentage of students from any college or university who, 10 years after graduation, are primarily doing that thing that they studied, is a very small percentage, but it doesn’t mean the bulk of those graduates are not having a great life because of that experience.
Apart from the problems with the physical plant, what other challenges were apparent to you early on?
I would say the biggest challenge for the Institute is always financial. We’re no different than any college. I don’t care if you’re at one of the mega art schools or one of the smaller art schools; it’s just a difference of scale. We’re all in the same boat. Every college and university across the country, for probably over a decade, is faced with escalating costs, and those costs are related to all the things that you want to provide. You want to provide the very best service to your students.
Back when I was a student, you did everything on your own. There are greater expectations now from not only from the students but from their parents as well. You have parents who are watching everything that their kids are doing and wanting to be involved and there’s a lot of good in that, but sometimes they’re not quite ready to let their youngsters go and grow on their own. So you have to provide much more support for the students, or at least that’s the perception.
So the challenge hasn’t gone away and it won’t go away. It’s going to be there haunting us until new business models can be developed. I’ve struggled with that and we’ve gone through a number of changes structurally within the Institute during the time that I’ve been President, to try things out. To see if they can work better and cost less. That will be something the next President will have to continue working on. Because it’s all about the sustainability of the institution: how do you keep the quality up and do it more efficiently. And this is what our nation’s facing. How do we make things more economically feasible and still get the quality that you want, and even better quality…
I know that some of our students live on pennies, but everybody lived on pennies when I was a student. I’d have six or seven jobs during the year. The major difference between then and now is that in doing that you were able to make enough money to cover your own expenses. That’s impossible now.
The other challenge that I could see early on was that the Institute was truly a well-kept secret. When our board recognized that we had to do something dramatic about fixing the campus, that meant going out and raising a lot of money. Well the Institute didn’t have a history of doing that. When the Gund building was built, George Gund was President of the board and he basically called a few of his friends and made this happen. It wasn’t the classic capital campaign. When George passed away in 1966, it was like Novocain wearing off. My perception has always been that, especially at a small college, the president needs to be out in the public in a fundraising mode. There’s nothing like a fundraising campaign to get people to identify who you are, what you are, why you’re important and why they should help. We hadn’t been doing that to anywhere near the extent that we should have.
Once it was clear to everyone that we had to consolidate the campus and raise significant money to do so, the question became ‘Are you ready, as an institution, to be out there raising money?’ And we hired a consultant to do a campaign feasibility study, interviewing a lot of people in the community, and, we quickly realized that we weren’t ready. Nobody knew who we were.
Many people confused The Cleveland Institute of Art with the Cleveland Museum of Art; others assumed CIA was part of CWRU. We found very few people understanding that we’re a long-time, independent, private institute of art, and they were shocked when we would tell them that we’re 25 years older than the museum …and that was here in Cleveland! So we recognized that we had a lot of awareness building that we needed to do before we could launch a capital campaign.
So what did you do to get the word out?
Very early on, recognizing I was going to have spend a lot of my time out away from the school in the community, I became a member of the county commissioners’ task force on economic development and made sure that I was a voice there. I gave a few presentations at different times and I could see business leaders around the community starting to realize how the CIA was important. Through recommendations from board members, I was able to get on the 50 Club, part of the Union Club. We meet once a month; it’s another way to be in the mix with community leaders at a very high level. Every time I go to those I try to sit at a different table and talk to someone I haven’t talked to before about The Cleveland Institute of Art. I recognize that as a President of an institution, that’s where you need to focus your attention or raising funds simply won’t happen. So I get myself into all these things.
I’ve been on Cuyahoga County Board of Developmental Disabilities for nine years; I was President one year. I’m also on board of John Jay School of Architecture and Design; I was on the board of the Artist Archives of the Western Reserve; I’ve agreed to be on the Economic Development Work Group for Cuyahoga County. These involvements are important for building community awareness of the institute, which you have to have going into a capital campaign.
It also reinforces, again, my theories about how artists should be involved citizens … not continuing to develop this myth that the artist goes and hides out and then wonders why nobody has found them. Any time somebody tells me they’re a starving artist I want to kick them in the shins. I feel that’s their fault; that’s not anybody else’s. You don’t have to be a starving artist. There are ways to live and continue doing your work. If you really are inventive and creative, you’ll find a way.
Those are the overwhelming challenges… and they’ll never end. They’re the biggest challenges that every president has. And the solutions don’t come because you have all the solutions. You have to surround yourself with other people who have great ideas and gusto, willingness to stick their necks out. We’ve been fortunate at the Institute with some great hires over the years, some of whom are still here; some of whom have since left us, but they’re people who have great ideas and are willing to work for them.
One of the biggest changes during your tenure was the switch from a five-year to a four-year BFA program. Was that a big priority for you?
I look on that change with mixed emotions. Deep in my heart I didn’t want to lose the five-year program. But I recognized that perpetuating it could kill us off. And frankly if we hadn’t made the change when we did, can you imagine trying to recruit students for a five-year program in this economy? I was starting to see too many parents walking out of our financial aid office, sometimes with tears in their eyes, saying ‘I really wanted my kid to come here but there’s no way I can afford five years of tuition.’
Becoming a four-year college was necessary; it was something that had been talked about for probably 30 years, and we finally had to bite the bullet and do it. And I know a lot of alumni were unhappy. If I hadn’t come back to be President and I’d simply read about the change, I probably would have been upset too because I know how valuable that fifth year was to me personally. But frankly the cost to me personally of attending the Institute for five years was so miniscule compared to now. Between scholarships and odd jobs, I got through fine. I didn’t owe a penny when I left.
Part of what I hope we can do, and it’s laid out as a priority in our new strategic plan, would be to find a way to re-capture some of the strength of that five-year program, as an optional offering. We’re looking at what options can you offer people that can create added value. Those are things that we’re looking at now. But just as a package, there’s no way we could have kept that mandatory five-year BFA program.
I guess that’s where leadership comes in; when you have to embrace something that you know is going to be unpopular with people like yourself.
Oh yes. This is where not taking things personally comes in, too. You hear from people who are unhappy and you can understand why they’re upset.
Leadership means being able to recognize great ideas that are coming from people who work with you. Not every great idea gets implemented. But you don’t squish them. It’s the same with artwork. I get into my studio and come up with all kinds of ideas of things I’d like to do, but then I have to prioritize them; I can’t afford to do all of them.
As I went from being a Department Chair to a Dean and then President of The Cleveland Institute of Art, I took on so much more of the responsibility. And I can clearly say I have no regrets making those transitions.
As a Dean at the University of Texas, there were a whole bunch of Vice Presidents and a President above me, and the school was the main university in a system of 14 universities with a board of regents. I was never privy to those people; so things could be going on that I had no control over. I was still sort of blind to a lot of things.
Taking on the Presidency of the Institute, I was it. I’ve been guided by a board, but I’m responsible for the management. The board hires and fires the management. And so you have to work with the board, give them the sense that your vision is proper for the school and that you’re doing all the things needed to get to that vision and solicit their help. But their job is not to run the school; their job is to hire and fire a president and take the fiscal responsibility for the institution. Fortunately we’ve built a really good board during my tenure and there are a number of board members who have served for many years.
So all that responsibility fell in your lap, and so did the legacy of so many who shaped the institution before you.
I’ve got a lot invested personally here because I was a student and I love the place and I want everything good to happen. I will say, and I really mean this, I can only take partial credit for anything we accomplished during my tenure because you can’t do this stuff alone. We’ve got a lot of wonderful people here throughout the staff, the administration and the faculty… It takes a lot of good devoted people and they don’t always agree on everything…and despite that, you keep moving forward and you keep improving things. And you realize that not only can you not take full credit for everything, you didn’t do it all. You may have planted a seed and pushed folks in a particular direction, but unless the idea was a good one, you don’t get the response that you need.
How would you like people to remember you as the President of CIA?
Just in a general way that I helped steer the Institution in a good direction. We are all temporary in our positions. I look back at Joe McCullough’s 34 years as President and I think holy cow, how did he do that for that long? It was a different era that he mentored the Institute through, different kinds of challenges; but you do look back and have great respect. Imagine all the ups and downs that would have happened over a 34-year period. So, mine’s 12 years. I’m definitely not going to beat Joe’s record. Twelve is enough. I take pride in that I got to do this for that length of time.
It’s hard to say what you want to be remembered by… just personally I think you want to be remembered as somebody who could listen. And when I say listen that meant that I really listened. And that I acted in a responsible way serving the Institute’s best interests. That’s the best that I could ask for.
For more information about this or other CIA news, contact us here.