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May 17, 2022

Portrait of a president

Upon his retirement, Grafton Nunes reflects on how he helped shape CIA

Retiring CIA President + CEO Grafton Nunes considers Cleveland his adopted hometown.

By Carlo Wolff

You can’t help notice the eccentric elegance of Grafton Nunes as he walks a gallery show at the Cleveland Institute of Art. The Edwardian haircut, those fabulous ties, the earring, his casual, sartorial flair, and his disarming smile suit Nunes as president of CIA, a school with a freewheeling culture all its own.

By virtue of his collegial style and the social and administrative skills he developed on his journey from film scholar to college president, Nunes has helped make CIA a more contemporary school of art and design, one more responsive to the forces of a changing, creative economy.

People who have worked with Nunes since he became CIA’s 10th President + CEO in 2010 cite his commitment, accessibility and open-mindedness as he prepares to retire June 30, paving the way for Kathryn Heidemann, now Senior Vice President of Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculty + Chief Operating Officer and Chief Academic Officer.

When Nunes left Emerson College in Boston, where he was founding dean of the School of the Arts, for Cleveland, CIA was in crisis, spending 15 percent of its endowment just to break even and keep its bifurcated campus operating. The eastern end of University Circle now marked by CIA and the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland was a bleak zone of unpaved parking lots, a failed business complex, and warnings against walking the neighborhood after dark. Nunes saw campus unification and revitalization to fruition, restructured the administration, and removed layers of management.

“It’s probably what I’m proudest of in terms of a building project,” he says of the new building. It’s “well-planned for the creation of art and the teaching of art, it’s clean and open and full of light, and people feel proud to work here.”

Nunes also established clear lines of authority, eliminating layers of administration. “I streamlined it so we could build a culture of ‘yes,’” he says. “When there are too many people with overlapping authority, the only way they can assert their authority is by saying ‘no.’ Everything was in conflict.”

No longer.

Now, after $75 million and six years of construction (finished in 2015), CIA is debt-free. It boasts a unified campus blending a restored Ford plant with a new, high-tech structure, creating an environment tailored toward the ingenuity that is the hallmark of the school—and of Nunes himself.

Nunes is a man apart yet thoroughly involved. That’s just the right straddle for a unique figure charged with leading a college chartered in 1882 as the Western Reserve School of Design for Women.

The school originally targeted young women who couldn’t find husbands “because all the young men were killed in the Civil War, and they didn’t want to be domestics so they were trained to be designers,” Nunes says. “Now, 34 percent of our student body are students of color. We are a bridge into our culture and a bridge toward expressing for the culture what each of these groups brings to the conversation.”

Nunes is no stranger to marginalization. “I actually never completely felt part of American culture—ever,” he says. A Navy brat, Nunes grew up largely in Portland, Maine, and always felt “a little bit distanced.” Perhaps that’s why the movies, which for much of his life were his career, absorbed him so deeply.

Before his family settled in Portland, they lived in several places, including Bremerhaven, Germany, still a ruin 10 years after the end of World War II. Nunes recalls living in an apartment building there surrounded by rubble, and when he came to America, nobody he knew had memories anything like his. They included mental pictures of a nanny whose face had been severely burned in the war and of displaced persons behind barbed wire at Dachau staring at him and his family as they toured that Nazi concentration camp northwest of Munich. Nunes grasped the notion of death early.

Raised Jesuit, Nunes attended the College of Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., earning a bachelor’s degree in English and religion. While he was working toward his PhD in English at Columbia University in New York City, he switched streams, enrolling in Columbia’s film school and immersing himself in the movies.

The movie that changed his life was Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. First, he was mystified, but he couldn’t stop thinking about it and saw it again. “How does this thing work?” he wondered. “It just intrigued me.”

Nunes earned his master’s of fine arts degree in film history, theory and criticism from Columbia. He introduced eight films (including 2001) for his friend John Ewing at the Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque over the past year and plans to write about film in his retirement.

Joys of CIA
From the start, it was clear to Nunes that CIA faculty and staff derive their pride in the institution from the students. At CIA, “they discover a community that understands them and respects them. They find a family. It’s so gratifying to see these young people arrive—literally, as children—and leave as young adults. The four years that they are at this school, their personal transformation is extraordinary, and this is an extremely rigorous school. They rise to the occasion.”

He saw such growth in his son, Matthew, the oldest of his six children. When Matthew arrived at CIA, “he did not have the best of habits, he was not happy at his previous institution, and I watched him become a different person,” Nunes says. Matthew learned how to manage time, to “own his decisions … and develop a sense of pride in his work and pride in the actual difficulty of what he was going through.”

Matthew Nunes says he hated pre-med at the University of New England in Maine, so he reached out to his father to ask if it would be OK to move to Cleveland. “Matt, the door’s always open,” father told son. “There’s always a room set up for you.”

Matthew didn’t want to attract attention as the son of the college president: “I actually wouldn’t tell anybody my dad was president until I sort of got to know them.” He didn’t want special treatment from teachers, either; if pressed, he’d say he was “distantly related” to his high-profile father. Matthew Nunes graduated from CIA in 2020 with a BFA in Photography.

His father “bridged a lot of gaps and resolved many outstanding issues, opening up communications so CIA could move forward to the next chapter,” Matthew Nunes says. Instead of “passive-aggressive emails that were not as productive as they could be, he brought people together in a space where they could be more productive.” Grafton Nunes was inclusive and “very much into having open dialogues and pathways of communication.”

Such a fit
The Cleveland Institute of Art gave Grafton Nunes a new lease on life. Married four times—twice to the same woman—Nunes was in the long tail of a brutal divorce from his third wife, who was the mother of their six children, when he arrived at CIA. Cleveland, with which Nunes had fallen in love in 1979 when he was research assistant on Light of Day, Paul Schrader’s rock ‘n’ roll movie, proved his salvation. (Nunes also produced director Kathryn Bigelow’s first film, The Loveless, with Willem Dafoe in his first lead role.)

Nearly 30 years later, when a headhunting firm sounded him about the CIA presidency, what came to mind was that first visit, which showed Nunes that Cleveland “is a city that values its culture—its high culture and its low culture, but its culture, a yeasty culture,” he says. “I love that, and it’s one of the reasons I came here. And when you look at the artists and the designers who were produced by this school, its contribution to the regional culture but also to the national discussion, I was honored to be approached.”

Nunes was in dire personal straits. He was turning 60, had lost most of his retirement savings in the divorce, was paying child support and alimony, and couldn’t afford rent. He was living in his brother’s back room in rural Maine and commuting to Emerson College. The previous fall, his wife filed for divorce. At that point in his life, when he felt “lower than a snake’s navel,” Nunes got the call to interview at CIA. His second interview featured inconveniences such as a raging snowstorm, a diverted flight to Detroit and a car ride to Cleveland. Nunes compartmentalized.

“It was all like a test: Do you have the fortitude? Do you have the ability to focus and get through this? I mean, I hadn’t slept in eight months,” he says. “And everybody was so, so good to me.”

Nunes says his interviewers knew he was going through a “personal dilemma,” but they didn’t know the details. “I kept it separate. It was strenuous, but I learned I could do it. It was the biggest challenge of my life.”

The finalists for successor to the noted sculptor David Deming as president of CIA were Nunes and a woman with a high-profile position at the University of Florida. Each was invited to a meet-and-greet with CIA faculty and staff, and the consensus favored Nunes, according to Gary R. Johnson, CIA board president when Nunes was hired.

The appeal of the female candidate was her level of attainment, Johnson says; she had accomplished more in a bigger career. But Nunes portrayed a strong commitment to art, and faculty felt like he connected with them.

“Two words struck me,” says Johnson. “One is ‘commitment’ and the other is ‘sincerity.’ That’s my distillation of what I found especially attractive about Grafton.”

Into the fray
If his personal circumstances were a challenge in 2010, the pandemic was Nunes’ greatest institutional trial.

In February 2020, he set up the COVID-19 Task Force that met every morning in the early stages of the pandemic. Despite differences of opinion on many levels, “at the end of the day, we were totally online from the day that the governor essentially closed us down in March of 2020 through May of ’20.”

Students who had paid for an entire year in residence halls and in-person classes protested. The school pro-rated housing costs and gave refunds, even though school officials didn’t know whether federal and/or state funds would be available to offset those refunds and reduce the financial pain; it eventually got some federal relief, which CIA passed on to students. The school reopened in August 2020 so students could access their studios, mentors and technology. Still, Nunes suggests, COVID has left permanent scars.

Before the virus got its isolating grip, Nunes says, students were moving toward social justice, engaging in projects outside their academic community. They have turned inward. “COVID has made people a lot more interior,” he says. “They became very self-reflective.”

There will be no dumbing down of the curriculum, “but we have to work harder to give students the tools to succeed because they didn’t get them for the last two years of high school. They missed out on their rites of passage, so they’re distrustful of education. We’ve got to get back that trust.”

At least for the next few years, repair is the byword. “The impact of these two years of COVID on the young people of America is profound, and I don’t think we know yet how it is going to impact the next generation’s attitudes about work, about education, about social relationships,” Nunes says. “In the midst of COVID, they’re dealing with George Floyd, they’re dealing with issues of social justice, of trusting the police—they’re carrying a lot of baggage.”

All of which president-designate Heidemann, a practitioner of rock ‘n’ roll herself, will have to help carry. Does Nunes have any advice for her?

“Maintain a sense of humor,” he says. “Hire the best and give them credit. And listen. It’s easy to pontificate, so listening is really important. Running the school with humanity and with humor is really important, and try not to be doctrinaire.”

How does Nunes view his job as captain of a unique school navigating treacherous waters? What does he take from his experience?

“I look at the last 12 years as the culmination of my professional career, the period where everything that I packed into my experience suitcase in the previous 35 years got taken out and used,” Nunes says. “I am most grateful for the warm, immediate and abiding welcome I received from the Cleveland community, and that includes the cultural, corporate and governmental aspects of that community. I have worked in New York, the West Coast and New England and never have I been treated with as much respect and affection as here in Northeastern Ohio.”

Nunes is especially proud of CIA’s modernized campus, which Sir David Adjaye, the noted British architect, once told him was the best designed school of art and design he had ever seen.

“Beyond that, I am proud of the spirit of community I tried to foster and maintain at this wonderful school,” Nunes says. “There is a spirit here that infuses the physical space and makes it shine. And that is what I will miss the most.”

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