At the age of 29, Paula Wallace set out to start an art and design university, after leaving her job as a grade-school teacher. Crafting her own curriculum from scratch, she wanted to create a space for young artists to turn their dreams into careers. She founded the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) in 1978.
Next year, SCAD will celebrate 40 years, having greatly expanded in Savannah (restoring and renovating historic sites along the way) and to campuses in Atlanta, Hong Kong, and Lacoste. Wallace was named President in 2000 and oversaw the opening of the SCAD Museum of Art in 2011. After visiting the annual SCAD deFINE ART program earlier this year, Whitewall spoke with Wallace about the upcoming anniversary, the role of the art educator, her own personal collection, and new projects like SCAD Art Sales.
WHITEWALL: SCAD is coming up on its 40-year anniversary. As the founder, of what significance is this anniversary for you?
PAULA WALLACE: Savannah, where SCAD first began in 1978, is an old colonial city where history lives in the eternal present. The architecture, the sidewalks, the immense oaks, the very air itself is historic, filled with stories. It’s a place where one measures life, not in years, but in generations. That’s what this upcoming anniversary is about: generations. SCAD has been in existence now for 40 years—and 40 years, that’s two full generations of creative professionals, some 40,000 alumni who have reshaped the world.
WW: Since you were named President of SCAD in 2000, the school has seen an incredible expansion—a large increase in students; sites in Atlanta, Lacoste, and Hong Kong (in addition to Savannah); major programming like the Savannah Film Festival, SCAD deFINE ART, SCADstyle, Sidewalk Arts Festival, and SCAD aTVfest. What to you has been the biggest success?
PW: The greatest success of SCAD is the university’s 98 percent alumni employment rate. Everything we do—creating curriculum, hiring faculty, rehabilitating historic structures across the world, the very organizational structure of SCAD—must align with the SCAD mission to prepare talented students for professional careers. The many laurels in the SCAD crown are the result of that clarion focus on launching the careers of students and alumni.
WW: The SCAD Museum of Art opened in 2011 and has put on many important exhibitions, with programming that focuses on solo shows and collaborations with contemporary artists. What are the advantages of solo shows and site-specific artist projects?
PW: The university cherishes its Southern roots, being the first elite arts university in the South, founded by Southerners. The classic verities of the South still hold true at SCAD across the globe: warmth, hospitality, community, history, story, and perhaps most central of all, place. At SCAD, place matters. This is one reason we privilege site-specific installations and exhibitions. The site of the SCAD Museum of Art, the oldest extant railroad complex in North America, built in part with slave labor, approaches the sacred. Many of the original walls are visible in the design. Artists immediately sense the power of the space; they long to touch it, and be touched by it. There’s a dialogue. Hank Willis Thomas illustrated this with the recent exhibition “Blind Memory,” filling each of the four Jewel Boxes on the façade of SCADMOA with tobacco, cotton, rice, and indigo—agricultural products from nearby plantations. Most important, SCADMOA is a teaching museum where celebrated artists like Chiharu Shiota, Michael Joo, Xu Bing, and Carlos Cruz-Diez invite SCAD students and alumni to assist with their exhibitions and to exhibit alongside.
WW: This year was the eighth edition of SCAD deFINE ART. How have you seen the event evolve? How important is it for you each year to address current social issues?
PW: SCAD deFINE ART has emerged in recent years as one of the world’s premier art festivals, advancing the conversation and asking the questions that matter most to our students: What is the artist’s role in culture? How does an artist build a career? What is the current state of the art market, and how is it changing? To address these and more questions, SCAD attracts a host of artists who are shaping how we know and inhabit the quotidian world, such as Carrie Mae Weems, Xu Bing, Alfredo Jaar, Shirin Neshat, Marina Abramović, and Fred Wilson. Earlier this year, SCAD deFINE ART 2017 welcomed French-Venezuelan artist Carlos Cruz-Diez, whose work asks fundamental questions about perception and ontology. We want students to know that their work should ask questions about today (e.g., climate change, politics, notions of privilege) and the perennial questions, too, about existence, meaning, love.
WW: On your Instagram account, you recently shared that you have a mixed media work by Sarah Walko outside of your office. What work did you choose for inside your office, and why?
PW: I curate my workspace like a gallery, filling it with conversation pieces. Inside my office, a large, kaleidoscopic work by SCAD alumna Meredith Pardue hangs over a window. Above the mantel, “Liberty” by alumnus Michael Scoggins holds pride of place, as well as three mother-and-child bronzes by SCAD professor Susan Krause. On a side table, I placed a mixed media work by alumnus Masud Olufani—an exquisite portrait inside a sardine can emblazoned with “each one a universe.” Four enamel paintings by SCAD professor Matthew Stromberg anchor the corners, each work covered in high-gloss automotive paint and then sprayed with a semiautomatic rifle at close range, creating surprisingly delicate patterns. The incongruity of these four works definitely spurs conversation with my guests. A few of my other favorite touches: a vintage Asian brass floral floor lamp, plus books, books, books. Admittedly, I rotate the art in my office every few months. Life changes, and art changes, too.
WW: Over the past several years, you’ve conducted interviews with people like Calvin Klein, Prabal Gurung, Zac Posen, Arianna Huffington, André 3000, Lynn Yaeger, Alfredo Jaar, Mike Myers. Did any of those interviews particularly surprise you, or was there something said that you really took to heart?
PW: It’s been such an honor to share wide-ranging conversations with popular culture’s leading lights. Every SCAD visitor has gems to share. For example, in my interview with André Benjamin, he revealed that he’d once applied to SCAD, the very same year he and Big Boi formed Outkast. And I clearly recall sitting down with the perennially youthful Mike Myers, who told me the story of how, during the making of Wayne’s World, the studio tried to get him to drop “Bohemian Rhapsody” and use a more current song—and how he fought hard against this change… thereby creating one of the great comedic set-pieces of the last 25 years.
It’s spring, so the SCAD universe is preparing for the SCAD Fashion Shows in Savannah and Atlanta. I’m reminded of the wisdom that SCAD guest and Vogue legend Lynn Yaeger shared with our fashion students. She said, “Don’t just be a fashion person who looks at fashion.” If you know Lynn, from her personal style to her wry fashion tales, you know that she’s a genuine polymath of the classic school. She advises aspiring writers to pretend they’re having a conversation with a friend when they write.
WW: What is the role of an art educator in remaining on the cutting edge of the art and design fields of SCAD’s programs?
PW: SCAD endeavors to be the preeminent source of knowledge in every discipline we teach—a feat we accomplish by listening attentively to two audiences: our students and the professions they’re preparing to enter. If you pay close attention to what the students say and do (and wear), they will tell you where the culture’s headed. I can honestly say that the best ideas at SCAD have come from the students. Students recommended a degree program in fashion, intercollegiate athletics teams (think fishing!), and SCAD’s bike share program. SCAD listened.
SCAD also listens carefully to the creative professions—to learn whom they’re hiring, what they’re working on now, what challenges they’re facing as a brand and an industry. We listen actively by inviting the leaders in these professions to SCAD, engaging them to serve in an advisory capacity for academic schools within the university, and by partnering with them in real-world projects with the SCAD Collaborative Learning Center (CLC). At the SCAD CLC, organizations including BMW, Microsoft, Google, NASA, and Coca-Cola (and many other companies who hire our graduates) present client briefs to our students.
One guest from the fashion world suggested that we teach fragrance. Now, we do. An Imagineer suggested that SCAD create a major in themed entertainment. We did. The SCAD faculty and administration compile all of these ideas—from students, the professions, and from our own ongoing internal assessments—to refine and reshape SCAD’s accredited undergraduate and graduate programs to benefit the next generation of creative professionals.
WW: What value do you place on the role of alumni at SCAD?
PW: First and foremost, we seek to serve our alumni in the very same way we serve current students. At SCAD, alumni are not defined primarily for their value as a potential fundraising source; instead, we ask how the university can continue to support them in their professional aspirations. SCAD is so committed to this service-minded spirit that seven years ago we combined career services and alumni services into SCAD career and alumni success (CAS). Every SCAD alumnus is assigned a CAS adviser and has the privilege of working with that adviser, even years after graduation, on interview skills, networking skills, portfolio development, and more.
We also revel in every opportunity to invite alumni back to SCAD. Students benefit when they see alumni thriving in their professions. These graduates return as SCAD Alumni Mentors—this year alone, the university welcomed back 76 alumni who currently work for Instagram, Apple, Sony, Google, Target, Pixar, Amazon, Marc Jacobs, and more. Olivia West (M.F.A., themed entertainment, 2015) is one alumna who has recently been on campus. She is currently employed as a writer for Universal Creative.
One of my proudest alumni-focused initiatives, the SCAD Alumni Atelier, is a funded residency program in which alumni live and work at SCAD for a full academic quarter, nurtured by SCAD’s community of creative spirits and sponsored entirely by the university. For example, just this past fall, alumnus Madison Hamburg spent 10 weeks in Savannah creating his 30-minute film, “The Making of a Documentary,” giving students hands-on experience in professional filmmaking. Madison is using his short film to secure funding for a full-length documentary.
WW: Can you tell us about the idea behind SCAD Art Sales?
PW: Every time I welcome a new visitor to a SCAD building, they ask me about the art we display in the hallways, classrooms, and offices. When I tell them this is the work of SCAD students, alumni, and faculty, they often ask if any of the work is for sale. And so, we created SCAD Art Sales, an online marketplace that brings the work of SCAD artists to apartment hunters, new homeowners, hoteliers, interior designers, business owners, and stadium builders alike. We officially announced the program in December during SCAD AT MIAMI, which coincided with Art Basel Miami Beach, and the response has been absolutely incredible! So far, we’ve worked with clients including Facebook, the Gateway Renaissance Hotel in Atlanta, and the Soto and Perry Lane Hotels in Savannah. The same beautiful, thought-provoking work you see at every SCAD location can now be in your new home or office. Just go to www.SCADArtSales.com
WW: SCAD has recently been working to curate art for the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. Much of the work selected for the space is by Georgia Artists. Why was it important for you that the collection not only represent blue-chip international artists?
PW: The Mercedes-Benz Stadium represents the very soul of Georgia. This contemporary colosseum serves as the home of two beloved sports teams, the NFC Champion Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta United FC of the MLS. Arthur Blank, owner of these athletic organizations and visionary behind this grand new stadium, wanted to provide Georgia artists a platform to share their work with the world. SCAD is honored to curate the stadium’s vast art collection for the enjoyment of fans from around the world. The stadium and the collection, to be unveiled later this year, serve as a timeless embodiment of victory and the human spirit. It seems fitting to herald artists whose work was born of this region, artists who intimately know the stories and history of this special place we call Georgia.
WW: In April, SCAD debuted a new sculpture by Jedd Novatt on the Savannah campus. Why has public art, in Savannah and internationally, been of value for SCAD?
PW: I’ve long been entranced by the work of Jedd Novatt, an expatriate artist in Paris who studied at the Lacoste School of the Arts. Lacoste is now home to SCAD’s European campus. His sculptures, “Chaos Mundaka” at SCAD Atlanta and “Chaos Concepción,” to be installed at SCAD Savannah next month, enhance the built environment of the city and university. At its best, public art enchants the space it inhabits. Certainly, Jedd Novatt’s sculptures connect humanity with the sublime.
Just this quarter, SCAD students—in partnership with the Hotel Indigo through the SCAD Collaborative Learning Center—designed and placed a six-story art installation at the hotel’s new location in downtown Savannah. From classrooms to courtyards, public art exhilarates passersby and shows students how artists contribute to public discourse and civic engagement.
A version of this article appears in Whitewall’s spring 2017 Women in the Arts Issue, out next week.