At Large  August 1, 2019  Megan D Robinson

Art Talk: SCAD President Paula Wallace

Courtesy of SCAD

President Paula Wallace with students at SCAD's Fall 2018 Opening Night Reception

We sat down, virtually speaking, with Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) founder and President Paula Wallace to talk about art education, and how her life changed directions when she founded SCAD in 1978. Wallace started her educational career as an elementary school teacher who recognized the value of art in education. She wondered how her students’ creative needs would be met when she didn’t see any colleges nurturing art or promoting art careers in the way she thought necessary. 

In 1978, Wallace sold her car and, and with help from her family, co-founded a small, innovative art and design college with her former husband. Now considered the most comprehensive art and design university in the United States, Savannah College of Art and Design is a private, nonprofit, accredited university for creative careers, with locations in Atlanta and Savannah, Georgia; Hong Kong; and Lacoste, France; as well as an award-winning eLearning program. Founded on the revolutionary idea that an art school could foster both the creativity and the careers of its students, SCAD intentionally nurtures creative expression and provides real world connections and experience. Innovative educational opportunities are promoted through museum immersions, art festivals and film fairs.

Wallace has had some amazing experiences, as an art educator and an advocate of the arts. She is also an author and designer, and her new memoir, The Bee and the Acorn, shares her process as well as some fun stories about her encounters with the talented artists, actors, directors and designers she met through her work.

Courtesy of SCAD

Paula Wallace early in her education career

Megan D Robinson: You started your career as an elementary school teacher. Why did you decide to branch out into higher education and start a university for art and design back in 1978?

Paula Wallace: When I taught elementary school, my students performed original musicals, made films, and built circuses. We even went on rogue field trips to see the King Tut exhibit seven hours away! As each class progressed, my students thrived and, of course, had fun. I infused art and creativity into everything I taught, and I watched as art and design became a vehicle for teaching practically every subject. 

I encouraged my colleagues and school leaders to craft similar approaches, but schools are cumbersome, hard to change. Knowing that, and seeing that I had an opportunity to revolutionize education for others, I created SCAD. There was nothing like it in higher education. Nobody believed art and careers could go hand in hand! My hope was that SCAD would prepare young artists, designers, and thinkers to change the world and foster innovation everywhere they went. And that is exactly what's happening today. Through ventures like our design consultancy, SCADpro, tomorrow's designers are creating next-gen products that improve people's lives today. Students are collaborating with industry leaders from Google, Disney, NASA, Delta, and dozens more. And they're getting hired on the spot!

MDR: All of the SCAD locations are centered around beautiful, historically significant architecture. Why has preserving these buildings been a priority for the school? What challenges have there been repurposing them for educational use? 

PW: Old buildings teach students regard for creators who came before. Learners experience within six planes the concept of creating work of quality, work of value, work that endures.

One of SCAD's first majors was historic preservation (now known as preservation design), and our emphasis on preservation and rehabilitation originated with our first location in Savannah—the old Savannah Volunteer Guard Amory. Students from every discipline are delighted to learn in a place where every detail is an inspiration to create. The built environment that fosters learning has been a priority from the day we began. The old armory—now Poetter Hall and home to our immersive 4D museum, SCADstory— s a testament to our investment in student learning.

We have always fashioned more progressive, more sustainable types of historic rehabilitation—known as "adaptive reuse"—in which we repurpose a historic property, honor its character, and enhance it for contemporary functionality. The challenge (or the fun part) is to retain the most distinctive ornamental elements and the durable bones of the building while reshaping the interior with surprising art and human-centered design. After over 40 years and more than 100 buildings, SCAD knows how to marry old and new.

Photo: Beyond My Ken via Wikimedia Commons

Cooper Union New Academic Building at 41 Cooper Square near Astor Place in the East Village of Manhattan

MDR: SCAD has three teaching museums: SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film in Atlanta, the SCAD Lacoste History Museum in France, and the SCAD Museum of Art in Savannah. How are these museums integrated into SCAD’s curriculum, and why do you think museums are an important teaching tool? Do you have a favorite recent exhibition?

PW: Our museums are the beating heart of SCAD. Each of our teaching museums invigorates the curriculum, from foundation studies to advanced classes. Students engage in hands-on learning to create exhibitions, there are master classes and workshops (many of which are open to the public) with industry leaders and artistic luminaries, and students employ design solutions to continually elevate our guests' experience. SCAD students are basically Ben Stiller in Night at the Museum—they never want to leave!

If you're in Savannah in August, go see Azikiwe Mohammed's Blackest Night: A Survey in Blackness. Mohammed uses painting, photography, sculpture, performance, and found ephemera to conceive a city of his own making—New Davonhaime. It's a peerless masterwork of culture and innovation.

Courtesy of SCAD

SCAD 2019 Spring Fashion Show, featuring Darren Apolonio

MDR: You have created a number of popular events, including the Sand Arts Festival, SCAD aTVfest, SCAD deFINE ART, SCAD FASHWKND, SCAD Savannah Film Festival, SCADstyle, and Sidewalk Arts Festival. Why do you think the real-world experience of festivals is an important part of education? 

PW: First, festivals provide opportunities to celebrate professions our students will soon enter. SCAD demonstrates respect for these professions to pave the way for our alumni to be highly respected. 

But in a more immediate sense, live events allow students to receive dynamic, visceral response to their work. When a student sees his design pass by during the runway show at SCAD Fashion or watches her film screen at the SCAD Savannah Film Festival, they’re exhilarated. During these festivals, fashion marketing and management students blossom from the tutelage of Cynthia Rowley and Miss J. Alexander. Film students have the opportunity to ask actors like the great Alan Cumming to guest star in their films. User experience design students have a Q and A with Google design manager Mike Buzzard about the future of UX. Festivals (and their top-tier industry guests) are excellent teachers—festivals are one of the reasons SCAD graduates maintain an employment rate of 99 percent!

MDR: As president, you’ve met many interesting, high-profile actors, artists, and designers. Do you have any favorite stories? I hear you've got a memoir out—does it share those anecdotes?

PW: Yes! A curious reader can find four decades' of SCAD stories in The Bee and the Acorn, just released in a new, expanded paperback edition to mark SCAD's 40th anniversary.

As to stories—I’ll never forget the year Debbie Reynolds came to SCAD. After the special screening of The Unsinkable Molly Brown at the historic Lucas Theatre, she stood up and addressed 1,000 audience members from her box seat—and she didn’t bother with a microphone! She introduced herself as Princess Leia's mother. Debbie later told me she would continue performing as long as she had a wig and a chiffon dress.

My dear friend André Leon Talley has been a frequent guest of SCAD for decades, and last year he visited to speak to a theater packed with students for the screening of his biopic, The Gospel According to André. After the show, André invited every student up on stage for pictures and a quick style assessment. André is the king of fashion and the king of kindness, and as you might guess, SCAD students adore him.

Courtesy of SCAD

SCAD students collaborating with Google

MDR: What are your favorite highlights from SCAD’s 40th anniversary year? We hear it was quite a year-long festival! And as SCAD enters its fifth decade, how do plan to advance the university and stay at the top of your game?

PW: SCAD's 40th anniversary was certainly action-packed. My favorite occasions featured the SCAD40 Prize, awarded to our most accomplished alumni. There was star of stage and screen Kayli Carter, master of movie effects Mir Zafar Ali, fashion phenom Eleanor Turner, game design guru Harrison Pink, Honda R&D hotshot Erik Dunshee, and several more of our Bees at the vanguard of their industries. SCAD40 Prize winners embody the purpose and preeminence of a SCAD education in their work. I'm incredibly proud of their accomplishments, and it was a delight to recognize them throughout the year.

SCAD will continue to set the standard for higher education, to be career-focused first. We're empowering alumni with ventures like Aprés SCAD in our Lacoste, France location, SCADpro Venture, and the Alumni Atelier, of which one alumnus said, "I don’t think I’d be able to come up with such an idea and make it happen at a more traditional institution. [SCAD has] taught me how to be a creative person in a way that makes me a better creator." 

We stay at the top because of our restlessness. We’re always inventing the next big thing in higher ed.

About the Author

Megan D Robinson

Megan D Robinson writes for Art & Object and the Iowa Source.

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