The SCAD Museum of Art Celebrates 10 Years: A Conversation with President Paula Wallace
The Savannah College of Art and Design Has Reason to Celebrate
Meet Paula Wallace
Painting a wall mural or miniature manuscript, writing a screenplay or shaping sculpture, an artist seeks to communicate. Whether inspiration and emotion run hot or cold, the maker creates in order to send a message, and even when the “aim is true,” it helps to have skills and support. Paula Wallace, founder and president of the Savannah College of Art and Design, maintains that such an infrastructure is essential. She began her career in education as a public school teacher and now serves a broader community as she expands SCAD’s artistic and community reach, academically and geographically, describing the university as student-centered and outcome oriented.” As the university celebrates the 10th anniversary of the SCAD Museum of Art (and a glowing middle-age of 43 years) we have the chance to better learn about its reputation for architectural preservation, innovation job placement and more from the great communicator herself— writer, teacher, entrepreneur and, yes, Mother Hen—Paula Wallace.
Gwynned Vitello: When I consider the impetus for founding an art university, I immediately think of a band of artists, a wealthy benefactor/aficionado or an adjunct to a university - but not an elementary school teacher. Was your initial vision for SCAD the result of a slowly flowering ambition or did a particular experience compel you into a different, wider path?
Paula Wallace: Most university presidents come from within the academy, ascending the spiral staircase of the proverbial ivory tower from professor to chair, to dean, to president, and that’s all fine and good, but that’s not my story! I’ve always been an outsider. I think that’s why SCAD stands out among the world’s elite universities. That unconventional startup spirit suffuses everything we do, even now, more than 40 years after I dreamed up the idea of SCAD in my elementary school classroom.
I learned everything I needed to know about being a university president from parent-teacher conferences. The need for positive feedback delivered honestly and in a spirit of love and care. I sat across from parents and—even when giving reports on less-than stellar students—witnessed firsthand the power of positive encouragement, emphasizing strengths and wins to foster an open dialogue and establish rapport. All of my communication at SCAD, with parents, families, students, alumni, employers, professors and other SCAD leaders is animated by the desire to lead with the good.
Frequency of communication is important too—in elementary school or an elite university. In those elementary school classrooms I slipped encouraging notes to parents in knapsacks. Every Friday I crafted handmade good-behavior buttons for my students. That affirmation and sense of accomplishment created an uplifting learning environment. These days, I write and send so many notes and DMs of encouragement, just as I did early in my career. People want and need to feel seen and appreciated.
They also want to know what’s expected of them and their students. I always made clear when and how assignments would be graded. Fairness and directness reigned. There were no surprises. This led to my establishing a policy at SCAD, which still holds today, that all syllabi include a minimum of five grading opportunities with at least two before the midterm, including clearly articulated rubrics and previous examples of winning work. Gen Z students want to know what’s expected of them - in the classroom and the workplace. SCAD’s mission is to prepare talented students for creative positions in a positively oriented university environment. That mission is the direct result of my experience in elementary classrooms early in my career.
Did you choose Savannah as a specific location, and what are the qualities of this city that inspire the school and define it? The architecture must serve a foundation, as well as an ongoing inspiration. How have you incorporated it into the campus and possibly beyond?
I conceived SCAD long before I knew Savannah would be our home, or at least, our first home, as I conceived SCAD long before I knew Savannah would be our home, or at least, our first home, as SCAD now has locations on two continents, as well as online. In the days and months before the official founding in 1978, I considered other cities in the U.S. and abroad that did not have an art college. I chose Savannah for its striking panoply of 9th-century architecture, history and other natural beauty. The beach is nearby, and you can work outside year-round. The light, the climate - everything pointed to Savannah.
The city was conceived as early as 1730 as a living work of design by founder James Oglethorpe, who laid out an urban plan unrivaled in the New World with nearly 16 sublime squares arrayed in nearly symmetrical neoclassical order across Savannah. These squares function almost like outdoor living rooms for all residents. I knew students would be inspired by the urban plan, marvel at fountains misting in sunlight and be eager to create beneath centuries-old live oaks. And they are! They see that they’re part of this unbroken chain of imagining inventing and making. You can’t not be inspired here.
Of course, when I first arrived in Savannah, the city was somewhat dilapidated. Bombed-out windows, crumbling facades, so man historic properties abandoned, orphaned, left to ruin. Lady Astor once famously described Savannah as “a pretty lady with a dirty face.” The city had unrealized potential. It needed new ideas, new life, new energy. At night, Savannah became a ghost town. More than four decades later, SCAD has rehabilitated more than 70 orphaned properties—from the City's first hospital (now home to SCADpro and SCAD admissions) to the first home electric power station (home to the SCAD School of Entertainment Arts) to 19th century schoolhouses, resurrected as homes for the study of fashion, fibers and fine arts.
SCAD’s commitment to urban revitalization isn't limited to the port city of Savannah. You see it in our other locations too. Ivy Hall, one of the finest examples of Queen Anne design in the South, is now home to the Screenwriting Center of SCAD Atlanta. And then there’s SCAD Lacoste in the idyllic medieval village of Lacoste, France, where many of our buildings date to the Middle Ages.
What is a prospective student looking for at SCAD, and what is paramount in the application process; who is the school looking for?
Students and families choose SCAD because we provide the three things they most want and need: to feel safe and loved, to launch a rewarding, productive career and to change the world through the gift of invention. Our mission - to prepare talented students for creative professions through engaged teaching and learning in a positively oriented university environment - embodies those desires and delivers on that radical promise. For the last four years, SCAD graduates have earned a 99.5% employment rate, and that’s why students and families choose SCAD.
Gen Z students don’t want to be starving artists. These students have lived through the Great Recession and the most significant health crisis in living memory, turning the world economy on its head. They want to launch their own companies and work for established brands, leveraging their creative talents into lifelong careers. SCAD teaches students how to do that. Our specialized majors like business of beauty and fragrance, architecture, or user experience design allow SCAD students to learn in the classroom what others only learn on the job
They want to change the world—to make it more equitable, more compassionate, more beautiful. I know, I know—what generation of young people doesn’t want to effect real change through their gifts and professions. At SCADpro, students have partnered with Google to generate communication solutions for disaster situations like hurricanes and wildfires. SCADpro students have designed VR games that enhance rehabilitation for victims of stroke and VR experiences proven to alleviate the suffering of those in hospice care.
All these reasons and more are why students and families choose SCAD. Even during a pandemic, when other universities are declining or flatlining, SCAD enrollment is at a record high.
How has the student body changed over the years, and how do you recruit a diverse student body?
I’ve intentionally built diversity into the source code of SCAD. Traditional elite higher education is about exclusivity, but SCAD is different; we embrace inclusivity. This is why there is no football team, no Greek life, no elitist hierarchies cleaving the student body. That's all intentional. The same is true of our professors, where all faculty are awarded the rank of full professor. Everyone at SCAD is important and deserving of respect.
Most universities privilege certain departments, providing more resources, better studios, you name it. At SCAD, there are no second-class majors. That ethos is why we welcome students who might not have a traditional fine arts background, focusing as much on demonstrated problem solving and analytical thinking as on portfolios. Skipped AP Art, but excelled at AP Lit? Perfect! Let’s foster those storytelling abilities, which are essential to screenwriting, UX design and more.
SCAD’s unconventional approach draws students from all over the world. I’m thinking of students like Tabish, who studied computer science in Pakistan and wanted graduate education in the U.S. that combined coding with creative thinking. He came to SCAD and earned a master’s degree in interactive design and has since worked for Vans, Ford, Microsoft, Adobe, Facebook and Google. Students like Tabish come here from over 120+ countries around the world and go on to lead teams at the world’s most creative brands. They're entrepreneurial too, often launching their own companies. I love our students! I’m ever impressed by their ingenuity.
When and why did you decide to expand abroad, and tell us what makes Lacoste unique?
Study abroad trips have been integral to SCAD from the beginning - we hosted our first student trip (to San Francisco!) in the summer of 1979, several weeks before officially starting classes! Research shows that college graduates who travel are more entrepreneurial and independent - two qualities essential to creative success in every sector of the economy, from architecture to visual effects and everything in between. And we know that when students experience new cultures, they become more conscientious, respectful and more desirable co-workers. That’s our mission right there.
The former Lacoste School of the Arts had heard about SCAD’s mastery of historic preservation and adaptive reuse, so they approached us to take over their Lacoste campus. As their enrollment had dropped dramatically, they needed help and came to SCAD - and we saw an opportunity to establish a permanent study-abroad location, where students and professors could live and work in maybe the most inspiring location anywhere on the planet. They donated the entire campus to us, and SCAD celebrates its 20th anniversary with Lacoste this year.
Lacoste astonishes you with its beauty, a unique, medieval walled city in the south of France. Rue Saint-Trophime, too narrow for cars, winds through the village. Students get the opportunity to slow down and really listen. They stroll Roman roads. They paint and draw en plein air in the same mesmeric light that colored the work of Van Gogh and Cezanne. There’s no other college campus like it anywhere - plus, Lacoste is perfectly situated for day trips and longer excursions to Paris, Milan, Barcelona and Cannes. I’d love to invite Juxtapoz to visit our Provencal paradise. Warning, though: You’ll never want to come home.
Let’s get back to Georgia. I’d like to know more about SCAD’s annual events - film festival, fashion shows, deFINE ART. Anything else up your sleeve that’s exciting?
We’ve always got something up our sleeve and are looking forward to a series of winter and spring events unlike any in higher ed. Now that students are safely and responsibly back on campus and in classes and studios they’re eager to experience SCAD festivals “IRL” again. SCAD deFINE ART is up for the first time this winter - the nation’s premier arts festival hosted at a university, with guests like Elaine Cameron-Weir, Hayv Kahrman and Sang Hoon Kim, who will be speaking with students and sharing their stories at the SCAD Museum of Art in Savannah and SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film in Atlanta.
We’re already looking forward to walking the red carpet with 65,000 of our closest friends at the SCAD Film Festival in October 2022. Grab your popcorn and settle in for a first look at next year’s Oscar contenders. These festivals invite SCD students to network with industry pros who come to SCAD to share their wisdom and seek out new talent. At SCAD TVfest, the hottest producers, directors, actors and writers of streaming content hear pitches and discuss their latest shows. At SCAD GamingFest, the creators of the world’s greatest games spill their secrets. You need know what you’re going to see at these events. I can’t guarantee someone will cartwheel onto the stage during SCADstyle, but designer Betsey Jonson did. Who knows what you might see at SCAD FASH WKND? You might get an inkling of what to expect in Robert Fairer Backstage Pass: Dior, Galliano, Jacobs and McQueen at SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film.
Congratulations to The SCAD Museum of Art, one of your brightest jewels, which has a 10th anniversary soon. What were some of the first exhibitions, and what were some of your favorites? And how does the museum bolster students and alumni?
The SCAD Museum of Art is a national treasure. No other teaching museum holds top honors from the National Trust for Historic Preservation of the American Institute of Architects. We're proud of what we’ve done. The space radiates power that you have to experience - a marriage of industrial 19th century architecture and contemporary design, bricks fabricated by enslaved artisans joined with steel and glass. The museum rises up through the ruins of the oldest extant railroad depot in the U.S., where in 1848, American heroes William and Ellen Craft escaped enslavement and won their way to freedom, fleeing Boston and later to London, before courageously returning to Georgia in 1870 to launch a new school. SCAD has produced a film that shares their story. I like to think that the museum’s 86-foot-tall glass lantern serves as a beacon to all who would dare to live as boldly and creatively as the Crafts. The museum is a sacred site.
I have so many unforgettable memories of shows and moments at the SCAD Museum of Art in its first decade: Kehine Wiley in conversation with Andre Leon Talley; solo shows by Nick Cave, Yinka Shonibare, Jennifer Rubell; the first U.S. exhibition of Chinese couturier Guo Pei. Through 2022, we’re celebrating the museum’s anniversary with, among other exhibitions, Patrick Doougherty’s entrancing site-specific installation, Making the Birds Proud, on view in the museum courtyard. Our museum shows, from Robert Wilson’s A boy from Texas, to our first online exhibition, Virginia KIah: Live Your Vision, to Sanford Biggers’ Contra/Diction, celebrate the present and honor the past. So does the Walter O. Evans Center for African American Studies, our center for critical dialogues around Black art. SCAD museums offer students and alumni unparalleled exhibition opportunities too, from a dedicated Alumni Gallery at the museum to spaces like Trois Gallery in Atlanta and Gutsein Gallery in Savannah.
I’ve read that your parents actually assisted and volunteered to work with you at SCAD during its fledgling years, and I’ve also read that you do take a lot of satisfaction from fostering a real family atmosphere at the school. How do you accomplish that?
Assisted— that’s an understatement! My parents breathed life and love into SCAD. They cashed in their retirement savings as seed money and like an indefatigable pair of heroes from an epic film, came out of retirement to devote their golden years to ensuring SCAD’s success. They were my first two hires! My father, Paul Poetter, was our first business manager and my mother, Mae Poetter, our first director of admissions. We worked tirelessly. My mother said we only worked half days … sunrise to sunset.
My parents became every student’s grandparents in those early days. The students gravitated to them, as my parents truly cared. They checked in on students to make sure they were eating. When international students couldn’t travel home for holidays, they always set an extra seat at their table. I fondly recall many dinners with a dozen or more international SCAD students at my parents’, experiencing the first of many American Thanksgivings.
We live their legacy— that loving spirit as family—every day. In 2016, when Hurricane Matthew hit the East Coast, resulting in the cancellation of SCAD Savannah classes for two weeks, we had to extend the quarter past Thanksgiving. We got wind that many parents would be coming to Savannah to celebrate with the students on campus, and so we hosted a huge dinner at The Hive, one of the largest residence halls in Savannah, inviting all the students and their families, including professors, parents, grandparents, siblings, and cousins, all sharing a meal. I couldn’t help but think of my own sweet parents smiling down at us. I like to say that students don’t come to SCAD … families do. They come with family and become part of ours, too. I thank my parents for that legacy of love.
All images Courtesy of SCAD