Paula Wallace, President and Founder of the Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD), leaned in way before the term became part of the zeitgeist. In 1978, believing that through art, students could increase their learning and believing in applying high-education techniques to creative fields, she started SCAD. With just 71 students enrolled in its first year, it now has an enrollment of more than 13,000 in the US as well as around the world. Both the school and Paula herself have earned accolades, including one of the “30 Most Admired Educators” by DesignIntelligence. Let’s just say she’s very impressive.
As part of High Point Market‘s tri-part approach — design, networking and education — Paula will be giving a talk, where she will explain how design impacts communities. But before the event, we had a few questions of our own.
What was your “aha” moment when you decided that you wanted to start your own art and design university?
Really, it was the moment I found out I was pregnant with my first child, Marisa, that everything became very clear about my life path. I know — having a baby and having a college at the same time sounds zany. But being totally responsible for one person in the world translated into inventing a new model for higher education, one I would choose for myself and for my own children. And Marisa? Marisa ended up graduating from SCAD, along with 35,000 other people’s sons and daughters.
That must have been an amazing feeling to see your daughter graduate from a university you built. What’s one way that SCAD differs from other art and design universities?
We have a sense of humor, so people enjoy their work at SCAD, and there’s a certain closeness and familial warmth here. Maybe that’s because we have so many siblings who have studied at SCAD (over 900), or maybe that’s why so many marriages and business partnerships evolve from SCAD.
SCAD is unrelentingly mission-focused to prepare talented students for rewarding creative professions within a positively oriented environment. In a nutshell, everything at SCAD is purposeful, relevant, creative, strong, useful, and delightful. We devote extensive care to our students. That care is evident in the 98% employment of SCAD graduates. They are inventive, professional and hardworking. I’m very proud of SCAD students and alumni, as you can tell.
Amazing! 98% employment! How do you help your students think about their careers beyond SCAD?
We often remind students that their career begins at SCAD. In every class, students present projects for critique. I received a letter recently from an alumna who designs interiors of private aircraft. She had just won a major contract following a presentation in Milan that she compared to finals at SCAD. She credited her career success to her SCAD education, writing: “I carry this skill with me every time I walk into a meeting, wherever I am in the world. Thank you for providing me with the necessary tools to succeed.” That ability — to conceive excellent work and communicate persuasively about concept and detail — is a vital skill for any creative career. And for life in general, I might add.
Your university’s enrollment has doubled since you became President, and SCAD has won countless awards… What’s a lesson-to-success you have learned?
Connect the dots — or the eighth notes, if you’re a musician. Everything I read, learn, and observe, I connect to SCAD. I absorb stimuli, turn them around in my mind, and then apply the relevant notes.
My piano teacher, Dr. Peggy Mayfield, taught me to think like a composer when I was very young. I don’t know about you, but music permeates my life.
The musical structure of a sonata, for instance, deeply influences my work as an educator. The sonata has been around since the 18th century due to the durability and variety of its form: first, exposition; next, development; and finally, recapitulation. The way I’ve composed SCAD — along with the Herculean efforts of many people who are very focused on students’ wellbeing and success — is inspired by the thematic and harmonic organization of a sonata.
In addition to seeing great product, High Point Market offers a great educational opportunity through talks and panel discussions, and as well as it’s a great place to connect. For those of us who could improve our networking skills, what are some tips that have served you well?
The rules of networking are much like those of dinner parties. Be present. Smile. Listen. Speak to those to the right and left, and across from you. Ask leading but non-intrusive questions. Compliment the host and anyone else around.
Most importantly: think like a jockey. Jockeys have an internal timer. To win the Kentucky Derby, a jockey crosses the finish line in two minutes. If the pleasantries go on for much longer than that, the chatter can lose the affection of the chattee.
At High Point Market, you’re going to discuss how design and the arts can help shape communities. What’s one way that SCAD has changed Savannah?
The most important impact on Savannah has come from the people of SCAD. As President of the National Trust for Historic Preservation Stephanie Meeks noted, “Every old building can’t become a museum. SCAD has created viable ongoing uses for its historic buildings.” Beautiful buildings with productive uses attract people who invest in the community and patronize local businesses. Those who saw Savannah’s main street (Broughton Street) pre-SCAD know it used to be a lonely place. Now it’s bustling with shops and restaurants for all to enjoy.
SCAD has dramatically impacted Savannah by attracting millions of dollars in tourism traffic, not only from SCAD’s students and employees (plus their friends and family who visit many times), but also due to star-studded fashion shows and festivals hosted by SCAD, world-class exhibitions at the SCAD Museum of Art, academic and technological symposia and conferences, intercollegiate sports competitions (SCAD has 33 different athletic teams), and campus tours for thousands of prospective students and parents who seek out SCAD every month.
Why do you think that it’s so important that we keep cultivating the arts in education?
Our brains don’t work discretely, despite the “right brain/left brain” jazz. Scholarly, organic, communal, creative, emotional, and muscular intelligence are all of a piece. Why be less than we can be? Why would we want to neglect any aspect of our potential? Our world needs every intellect, every idea, every beautiful thing.
What’s a book you recently read that has inspired you?
Anything by Paulette Jiles: she knows how to turn a phrase, chill your blood, and tell a story. Enemy Women is one of her books I have read recently. Compelling, dramatic, poetic, historical. She is simply one of the best writers working today.
You just wrote a book called SCAD: The Architecture of a University. Tell us about it and why it was important for it to be published this year.
SCAD is known for its classic yet resilient architecture, its snazzy design, its classroom buildings masquerading as art galleries, its elegant interiors. With over three million square feet of space, SCAD is growing daily. I thought I’d better get busy on a book before the subject of SCAD architecture becomes too big to wrap my arms around it. Already, you’ll get a workout bench-pressing this monograph.
What is something that is evolving in the art world that you are excited about?
Color. While the art world in general is known for raven-clad dealers and glacial galleries, artists speak through color and form. SCAD in particular is spirited and multihued. Our exhibitions at Untitled in Miami this December feature SCAD graduates Christopher Paul Dean and Cory Imig, as well as the Maestro himself, Carlos Cruz-Diez. These artists are masters of color, their work riotous yet oh-so-disciplined.
You can attend Paula’s talk on October 14, from 12-1 pm at High Point’ Fall Market.