Introducing New Dodd Director: Chris Garvin

garvin_chrisNew Lamar Dodd School of Art Director Chris Garvin comes to UGA from The University for the Arts in Philadelphia, where he served as program director. An interactive designer and creative director in the private sector for many years, Garvin has written and spoken extensively on the complexity of contemporary design and business practice, and its implications on the future of design and education. He spoke with Alan Flurry, Franklin College Director of Communications, upon his arrival to UGA this summer.

Each fall brings many new faces to campus, but this semester marks the beginning of a new era at the Lamar Dodd School of Art with the arrival of its new director, Chris Garvin. Learn more about Garvin, his background and vision for the school in this extended Q&A (an abridged version appeared in the Sept. 2 Columns):

Alan Flurry: You are a professor and an artist, how do those two fit together?

Chris Garvin: There are parts of my life that I act as a designer, as an artist, an educator, an entrepreneur, and I embrace them all. I’m never scared to be a hybrid, to have ‘and’ be in there. Part of my experience is writing curriculum and programs at universities and getting them off the ground, building coalitions and curriculums so that things can happen. I’ve done that looking at those projects as a designer, and I’ve used those designer skills to help me become a better educator.

The thing that makes them part of me is that I use the same thinking processes in all of them. I think about audience differently in each, and I think about the group and the collaborations differently.

AF: That takes a lot of confidence, but also a lot of humility – it can seem like a contradiction.

CG: It can, and I have often said, “I have just enough ego to try this, but not so much ego that I need to own it.” And it’s helped me a lot in building things; many times in academia, the ownership is what can kill interesting projects and keep them from getting off the ground.

AF: You come to UGA from a big city setting, how is that related to your vision for the school of art?

CG: So I grew up in a formerly big city, Buffalo. I went to grad school at Ohio State, then I lived in New York City for ten years, and that’s an education in itself, then in Philadelphia. And those are two very different American metropolises, and they work very differently.

I moved to New York to be a designer, with a painting degree, so some of my vision comes out of my own experience. I was trained in a great art school in a large research university, where I gained the confidence to use those skills in a variety of different ways.

For example, I could talk to computer scientists; I borrowed projectors for my thesis exhibit from the football team; I had an office in a center shared between the art school and the computer science school, all very formative experiences. Being a painter and working in those critiques, I learned the idea of abstracting things, moving across disciplines, across mediums, and in a contemporary business world that would be called ‘knowledge transfer.’ It’s incredibly marketable. So I like to say I was accidentally marketable because of my education, but it wasn’t so much an accident as that academic environment.

For me, the most exciting thing about UGA is that the pieces of that same ecosystem are here. Helping to build those connections where our graduate and undergraduate students can excel in whatever they want to do, that their vision of success is not just the gallery show, not just working at a design firm, but it’s a variety of different things that they choose, we have the ability to do that here. Few places in the world have the academic ecosystem available to make that kind of malleable, exciting graduate that can go out into the world and do whatever they want.

AF: That’s a great advantage for a big art school in a large university, but can also be a struggle, culturally maybe, because we separate things, and so that’s part of your challenge.

CG: Connecting them is clear to those who are interested in that, and I think who see the arts as a powerful, indispensable part of our society. I think too often the arts have cloistered themselves. We think we’re something special that needs to be protected – that we need to be nurtured, like a garden. And I’ve always thought of the arts as a forest – you just let us go and we’re going to pop up anywhere. In an old steel mill… we’re the canaries in the coalmine. The arts are that strong. The creative impulse is such an important part of our culture that, I think opening up the doors of Dodd, letting what we do get out into UGA, letting more of UGA in, will infect the place. You see that protectionist mentality in a lot art schools right now, but I don’t think we need to protect the arts. We don’t have enemies. We have support of the people who want to know more about us, and that’s going to be a great place for Dodd to grow into in this university.

AF: Critical thinking, the creative impulse that art students learn explicitly, has come into vogue in disciplines far beyond the studio.

CG: We teach students in a critique format, in a studio, to make multiple decisions on a split-second basis. That ability to be decisive, to analyze a mark you’ve made, to synthesize a new strategy and go. And then do it again, in a second – that is something that any business would love to be able to do, to train their people to think in that way – to be a able to test things in a very critical way. And then, choose to keep them, or pivot. And yes, we do that every day here.

We need to let our students know how valuable that is. There is a mythology that you are an artist, something outside of society and your creativity is not understood. We live in a time where the best business schools want design thinking as part of their curriculum; when the best medical schools want their doctors to think about acting, as a way to identify with audience and their patients better, to communicate, to listen better. Things that the arts do well, that are such a part of the fabric of our educational system, have always been valuable. But now those other industries see that.

AF: How do we share that with students from other parts of campus?

CG: Somewhere in their four years here we need to let them know they can define their version of success – that it’s not just the age-old ones. That takes time, and the faculty need to be in line with that and live that for them. I think we have that faculty. And structures need to do that, too – curriculum has to be more open. Students having time to take classes in those other areas. Art schools also have a very rigorous – whether it s dance or music or visual arts, which have these long, 6-hour studios – they kind of close off a lot of the rest of the university life to them at times.

I think the faculty will be thinking about that in the future, how do we make it easier for a student to be a painter and minor in biology, or business, or take those courses. “I’m interested in geology, I’m going to take that.” We do have minor offerings; we do have an A.B., in studio art. Our studio A.B. students are going to have a lot of opportunities and I want to celebrate those students. I also think that one great thing we have is that we’re training artists and scholars. In many places, the art history program is housed in the art school – and that’s an awful way to think about it. This is a school where we make artists, we make educators and we make scholars in the arts. That is something we do well and I want that to be integrated, I want that to be a Venn diagram, not separate pillars.

AF: While Dodd is a very big part of the UGA campus, is it important to raise the art school’s national profile?

It’s certainly going to be part of my focus in this year, raising our national profile and it is important for arts education nationally, because of the quality of what we do here, the facilities we have and the opportunities. It’s difficult because we have not, and maybe its a southern thing but we don’t brag very much. We don’t make part of our process telling people what we did. Missing that last step where we make this great work and then push it out to everyone who might be interested, we make it known on the national level.

And we’ve already started working toward that. This year we’re working to bring our graduate show in April to Atlanta. We did our first ever Maymester curriculum in NYC this year, which was a great start and something we’d like to build on,

We already have a great advantage, in the way the Peabody Awards puts a UGA stamp on New York for a little bit of the year, and we’re going to build on that and make the most of those connections for the rest of the year.

AF: Lamar Dodd was a great evangelist for the arts, he believed in their importance to everyone, an idea that has deep resonance at UGA. What’s the next stage for the Lamar Dodd School of Art?

CG: I’m really excited to be a part of that continuum. As I began learning about the Dodd history, I was really excited to see what he was doing and that, for a long time, he continued to try new ideas. He stayed fresh. Sometimes we make a mistake looking back at historical figures and only honor the objects, honor the paintings, honor this program that he built. But then if you look at his career, he built this, and then he did this, and then he went there, and then he went there… so that tells me he was a creative entrepreneurial mind, that was always trying to push the arts forward.

AF: Including with his faculty, with the teaching of art.

CG: Yes, when you bring in people like Charles Eames to talk about curriculum, at the height of their design fame, to think about, wait a minute, how do we make the next generation, how do we get people to think this way, how do we train them to have these opportunities that he might have had? There’s a lot of forethought in that, and a lot of commitment to the legacy, the next generation.

I aspire to keep that freshness and that innovation, and I want the school to stand for that. We should be proud of our name and our history, but its not only about an aesthetic or the way he worked, or the programs he build. It’s also about that ability to kind of look through time, keep progressing, keep growing, being relevant to the world outside but also being true to an aesthetic vision. Those intangibles are what I want to take forward from him, not any kind of things that he did.

And I hope that what we can do. I was given by one of our faculty the dedication for the Visual Arts building and Lamar Dodd was there and a dignitary from the Carnegie Corporation spoke about building and talked about creativity and about how renewal had to be part of your daily process so that you stayed fresh. He said any artist, any engineer, any businessman, will become concrete if they don’t make renewal part of their process. Innovation and creativity will leave them. But as long as everyday, part of your process is about thinking about what is next, challenging yourself, as long as that’s part of their process, then in any field you will stay creative and innovative.


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