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Poetter Hall, the first SCAD building.
Poetter Hall, the first SCAD building.

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How the Founder of Savannah College of Art and Design Built a University from Scratch

Paula Wallace started with a Volkswagen Beetle and a dream

In 1977, Paula Wallace, then a 29-year-old elementary school teacher living in Atlanta, decided to sell her yellow Volkswagen Beetle and use the funds to start an arts university.

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Though her career was in education, Wallace grew up loving the arts and felt there was a need for a more rigorous type of education in the field. In her elementary school setting, she'd become known as something of a rogue teacher —€” taking her students on random, eccentric field trips and assigning them to immersive arts projects that went beyond the territory of conventional grade school material. But what Wallace really wanted was to apply higher education techniques to the creative sphere of arts studies for adults, and in September of 1978, with some additional funding from her parents, founded the Savannah College of Art and Design.

Paula Wallace. Image: SCAD

When the school opened for its first class in 1979 with 71 students and seven faculty members, Wallace had no idea her vision for a new type of arts school would succeed. Today, though, SCAD has transformed into a globally recognized institution, one with over 12,000 undergraduate and graduate students studying 42 different arts majors annually. While the school has certainly morphed from its small, scrappy roots, Wallace has been with SCAD every step of the way. She served as the school's academic dean and provost for 22 years before she was appointed president of the university in 2000.

Coinciding with the release of her memoir "The Bee and the Acorn," which hit shelves last week, Racked caught up with Wallace to learn about her triumphs and struggles in starting SCAD. Read on to learn how SCAD revived the old charm and beauty of Savannah, why Wallace embraced computer arts right from the start, how she dealt with sexism in the higher education world, and how the fashion major at SCAD came to be.

Why did you start SCAD?

In the late 1970s, there was a lot of groundbreaking work being done. Apple, The Clash, Star Wars. But there wasn't an outstanding university for the arts in the south while there really was a need for one.

Was there anything you thought the arts education system was missing?

"I also wanted arts students to be able to earn a living at what they love."

I taught in the Atlanta public schools for about eight years before starting SCAD and I was also in graduate school. I thought that higher education needed a lot of TLC. It was built on tradition and some of it was old and outdated and really needed a new, fresh breath. I wanted to abide by the same principles I had directed towards my elementary school students: Creating a nurturing, caring environment, letting them develop their individual proclivities and interests, and then garnering some recognition for that. I also wanted arts students to be able to earn a living at what they love.

Was an arts degree not taken seriously back then?

There was almost an exaltation of the starving artist. "You must not eat, you must be in a garret somewhere." That was kind of a stereotype. And actually, it was closely guarded by some educators in the arts. They all thought a student couldn't actually make a living in the arts. They would have to wait tables and suffer, and then maybe, eventually, some few would break through.

But with SCAD, we wanted students to actually be able to take their aspirations to be a successful professional and apply it to the arts. In the past, people were viewing art as a gift you were born with. But as a teacher, I learned that through studying it in an education system, any subject can be taught to any student. From the very beginning, we really set this out as a practical, professional education. And now, 97% of our alumni are hired within ten months of graduation. That's pretty remarkable.

How did you have the funds to start such a giant project like an arts university?

"At the time, I just thought, ‘these are interesting, historic, beautiful buildings, and they deserve to be saved.'"

I had a little yellow Volkswagen Beetle that I sold, so those were some of the first funds. I also had helped my mother to write a textbook for language arts teachers for Houghton Mifflin called "Serendipity." It was purchased by school systems across the country and she was collecting royalty checks, which she put away as her retirement nest egg. When I told her about SCAD, she wanted to join in and so she said, "Well, I have our retirement fund from the "Serendipity" book, why don't we devote that to SCAD?" We did so much by ourselves —€” painting walls and sanding floors — so we were able to conserve funds at the same time.

So why Savannah?

Savannah was very charming. It was, however, a little downtrodden when I first came here, and in a state of neglect. The architecture had good bones, but it really was suffering from decline at that time. We seized an opportunity at a very architecturally significant building, which had been in a state of decline. At this point, we've become historic preservationists and have conserved millions of square feet of space around the world, and it's become part of SCAD's ethos. But at the time, I just thought, ‘these are interesting, historic, beautiful buildings, and they deserve to be saved.'

How did the Savannah community react to you starting a new school in their town?

Well, there are stereotypes that are out there, and not just in Savannah. The pierced, the tattooed, the purple-hair —€ although those are becoming more and more mainstream every day! And so there was a fear of the unknown. Like, ‘what will this do to our town? How will this change our town?' We had supporters from the very beginning, especially from people who were already on the historic preservation bandwagon, like Lee Adler, who was the "grandfather" of historic preservation across the country. There were also people who thought it was a foolish idea to put an arts college in the midst of an historic, old city. They thought, ‘If it was such a good idea to create an art college in Savannah, why didn't somebody from Savannah think of it a long time ago? This city has been around since 1733, and it was just fine without an art college.'

The SCAD Museum of Art. Image: SCAD

How did the community turn around to supporting SCAD?

I think people eventually saw the value and the benefits. And not only economic benefits, but educational and cultural benefits too. Today, the people of Savannah see that they have so many things to participate in. We have one of the world's biggest libraries, as far as collections of art and architecture, which the public can come in and enjoy. We have the Sidewalk Arts Festival, which is a huge outdoor festival we have in Forsyth Park, which is kind of Savannah's Central Park, and the public definitely participates in that. We also have film festivals and two museums. A lot of tourists come and enjoy them, but also people who live in city.

How hands-on were you at the school?

Well, because there were so few people in the beginning at SCAD, I really had the experience of doing virtually every job, including the dusting, mopping, cleaning, selecting the artwork, writing the press releases, and creating the first transfer forms, transcripts, and the first schedule of classes.

What were some challenges you faced when you first started the school?

"I had no grand aspirations or illusions that SCAD would become anything like it is today, really."

Well, going from zero to one student was probably the biggest challenge. Because we had no tradition [of people previously attending]. There was no accreditation, no financial aid, no student housing. There were none of the things that you usually think of with a college. We also had to renovate buildings. Our first building, Poetter Hall, was built in 1890, and it was a grand monstrosity. It also wasn't air-conditioned. We had students and professors that first summer who were pretty hardy because all they had were these big industrial fans we bought. Honestly, a lot of what we did was through ingenuity, and not necessarily because there was this long heritage or tradition of success! I had no grand aspirations or illusions that SCAD would become anything like it is today, really.

What were some things SCAD did differently than other arts schools?

The whole idea of computer art, for starters. We were the first [school] to receive shipments of Amiga computers, which were created by Commodore back in the 1980s. At that time, many other art schools were rejecting the concept of applying technology to the arts, when actually, technology was just another medium for creating your vision. And so while other art colleges had a certain disdain towards technology, we seized it and got very much ahead in the concept.

How did the school grow and earn its prestige?

"Schools starting listing us with their best students, because they saw how much their former students had grown and evolved."

During break, students would go home and visit their high schools and shows their teachers their portfolios. Schools starting listing us with their best students, because they saw how much their former students had grown and evolved, and that SCAD offered a really strong education. We also started offering an educators forum at every summer, where high school teachers could come and experience SCAD itself. They could live in the residence halls, they could eat the dining hall food, they could be taught by our professors in our classrooms, and I think that really gave them a real life experience of what it was like to be a student at SCAD. Then they would go home and they would recommend that their best students come to SCAD.

As a female dean, did you ever face sexism?

I think there's more sexism outside of the SCAD bubble, but yes, there were people from other colleges on evaluating teams who would make comments like "well, why are you writing the curriculum?" Because I designed the first curriculum; I wrote the first catalog.

How did you deal with that?

My mother's favorite saying to me was "rise above it." I think she meant just be yourself and do your best. Work hard, of course, but don't let yourself fixate on the expectations of others. Set your own expectations for yourself, and chances are you'll reach those.

Is there a specific ingredient you think is key to running a successful university?

Listening to students about what they want to study. I did not have the idea of starting fashion as a major at SCAD. We already had fibers and textile design, but one of the students from Miami who was majoring in fibers, said "I really think we should have a major in fashion." So I said, "well, okay. If you get at least six students together, we'll have a class." And so we had one class, and now, fashion is one of our most popular majors, and I think we're most renowned for fashion across the world.

How is the arts and design world changing?

The Bee and the Acorn. Image: SCAD

I don't think people are aware of the strong connection between science and the arts. All of our students are working with such high-tech technology. They're laser cutting everything, they're 3D printing everything. Even our looms, which use the ancient art form of weaving, are computer programmed. Recently, our students sent sounds to International Space Station because one of our professors who used to work at NASA was speaking with a friend who said "it's pretty cool up here, and I get pictures from home, but we don't have any sounds of home." And so the professor sent the students out and they recorded sounds of the ocean, trees, leaves blowing, birds chirping, even sounds of traffic, and then they made a little sound care package for the International Space Station! Today, technology, science, and the arts, are more interwoven than ever.

Is there anything you think could be better in arts education?

There needs to be more of a culture of assessment and accountability. At SCAD, we constantly evaluate and it's not a ponderous process. We are listening to our graduates about what a profession needs. Employers will often send come here, so Target, Pixar, Disney will recruit and I'm always asking them questions. "What are you looking for? How could we improve our curriculum even more, to be more responsive to the needs of the professions?" I think the arts world needs to keep up in order to provide for the pool of talent.

Talk to me about your book: What inspired you to publish it now?

We're almost approaching the 40th anniversary of SCAD and I just wanted to record some of the stories from here, lest I forget. I'm getting old, don't forget! But, also, the whole story of SCAD is such an inspiration to students. I think a survey of the general population would say it's unlikely for an elementary school teacher from the public schools in Atlanta to be a college president of a university that has 12,500 students. But SCAD grew from nothing to being an impactful university, with campuses on three continents and with over 100 different countries represented within our student body. So it's important for students to see that they too can go out into the world and make it. Nothing is impossible.

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