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The End of an Era: F Sits Down with Tony Jones
Posted By amandamarie On July 27, 2011 @ 1:59 pm In Feature Stories | 1 Comment
After nearly 20 years as president of the School of the Art Institute, Tony Jones has left the building with a legacy that resounds and a powerful foundation in place for what promises to be an exciting future for SAIC. Although a native UK resident, Jones arrived at SAIC in 1986 from Glasgow University in Scotland. He stayed here until 1992, when he left for a brief interlude as the director of the Royal College of Art in London, but came back in 1997 where he reigned as President until 2008. Although he was succeeded in 2009 by Duke Reiter, and now currently Walter Massey, he has maintained a loyal leadership to SAIC as chancellor, a position he accepted when resigning as president, and has retired from (with an honorary doctorate and a building named after him), for good, this July. Recently, F sat down with Mr. Jones and a video camera in his personal office (bedecked with an entire wall of literature published or contributed to by alum, as well as research for the first ever documented history of the School of the Art Institute, which he’ll be releasing in 2015) to discuss his presidential tenure, why “Mirth and Girth”target=”_blank” and “What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag?” weren’t exactly memorable moments, and what it’s like to have helmed three of the world’s top art and design schools. Below are excerpts from the interview — stayed tuned to fnewsmagazine.com for a series of video installments featuring Jones. (And a sneak peak into what’s behind that incredible book!)
AA: How does SAIC differ from the other schools at which you’ve taught?
TJ: SAIC has changed dramatically since I came. When I came here for the interview in 1985, we were in one building: Columbus Drive. Everything we did was in that one building. So the whole of what is now the Flaxman Library and the MacLean slide library was crammed into what is now the Betty Rymer Gallery. It was crazy — there was no room. To go and get a book in the library was often a very intimate experience — you had to sort of do a vertical limbo and shuffle past people to get at things. I came to the conclusion very quickly that we couldn’t go on like this — and it was far too localized, too regional; it was almost parochial. We developed a strategic plan which essentially said we needed to have more space, so we bought what you now know as the Sharp building in 1988. It was the YWCA; so we bought the building in a semi-demolished condition and started to expand.
At the same time, we started thinking about the nature of the student body. I strongly believe that art is an international language, I think that design is a global currency, I think it’s critical for students to be able to work alongside people who come from an utterly different culture, who speak a different language, grew up in a completely different way, because that’s the way the world is. We felt very strongly that we needed to diversify the enrollment — it needed to be more international and there needed to be more academic programs. We grew dramatically. When I came to the School there were 700 students, and now there are 3600 — international students were below 1%, and now it’s 20%. We grew from one building, which I think is a 175,000 square feet, to our current holdings of one and a half million square feet. We bought the Sharp building, then we bought 112 S. Michigan [MacLean building], then I went away and came back, and then we developed an initiative with parents and students to discuss what was lacking in the school: and the one thing everyone said was residence halls.
No one was worried about the strength of the academic program, but people said students are living further away and we need to have students downtown. When that happened, the school changed. We went from being a commuter school to a school with community, and that’s changed the culture of the school, too. Then we bought 7 W. Madison, which is going to become Jones Hall — I’m very touched by that, so then we bought a piece of land at a corner of Randolph where there was a really dubious restaurant where you could get a steak and a baked potato for $3 — I never asked where the meat came from. There was a very awful wig shop, and a pawn shop, all on this corner. We demolished all that, and then leased that space to Borders Books and put the new Gene Siskel Film Center in — the film center was originally in the auditorium of the Columbus Drive building. Everything was in that building.
AA: Did that affect enrollment?
TJ: Absolutely, and academic programs. How could you develop an academic program? You could have the best ideas in the world but there was no where to go — it was just awful. We had to have a development plan and we needed to raise some money. We’re very fortunate to have a good board and good board chairs, who said, “This is really the moment where the School needs to grow.” Then we had the two dorms, then we started taking over Carson Pirie Scott with the Sullivan Building and that started to expand. Finally, we get great gallery space, that was my last project for the school, and now a student center.
AA: Can you talk about that, and the decision to develop the student center? I’m curious about your part in its planning, what it will be, and why it’s taken nearly 150 years to come about.
TJ: Well, that’s a good point. We’ve been talking about the student center for years. One of the questions is where? And that goes back to the cold weather. If you put it in one building, people in the other buildings are going to say, “Well, we’re never going to go there in the winter because it’s too freezing cold to cross the street,” that’s why we have these little duplications of things. You can’t leave the winter out of your planning. But we always wanted to have one place that was as centrally located as possible, so that it was accessible. Where students could meet, etc, talk, see work on the walls, a social space, a gallery space, a mixing space. It was a priority of mine. Coming to the end of my time here, as chancellor, I thought that this would be a very good time to work on this.
I’ve developed over the years a very good relationship with our alum Leroy Neiman, and his wife Janet Neiman, who was also a student here, they met here. I talked to Janet and Leroy about a scholarship program, so Leroy created the master classes and that became a scholarship program, so Leroy made a gift of $3 million for that. Then we came upon the 100th anniversary of Oxbow, and Leroy taught at Oxbow, so he was not only a student to the School but a member of the faculty for 12 years here, an extremely popular teacher. I asked Leroy if he could help with the scholarship of Oxbow, so that students could spend the summer there, and he very generously gave me a $1 million gift. But as I came to what I decided to be the end of my time here, I went back to Leroy and said that the real priority that we have in the School is to do something for students where they have a chance to mix and mingle. So I talked to people like Claes Oldenburg and Leroy and people who were alumni, and each of them said one of the most important things about the School was the social space — and Leroy came back and said that was important to him, too, and so he made an extremely generous gift of $5 million, which has allowed us to build the student center. We have an architect, we have a plan — so finally, that has been done.
AA: You’ve had so many experiences in your tenure at SAIC — from “Mirth and Girth”target=”_blank” and Dred Scott Tylertarget=”_blank”, and all of these things that are really iconic within the history of the School — what are some of your most memorable moments?
TJ: Well, those are memorable, but they’re unpleasant. It was dangerous, it was physically dangerous. Students were being assaulted by members of the public on the El. I don’t have a car, so I was being picked up and brought to the school by a police car. People discovered my telephone number so I got death threats — they were serious death threats, these people weren’t kidding. There was a series of arrests, people who were armed, who had knives. It was a very dangerous and very turbulent time. No one wants to go through that, but it ended up, if you look at the cultural context, Amanda, you can’t leave out the Robert Mapplethorpe things that were going on at the same time. Congress was hysterically angry over the exhibition of works that had been funded by the National Endowment. There was rampant homophobia because of the Mapplethorpe things.
I am a veteran of the American art wars, but it isn’t anything that I think of as being a lot of fun. We were very concerned for the safety of students, we had to pull people off the switchboards, and the faculty stood up and volunteered to take over the switchboards, because the level of abuse and filth that came forth was incomprehensible. It was extremely violent and disgusting. So people’s emotions were very inflamed, and we had to protect the people in the building, but we also had to protect our academic mission. We were dragged into court, it was a first amendment issue, we closed the exhibition, reorganized all the security, reopened and went on for another 28 days. The veterans organized and surrounded the building, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, get the flag up off the flo,” ran, ran, ran the building, throwing things at the building, people threatening to come in and tear the paintings off the walls. Not the student paintings, but the paintings in the museum. It was a very very highly charged political situation in the city, too. There was a lot of stuff going on in the city that was very bad. So I’m not sure I would describe that as a high point or a low point, but it was a point. Ironically, while “flag on the floor” was going on, the Mapplethorpe exhibition was at the MCA] without protest. The lightening had struck us, it didn’t go up Michigan Ave.
AA: What do you view as your greatest accomplishment throughout your tenure at SAIC?
TJ: I think it’s the steady state of growing the school. If you leave out the controversial things that cause lots of problems, the school has just grown and matured from being a very well respected city school, to becoming a great regional school, becoming a nationally recognized school, internationally recognized school, and now there’s set to be 12 great art and design schools in the world, and the three in the US are Yale, SAIC and RISD. I wanted this school to have that reputation, so that students could come here and know that they’re not only receiving a set of really terrific opportunities to take their ideas in any direction they want to, but doing it in a school that has international recognition. The multiculturality, the fact that there are so many students from so many different cultures, I think is critically important. It’s the mark of a great school that you have that range of expression, and finally, we have studios and workshops that are appropriate.
It’s thinking back, from my perspective, thinking back to arriving here, looking at the Columbus Drive building and thinking, “Oh my god. How can working artists and designers be in here? This just simply is not good enough. We’ll never be the school that gives a first class education to its students if its like this. This isn’t good enough.” So I developed a ten year plan to grow the school in terms of its scale, its opportunities for students, its range of international programs. If you look at the School’s track record, particularly during the Deanship of Carol Beckertarget=”_blank”, we introduced a new academic program every 18 months for years and years and years. The idea was that you respond to student need. I see it as a deepening of the student experience, allowing them to move within this pool of resources in a different way.
In the coming weeks, www.fnewsmagazine.com will feature a series of videos from this interview on the homepage.
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