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An Interview with Outgoing Dean Carol Becker

I think the art scene in Chicago suffers from a Second City mentality. Having grown up as a New Yorker and having become a Chicagoan, I have always been amazed at how weirdly Chicagoans relate to New York.

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Carol Becker, Dean of Faculty of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, has been at the School for more than 25 years and has written several books, including, appropriately, The Invisible Drama: Women and the Anxiety of Change. Becker wrote candidly about her rise to Dean in her essay: Trial by Fire: A Tale of Gender and Leadership, and recounted the challenges she faced at an academic institution. She is leaving the School of the Art Institute of Chicago to be the dean of the School of the Arts at Columbia University, New York. Here student and F Newsmagazine editor Natalie Edwards interviews her.

Q. How do you think you changed the character and vision of SAIC during your years here?

A. I have been at the School for such a long time that I really have to think back almost thirty years to what the School was like when I first began teaching here and also when I first began to hold administrative positions. From the very first I had the idea that the School was a fantastically creative and energized environment for the making of art. What I felt was missing was an intensive intellectual environment that could match this creative spirit with a whole other world of ideas. I wanted to see the School become as much about thinking as about making, as much about the conceptualization of art’s place in society as about the process of making. I never saw these as exclusive and always believed the School could be strong on all counts. I now really believe it is. So, a good deal of what I have been able to do is help to create so many new degrees and bring in so many new faculty that the School is now a truly balanced environment in which all parts of art making and the complexity of the art world are reflected. When I first came there were only a few degrees, now there are myriad degrees in subjects like Visual and Critical Studies, Writing, Arts Administration, Historic Preservation, as well as all the new initiatives in Architecture and Design. There are dual degrees in Arts Administration and Art History–all reflecting the changing times, the ways in which people go out into the world and actually assume position. There were always wonderfully innovative faculty but the more we hired new faculty, the more they took the School farther along the path to a truly diverse curriculum that has a strong artistic and intellectual foundation. So, if there is a legacy here, it in being able to imagine an art school as complex and exciting as the one we have, and in hiring great people to make it happen and to keep it moving forward.

Q. How will you tackle your new job at Columbia? What will you take from your experience at SAIC to Columbia?

A. Columbia University is a very different situation. The School of the Arts is surrounded by one of the most esteemed intellectual faculty in the country. So,it probably needs to broaden its scope to include the conversations happening on the campus in other disciplines and it probably needs to take leadership in initiating some of these conversations across disciplines. Universities because of their scale and the traditions of each discipline tend to remain much more isolate and disciplines do not cross over as easily. The interdisciplinary nature of SAIC, which i love, will be something I will take with me because it is how I also think, and have come to think from all my years here.

Q. How will your new job be different from your old job?

A. The scope of the School of the Arts at Columbia is smaller. It’s primarily a graduate program, so the scope of what I am responsible for will be smaller. Also, at SAIC the infrastructures are smaller, so we all end up doing an awful lot, at Columbia there is a larger group of people to look to for all the complexities that we manage for SAIC with a very small Office of the Deans.

And of course, the hope of Columbia is that the School of the Arts will become the preeminent School in New York. This will take some time.

Q. What will you miss at SAIC? What will you miss in Chicago?

A. I will miss the students. And, I will miss my colleagues. I will miss our adventurous spirit.

Q. What do you think could be better about Chicago’s art world? What could be better about New York’s?

A. I think the art scene in Chicago suffers from a Second City mentality. Having grown up as a New Yorker and having become a Chicagoan, I have always been amazed at how weirdly Chicagoans relate to NY. It’s such a love/hate relationship but nonetheless one that ends up making Chicago feel inferior. If Chicago would simply accept that its scale can never rival or equal that of New York’s but that there are terrific artists, curators, gallerists, museums and the best Art Schools in the country, Chicago could simply feel proud of what it has and encourage the range of experimentation that makes it unique. There is a confidence issue here that Chicago needs to overcome. It’s a fantastic place for creating work. The market is not here completely for the arts so there needs to be a courting of New York and LA, that is just is the way it is. But as a place for experimentation, it can’t be beat. And, there are advantages to not being in the center of the market. It allows artists to breathe. Because I love both cities, I easily see the virtues of each and do not put them in competition. New York is conservative in many ways. New York, on the other hand, suffers from a fear of failure. It’s harder to try things in NY, not just because it’s expensive to do so, but because the consequences of failing in NY are greater, so people tend to be more conservative. Also, because the largest market is there, they are too often looking to it for their own sense of self-worth. And, the art schools in NY are often very run-down and many do not treat their faculty very well. They know that people will work under less than adequate conditions just in order to stay in New York. So, it actually keeps them from striving to make great teaching/learning environments.

Q. What do you think your move implies about the state of the arts in either city?

A. I’m not sure my move implies anything for anyone other than that it
is time for me to make a move in my life. I see it as now or never.
And, I always imagined I’d return to NY. But now I’ll actually be
living between both cities for some time.

Q. What sort of responses have you gotten from SAIC staff and students
since you’ve decided to move?

A. I have been amazed by the emails, so much outpouring of love and appreciation for me and also for Jana and all the School has been able to accomplish. I never imagined anything like this. I thought I’d get anger or anxiety, but I’ve gotten so much love and so many testimonials and thanks to for things I’ve done, we’ve done together to build the School. I could never have imagined it, did not ever imagine it. It has made me cry quite a bit. I’m very moved and emotional about it all.

Q. What do you think SAIC needs in order to succeed in your absence?

A. SAIC is on a great course. It just needs to keep that course. We’ve got so many new programs and more in the works. The hires of new faculty we’ve made in the last few years are extraordinary. The School really knows where it is going, it just needs to keep its confidence and move forward, finish bringing on the new programs that are in the works, like Arts Journalism, Media Studies and so forth.Build the newer programs in Design to reach their maximum potential, keep making affiliations with other major universities to continue the collaborations we’ve begun. The School needs to flesh out all the new programs it has begun, bring on the few still remaining, and just deepen its base of ideas. It really is in great shape. So, keep the course, that’s what I’d say and don’t miss a beat. There are wonderful people who know how to keep it moving. There is leadership in place to take up the challenge. I’m not worried.

Q. What precipitated your move?

A. I have never looked for another job. Several wonderful jobs have been offered to me during the course of my time at the School but I never felt it was the right time to leave, nor was I pulled to leave by the new institution or the city I would be living in. Columbia came after me in a very sane and pointed way and no matter what obstacles I put in their path, they just kept insisting that they could overcome them. They wanted me to head the School of the Arts, to build it and they were willing to give me resources for the School of the Arts to do that up front. And, it was the right time for me to go home to New York, my other home, and to a large university where my own intellectual development began and where it might continue in unimaginable ways. it was just the right place at the right time and also, of course, my sense that my work at the School was almost complete. SAIC has shaped my entire life for so long, I just thought it was time to shake that up a bit. But it was never for lack of love for this institution or my belief that it is the best art school in the country. It was just that after 28 years, it was time for a change.

Q. How will your absence affect the students? Who will be in charge when
you leave?

A. Once people realize that there is already a strong team in the Deans’ Office who are very smart about where the School is and where it still needs to go, they will relax. I think there should be an interim dean of faculty. I think there should be a search for a new dean that would begin in the fall. I think SAIC should go forward with the new searches it had planned for ’07-08. I think it should bring on the new programs we have imagined. And I think some of the people working on the ground should be promoted to reflect their growth and the added responsibilities they will be taking on.

if all those things are done, the School will be just fine. None of this should affect the students. You all have a miraculous faculty and staff who will continue to do a great job for all of you.

I hope SAIC will always invite me back with open arms since I will be in and out of Chicago a great deal in the next years and so many of my closest friends and my partner Jack are still here. I’d always like to be part of the School in any way I can. And, I will try to find ways that we can continue to work together. SAIC has been my emotional and intellectual home for a very long time.

One Response to An Interview with Outgoing Dean Carol Becker

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