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Interview With David Rhodes, President, School Of Visual Arts

Transcribed by Mohammad ibrar

David Rhodes, President of the School of Visual Arts since 1978, has increased the student enrollment, course offerings, faculty and campus to an amazing 18 buildings! The curriculum has changed with the innovative technological advancements occurring in the fields of photography, film, art, and design.

Dr. Pola Rosen (PR): We last visited you in 2007. What’s new since then?

President David Rhodes (DR): We now have 18 buildings including  a dormitory on Ludlow Street, academic space at West 21st street and West 16th street, and a theatre at West 23rd street. It seats 750 and we host, in part, the Tribeca Film Festival in addition to our own film festivals. This March we’ll be hosting a BBC film festival on films on design. One of the things we hope to accomplish is to have a real world-class theater with world-class projection and sound. There’s actually a studio that wants to use one of the theaters to help mix sound on actual feature length films. They come in, bring in their sound editing equipment, project the film on the screen and make sure it sounds right. So, we’ll be doing that which will open up internships and opportunities for students.

PR: Is the theater primarily designed for students to showcase their work or is it to collaborate with outside organizations?

DR: It’s supposed to be a cultural destination for Chelsea, so it’s primarily for collaboration. Currently, there is no central focus in Chelsea; we would like it to become that over time. In becoming a growing attraction to the neighborhood, we will be doing the neighborhood a public service.

There are certain times when we reserve the theater for student use, film department, animation, MFA thesis defenses, design or interaction design are all held there. We expect in the fall to be hosting the Documentary Film Festival. And we’re looking into doing the only professional animation festival, in the world.

PR: Do you have a major in professional animation?

DR: There are three different programs. One is an undergraduate program in animation. Another is part of the computer art/computer animation and special effects program. And third, is the graduate level in the computer art program, which is very successful in garnering student academy awards. The program seems to win about one a year. The undergraduate and graduate programs dominate a festival called Metrocafe, which is a festival for animation programs for the Northeast area, and at the last one, 14 of the 25 films chosen were from SVA.

PR: One of our team members, Mohammad Ibrar, posed the following question: Your graduate programs are expanding in all fields of visual art and design; what about your undergraduate programs?

DR: The latest undergraduate program created is visual and critical studies. They are expanding slowly and in a controlled manner; growing at a rate of 1 or 2 percent a year.  It’s not clear that we will be adding any additional programs at the undergraduate level in the immediate future.

Program expansion is more likely to occur at the graduate level. There are things we’d like to do in design management or an interesting architecture program but at the moment after having grown so quickly at the graduate level we think for the next five years our emphasis will be to consolidate and ensure that all programs are functioning in the way we want them to function. Meaning, they at least have five applicants or more for each place available in each program. We need to grow the applicant base by allowing the programs to mature without having to divert our resources to promote new programs. We’ll eventually have a graduate population between 700-750. We are opening multiple programs with a certain number of applicants for each, such as: Design and Social Innovation that’ll have 50, Products of Design that’ll have 36, Critical Theory in the Arts that’ll have 14 and a Visual Narrative program that’ll have 50 over 3 years.

PR: We are now in 21st century—the age of technology. Many colleges and universities have embraced online learning and have done so very successfully and lucratively. What are some of the efforts SVA is attempting in that sphere?

DR: Well, our efforts are much more modest in comparison. We will have three programs that have online components. The first one is our Digital Photography program. Two semesters completed online following a nine-week on-site residency. The second program, Art Practice, an MFA program where the theoretical and historical portion of the program is done online and the remaining on-site. The third program, Visual Narrative is the same. We are looking to do some hybrid coursework, but we are not looking to port entire degree programs to the web. We are concerned that it is very difficult to do studio work, painting and drawing effectively at a distance. We only tried photography because it is already in digital form and displayed on a monitor. It is difficult to conceptualize most of the other things we teach onto the internet. I think we’ll find some solutions to these problems, but I don’t think we’ll move away from the fact that we’re a ‘brick-and-mortar’ place and hands-on. We’d rather have our students here and not at a distance.

PR:  Where are some of your successful graduates today. What kinds of jobs were they able to acquire?

DR: Some of the most interesting jobs have come out of the branding program, which is our version of a Master’s program in Advertising. Students have been employed at 3M, Proctor and Gamble, and others. They are landing jobs that are paying six-figures, right out of school. They are responsible for Brands—brand specialists. They make sure that the value invested in the brand is maximized. They come up with strategies for putting the brand in front of the public, so that it makes a lasting impression. They will design campaigns, what goes into the campaigns, whatever needs to be done to promote the brand.

PR: What is the most popular major?

DR: The largest major is graphic design at the undergraduate level followed closely by photography.

PR: Are there job opportunities available for these students?

DR: We have been finding that there are opportunities available, particularly in design, because it is a very robust industry as it continues to grow in the city. Photography is in an interesting period: magazines are closing down, but websites are expanding. Illustration is in flux, because it is going through a difficult period. Art directors are using more photography rather than illustration. So, students are creating their own books. We had a retrospective show for our MFA students; about three years ago and approximately half of the students had their books published.  So they have taken the core element of the program and taken it one step further— publishing their works commercially.

PR: What is the role of interdisciplinary studies at SVA?

DR: Here students choose a major upon entry, whether at a graduate or undergraduate level. They become immersed in a discipline, and if they would like to move out of the discipline, it can be done, but most students don’t do that. They would rather fully engage themselves into their study, than rather move from one discipline to another.

PR: What about study abroad programs and international students at SVA? Does such an interchange exist?

DR: Twenty-two percent of the undergraduate students are international and thirty-two percent are graduate students. At the same time, we run a series of student exchange programs with institutions abroad; a certain number of students study abroad for a term and their counterparts study at SVA for a term, usually students in the junior year. SVA runs a series of summer programs at Barcelona, Florence, Shanghai, Puerto Rico and Nicaragua. We generally use our own faculty and also hire local faculty to conduct different study abroad programs.  We collaborate with institutions abroad to use their facilities.

PR: Some of the areas you have expanded are the theater and the writing program on criticism. Can you elaborate?

DR: Yes, we have two programs with a third one coming up: an MFA program on literary criticism, a two-year program on design criticism and a one-year program on critical theory in the arts. In the fall of 2012, we will be introducing a product design program and design for social innovation. Additionally, SVA hosts the Dusty Awards for outstanding projects at SVA, named after President Rhodes’ father, the founder of the school.

President Rhodes’ office is filled with photographs from his travels around the world including underwater photography. A great sea turtle adorns one wall, while his encounter with a walrus that almost overturned his kayak, hangs on another. #



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