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Reporting from San Diego

Sally Gaskill

Yesterday morning I happened to walk down the hall and saw a sign for a “Higher Education Peer Group” session. I am an arts administrator who works in higher education, so I hoped the session would be open to anyone, and I was in luck. I immediately recognized the person in charge: the bow-tied Ron Jones, newly appointed president of the Memphis College of Art.

In Ron’s previous position as Dean of the Arts at the University of South Florida, he had spoken out about the need for data on the people who graduate with arts degrees from our colleges and universities. He had, in fact, become a poster child for the research project I manage at Indiana University – the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project – and is quoted on the SNAAP brochure as follows:  “Accountability is our future, and SNAAP is providing data that heretofore we made up or assumed.” 

Ron is a member of Americans for the Arts’ Arts Education Council, and past president of the International Council of Fine Arts Deans.

He opened the session by saying that he has been concerned for a number of years about the need to extend the arts education conversation beyond K-12 and into higher education.

About 35 people showed up, representing diverse arts programs in colleges and universities all over the country–from the local San Diego State University to Stanford, the University of Texas at Austin, Carnegie-Mellon, and a community college in the Adirondacks.

The discussion was wide-ranging, and included the need for better stories to tell about how arts graduates have transferable skills for the business world; the need for data about the impact of artists in our communities; the affect of student loan debt on artists’ careers. The gratifying thing for me is that SNAAP data can help shed light on these issues.

A management professor from Clark University in Worcester, MA, said that last year IBM surveyed its managers about what they most wanted in their new hires, and the answer was “creativity.” Apparently those of us within the arts know that arts graduates tend to be creative, but people outside the arts don’t necessarily think of that.  Huh.

In the 1990s, I directed the local arts agency in Rochester, NY, and we regularly convened representatives of the 8 or 9 college arts programs from the region. These included the famed Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester, the prestigious fine arts and photography programs at RIT, and the fantastic arts school at Alfred University. Our meetings did not always result in immediate change, but getting people together in the same room was a great start to working together to improve the climate for the arts in higher education.

Here in San Diego, Ron Jones was pleased by the turn-out and the discussion, and promised that he would be in touch with everyone who attended via e-mail. I’m pumped that he took the initiative to convene the group, and that Americans for the Arts has the flexibility to respond to the needs of its diverse constituencies.

Let’s see what happens from here…

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