When Paula Wallace founded the Savannah College of Art and Design, she was 29 and had been working as an elementary school teacher in Atlanta. She opened SCAD's doors with the funds from her parents' retirement nest egg and, according to Georgian folklore, the profits from her banana yellow Volkswagen Beetle. (It was the '70s.)
In the 38 years since SCAD's inception, Wallace has built a world-class university, with 42 majors, a 97-percent placement rate among graduating seniors and an endowment of $83 million, the latter of which has tripled in the past three years. But with no formal training in higher education, Wallace was admittedly an atypical candidate to start an art school, and fully from scratch. At a talk put on as part of SCADstyle on Wednesday, Wallace — now president of the university — discussed just how she did it.
Wallace looked to improvisational comedy's rule-of-thumb — "Yes, and..." — in SCAD's first few years, both rolling with the punches and contributing thoughtful ideas as follow-up. "Yes, and..." proved to be especially useful when renovating SCAD's first building: an armory built in 1751 that had since taken a turn for the worse.
"Could we create a library in an old drill hall? Yes, and let's paint a mural on the floor! Should we transform this grimy, greasy spoon of a diner into our first exhibition space? Yes, and let's cover it in shocking pink and purple Karastan carpet!" In the last 40 years, SCAD has reworked a coffin factory into an animation mega-center, an extant railroad complex into the SCAD Museum of Art and a motor inn into a dormitory. The list, surely, goes on, but Wallace assured the audience that "Yes, and..." is at the heart of every great invention.
2. Treasure your independence.
When it came time to build a library, Wallace and her then-minute staff reached out to a number of public and university libraries across the country with the hope that they might be able to contribute their used books. Calls and letters began rolling in from across the country — and within a year, the library had been built without any large financial donations.
3. Embrace being an outsider.
It was the "advantage of ignorance" that Wallace calls her "secret weapon," employing an especially useful circus simile as her example: "Being an outsider is like sitting high on the bleachers in a circus. A lead stands inside the rings, but the outsider sees all three rings at once."
"We didn't know you weren't supposed to use computers to make art, so we created one of the world's first BFA and MFA degrees in computer art," she said. "We didn't know art students weren't supposed to play sports, so we created the first intercollegiate athletics program at any arts university."
4. To invent your future, look to your history.
When interacting with those with more experience in higher education, Wallace was often told that her background seemed "kind of unusual for this sort of work." To this, Wallace would take solace in her own knowledge — that elementary school teachers are far more than just, well, teachers. "What's more raucous than a school cafeteria? What job is more important to society than teaching someone to read and write?" she said. "Your best ideas are already inside you. Just look into your past."
Wallace's memoir, "The Bee and the Acorn," is now available for pre-order.
Disclosure: SCAD paid for my travel and accommodations to attend and cover the event.