For Paula Wallace, inspiration has always been found in the classroom.
Wallace is the president and founder of the Savannah College of Art and Design, a private, nonprofit, accredited university. Wallace’s career as an elementary school teacher served as the motivation to create a “student-centered” comprehensive art and design university. She held the position of academic dean and provost of SCAD for 22 years and was appointed president of the university in 2000. Under her tenure, the university has more than doubled its enrollment from less than 5,000 students to more than 13,000. Today, the university has locations in Savannah and Atlanta; Lacoste, France, and Hong Kong, as well as eLearning.
Over the years Wallace has created and espoused an array of university events, including SCAD Fashwknd, the Savannah Film Festival, SCAD Define Art, SCAD A TV Fest, SCAD Style and the SCAD Sidewalk Arts Festival. Here, Wallace talks to WWD about founding SCAD, her career in education and relays advice for young design talent.
WWD: What led you to create the Savannah College of Art and Design? What were some of the challenges you faced?
Paula Wallace: I was in my early 20s and working as an elementary school teacher in Atlanta when the idea of SCAD came to me. In my classroom, knowledge was taught in student-centered, creative and nurturing ways, with a through-line of accountability. I observed my students’ remarkable achievements and delight in learning, and I thought, ‘Why can’t higher education be the same way?’ I didn’t know of such a university and I couldn’t imagine a future for my students without one. And so, SCAD.
I always knew I wanted SCAD to be different, to reimagine what education could be like. At SCAD, we go beyond what’s expected, always. It’s how we’ve become the world’s preeminent art and design university. Perhaps our first real challenge was getting those first few students through the door. We weren’t at first sure if anyone would show up. We enrolled 71 students at SCAD in our first year, 1979. Nearly 40 years later, SCAD students — almost 13,000 of them — can immerse themselves in their academic and professional pursuits through Bachelor’s and Master’s degree programs in the United States, France, Hong Kong and online.
SCAD is very different and academia is notoriously bound by tradition. An art and design university focused on preparing students for creative careers? Nearly 40 years later, we’ve replaced that question mark with an exclamation point — or perhaps more accurately, a percentage point, with an alumni employment rate of 98 percent. SCAD students and alumni are in demand. Now people know exactly what to expect from SCAD: excellence.
WWD: How is the SCAD curriculum differentiated from other design universities in the U.S. and overseas?
P.W.: The depth and breadth of SCAD’s undergraduate and graduate degree programs distinguish SCAD, as well as the positive energy evident on each of our campuses in North America, Europe and Asia. The opportunity to establish lifetime friendships and international professional networks at a high level across many disciplines further distinguishes SCAD.
We create and refine our 100+ degree programs in constant conversation with the professions our students enter upon graduation. In-depth and real-time research of creative industries and analysis of big data inform course content. Boldface names (Francisco Costa, Carl Magnusson, Mahershala Ali, to name a few) come to classrooms to impart expertise and perspective. Our signature events — Savannah Film Festival, SCAD A TV Fest, SCAD Define Art, SCAD Style and SCAD Fashwknd — set new standards for celebrating art and design careers and achievements. SCAD Collaborative Learning Center projects and partnerships with blue chip brands (Google, L’Oréal, The Home Depot) allow for real-world application of design concepts. Our unparalleled Career and Alumni Success office opens endless gateways to global professions — SCAD hosted 556 employer visits this past academic year. And our unequaled international community of students, faculty, professionals, pre-students and alumni, keeps SCAD always ahead. SCAD puts the “know” in knowledge.
Because SCAD is a private, independent, nonprofit university, students and parents can be assured that students’ needs and interests are served. In fact, over 800 siblings have attended SCAD in recent years. SCAD is family.
WWD: Would you elaborate on SCAD’s passion for historic preservation and urban renewal?
P.W.: In 1978 I was searching for a home for SCAD, and Savannah immediately enchanted me — as it does nearly everyone who visits. I can only guess the soil is some magic mix of intuition, imagination, invention. What else would have inspired Oglethorpe to create such a perfect city plan, or Sherman to save it?
Though much of the city was in need of some TLC by the time I arrived, I saw the potential for success already here. Storied architecture, renowned city plan, the Atlantic Ocean breeze. There’s something special in the air. People say that Savannah needed SCAD, though it’s equally true that SCAD needed Savannah. Urban renewal had bypassed Savannah, so when SCAD was invented, numerous vacant civic and residential structures yearned for new use.
On SCAD’s global campuses, we’ve sought that same unique impression and we’ve adopted the same city-as-campus approach. Atlanta has public parks and corporate headquarters galore. SCAD added invention, creativity and a hip cool factor. The halcyon landscape of Lacoste cradles the medieval village we’ve meticulously restored. Hong Kong, a global epicenter, offered SCAD a grand midcentury courthouse now revitalized and humming with positive energy.
WWD: What inspired SCAD Fashwknd?
P.W.: SCAD always seeks to meet three main criteria when it comes to decision-making: Does it align with SCAD’s mission and the best interest of our students? Do our industry friends and alumni affirm it? Does our research support it? The concept of SCAD Fashwknd checked all three boxes and the event proved its authority.
The changing face of fashion — where real-time presentations are being boldly reimagined, where retail and e-tail are increasingly focused on user experience, where luxury brands are seeking new strategies to stay competitive — called SCAD to set the stage in higher education.
A full-on runway show in Savannah and tableaux vivant vignettes in Atlanta presented professionally juried garments. SCAD Fashwknd granted students experience with different formats. We celebrated other areas integral to fashion — jewelry and accessory design, two distinct SCAD programs — with public receptions and static shows of student work, in addition to SCAD alumni footwear, accessories, and clothing available for purchase via the shop-the-runway aspect of SCAD Fashwknd. This new point of purchase, as well as our sponsorship by Rolls-Royce, was a deliberate link to the SCAD luxury and fashion management degree program, and our positioning of the premier event proved a valuable case study for our fashion marketing and management students.
As the leader in art and design education and career preparation, SCAD puts students at the vanguard of creative ideation. With SCAD Fashwknd, we took our show on the road.
WWD: What advice would you give someone considering a career in fashion or design?
P.W.: First and foremost, earn a degree that will deliver on your dreams. And be discerning in where you choose to study.
SCAD students commence their careers before graduation. Across SCAD’s rigorous coursework, students learn to professionally research, refine, execute, and present their concepts, products and portfolios. Sophisticated resources and services (like the largest physical library holdings of any art and design university, or the innovative, results-oriented staff of Career and Alumni Success), industry-leading technologies (Ultra HD 4K cameras, Foley soundstages, 3-D printers), and a wide array of extended learning opportunities (screenings, lectures, master classes, workshops, charrettes) allow students to cultivate and tailor their interests and abilities.
Everywhere students look, they see models of professional excellence: premier events, like SCAD Fashwknd and SCAD Style; renowned collections and exhibitions at the SCAD Museum of Art and SCAD Fash Museum of Fashion + Film; the SCAD Collaborative Learning Center, higher education’s most in-demand creative think tank and prototyping center. Even our sophisticated, award-winning built environment sets the tone for success, providing students with spaces that encourage them to realize their highest aspirations. One SCAD parent described SCAD as filled with “beautiful buildings, professional technology and good vibes.”
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