Inside the Savannah College of Art and Design

Michael Turek

The small Southern school earns big respect in the worlds of fashion and design.

Standing on a small pavilion at the Ronald C. Waranch Equestrian Center at the Savannah College of Art and Design, overlooking a 100-acre spread of lush, dewy pastures, gleaming barns and the precisely timed jumps of champion rider and SCAD senior Kels Bonham—the whole scene a Vaseline-lens Garden & Gun centerfold of Southern gentility—I put what I hope is not too impertinent a question out into the soft air: “So why exactly does an art and design school have an equestrian studies program?”

“It does seem kind of odd,” allows Jessica Anselmo, the associate director of equestrian programs. “At the same time, it is kind of artistic: We had a girl come out the other day, who covered a horse in icing and took pictures. I’m not a real art person so I don’t know what was going on, but it was incredible.” Many equestrian studies students, she adds, are double majors: Some fashion students have designed lines of equestrian clothing, while architecture students have worked on barn design. “Horses have severe allergies to dust and hay particles,” she says, as we walk through a stable lined with artfully arranged saddles, a Ralph Lauren fantasia smelling of leather and grass. “In this area allergies can rage because of the heat. You want the wind to blow through in a particular manner.”

I had heard—through the rather fervid network of gossip that a small city like Savannah provides—that the real reason the school had equestrian studies was that its cofounder and president, Paula Wallace, was passionate about horses. So when we meet on the opening day of the new SCAD Museum of Art—a structure interwoven with the ruins of the only surviving collection of antebellum railroad buildings in the country—I ask her. She laughs. “I have two dogs,” she says, “no horses.” The impetus, it turns out, was a student from Quito, Ecuador. “Her mother kept writing me, saying, ‘She can’t bring her horse that far. Would you think about having an equestrian program?’ ” A developer offered to donate 80 acres if they were used for this purpose, and a state-of-the-art complex was built. Today, SCAD has a championship team and 25 students in its equestrian program.

The story of how the school came to have an equestrian program is not unlike how many things happen at SCAD: because there was an opportunity and because it seemed like a good idea. This is, essentially, how a school that’s barely three decades old—its first graduates could still be considered “mid-career”—established in a place hardly regarded as a nexus of contemporary art and design, has come to join the ranks of stalwart institutions like the Rhode Island School of Design, Pratt Institute and Parsons The New School for Design (several faculty members have been lured from New York). That and the extra bit of pluck required of a school outside the power orbit to compete: getting people like Oliver Stone to its film festival, or fêting Miuccia Prada with a lifetime achievement award at its annual fashion show.

Consider, for example, SCAD’s latest location—improbably, in Hong Kong. As the campus’s vice president, John Paul Rowan (who is also Paula Wallace’s son), explains over dinner one night, it was in talking to the increasing number of Chinese students (now representing the greatest percentage of its international population) that led to the idea. “We asked them, ‘Why are you choosing SCAD? What are you missing?’ ” he says. In Hong Kong they found a huge metropolis without a degree-granting college for art and design—and, because of that, an opening. “There was a redevelopment program within the government for taking old, unused public facilities and retrofitting them for nonprofit use,” Rowan says. And so SCAD found a 1960s courthouse—old in Hong Kong is not the same as old in Savannah—built for the magistracy for the northern Kowloon district. And then it started asking employers what skills they wanted to see in graduates. “That really led us to focus on digital media,” says Rowan. “A lot of filming is being done in other parts of Asia, but postproduction happens in Hong Kong. That’s where the huge value-add services are.”

It’s almost a microcosm of how SCAD itself started: finding a building and opening an art school in a town that didn’t have one. In 1978, Wallace and her then husband—both educators from Atlanta—bought “an old building that we thought was too large for our purposes,” and set up shop, first with a gallery, then a school. “We brought in our kitchen table,” says Wallace. “That’s where we interviewed our first faculty members.” There were a handful of majors and less than 100 students—there are now 100-plus degree programs and more than 11,000 students, drawn from all 50 states and 105 countries, with alumni found in companies ranging from Pixar to BMW Group DesignworksUSA to Intel. “We were stripping paint, answering the one phone. It was all hands on deck; we learned by doing. If I had known everything ahead of time, I might have been deterred.”

Are you here for SCAD?” the receptionist at the Avia Hotel asks. She’s making friendly conversation, in the way that always catches a New Yorker off guard, but it’s a fair assumption. For if I’m not with the big group heading to wait in line at Paula Deen’s restaurant, there’s a good chance my visit has something to do with the school, as it is now as integral to the city’s identity as the leafy historic squares.

Its presence is felt everywhere, from the obvious to the subtle—flipping through Savannah Magazine on the flight down, for example, I notice that nearly every featured contributor is a SCAD alum or faculty member. But on this weekend, it’s like SCAD on steroids, from the searchlights sweeping the sky outside Trustees Theater—the one marked “SCAD,” a 1,100-seat Art Moderne gem—where celebrities like Alec Baldwin are enjoying The Artist at the opening of the SCAD-hosted Savannah Film Festival, to the glittering jewel-box structure that is the centerpiece of the college’s new art museum, which is celebrating its own opening and is designed by alumnus Christian Sottile, dean of the School of Building Arts. And it seems like you can’t take a step without running into SCAD trustees—who have come from Atlanta to Paris—in town for the events.

As with so many prominent Southern families and institutions, SCAD is not without some eccentricity and scandal in its history. A 1997 Lingua Franca article chronicled it as “one of the more bizarre tales in contemporary academia,” a gothic story of unrest “replete with pipe bombs, surveillance campaigns and multimillion-dollar lawsuits.” (SCAD still finds itself on the American Association of University Professors’ “censure list” for events that happened two decades ago.) And at times, SCAD, with its promotional and entrepreneurial zeal, does things that seem to run against prevailing academic orthodoxy; for example, in 2008 The Chronicle of Higher Education reported on Wallace’s unusually generous compensation—$1.9 million split between the nonprofit school and the for-profit foundation—which college officials defended as a deferred pay package (and which, it might be noted, is on par with what a football coach at a state college might receive with far less grumbling).

But, contra William Faulkner—“The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past”—the tumult seems to be history, and what one primarily notices is the sheer scale of SCAD in the city’s landscape. Driving one afternoon with Jeff Eley, chair of the school’s historic preservation program, we travel through the moss-decked environs of what is considered the nation’s largest historic district. “Savannah’s a marvelous place to teach preservation and architectural history,” he says. “As an affluent community in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it’s reflected in a range of important styles, technologies and materials.”

The school, from its first project (the 1893 Volunteer Guards Armory), has now restored more than 70 buildings throughout the city; one can scarcely go a block without encountering one. On Broughton Street, Eley points to SCAD’s sprawling Jen Library, a former department store. “It was empty for about 12 years,” Eley says (as was the Trustees Theater across the street). “When I arrived, half of the spaces on Broughton were vacant.” All the energy had shifted to the suburbs; downtown endured what Eley calls “preservation by neglect.” Would the Marc Jacobs boutique and twee tea shops have come anyway? Eley’s not sure, but adds, “I can’t tell you how many times people have asked: ‘Can you create a SCAD in our town?’ ” It’s a symbiotic relationship: By helping improve what was already a destination town, SCAD gets more students, and the city gets more visitors. “Families of students buy condos. They just enjoy being in Savannah,” says Wallace. “Sometimes on weekends, they don’t even visit their kids.” (For more on Savannah, see “Hot Spots of Savannah.”)

A few blocks away, inside a gabled 19th-century Queen Anne known as the Harden House, we find SCAD students at work refinishing a grand staircase. Purchased by private investors, students are doing everything from sanding to historical paint analysis to sifting through the architect’s archives in Boston, working in one of the greatest outdoor classrooms in America. The school has even begun branching outside of the historic district, bringing a certain “SCAD effect” to neighborhoods like the Starland District. “About a year or two ago they opened Arnold Hall [which houses the School of Liberal Arts and an auditorium] a couple of blocks from me,” says Rob Walker, author of Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are and a Starland resident. “I would say that pretty much as a direct result, there’s now a few restaurants and coffee shops. This is why I’m all for SCAD’s impact on Savannah—it’s not just that they do a nice job rehabilitating buildings, but there’s a knock-on effect that benefits the whole area.”

SCAD’s strategy of proactively seeking out promising educational markets is paying off in enrollment—and prestige. “When SCAD started, fashion used to be a little corner in the building, shared with fibers and painting,” says School of Fashion dean Michael Fink. “Now I’m bursting at the seams. I have to find a new building.”

What makes this remarkable is that the School of Fashion is housed in a looming former public school, with large sun-drenched rooms and sculptural details on the exterior. “We’ve had a double-digit increase every year in the School of Fashion,” Fink says. “This year we had the second-largest percentage increase in enrollment in the entire school.” (SCAD admits around 57 percent of applicants.)

When Fink, a fashion veteran (who nattily plays the part) and former director of women’s fashion at Saks Fifth Avenue, first got a call from SCAD a number of years back to serve on the accreditation board, he jokes about not knowing where Savannah was. “But you could see the potential,” he says. “They’d been cultivating this small program.” Carmela Spinelli, who chairs both fashion accessories and design and came from Parsons, says one of the benefits of the location is that “we don’t have the pressure of the New York fashion industry on our back. There’s a quirkiness you don’t get up there.” Adds Fink: “What we’re hearing from recruiters and designers is that our students have this refreshing, non-blasé attitude about the industry.”

One way SCAD, as a small-market school (not unlike the Oakland A’s in Moneyball), competes is by finding strong niches. It is, Fink notes, to his knowledge, the only school that offers an MFA in fashion-accessory design, luring people like professor of accessory design Marcell Mrsán, a renowned master shoemaker, from Budapest. As we watch Mrsán comment on a student’s pump—elaborately brocaded with finger coral, Swarovski crystal, fool’s gold and oiled lava—Fink says of the MFA, “there’s a total need for it. A lot of these companies are making most of their money off of accessories, but nobody’s teaching it. It’s our fastest-growing program.”

A similar ethos exists at the Gulfstream Center for Industrial and Furniture Design, whose very name reflects the program’s emphasis on partnerships with industry. And while students spend a lot of time designing things—my favorite was a Corian-topped outdoor park bench that cleverly doubles as a bike rack, designed by MFA student Matt Gray—here, too, SCAD has looked for a competitive advantage. “We are the only program with a BFA and an MFA in service design,” says School of Design dean Victor Ermoli, as we tour the building, which formerly housed a beer distributor. Service design, an emerging discipline, looks at creating entire consumer experiences, from the delivery of bank statements to the whole purchasing process at retailers such as J.C. Penney. Locally based Gulfstream, for example, has tasked the center with a rather unique exercise: “After a very wealthy person gives a deposit of $10 million for a private jet,” says Ermoli, “how do we keep them interested for the next 28 months, when they’re just holding a ticket?”

Pausing in a classroom, Ermoli points out the dearth of drafting tables. “We use regular conference tables because that’s what students will encounter in places they’re going to be working,” he says, “drawing napkin sketches in meetings.” It’s a small touch that speaks volumes about how this once small school has succeeded, by being slightly off-center and yet eminently practical.