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Growing the Arts: A Conversation With Kendall College of Art and Design President Oliver Evans

Oliver EvansLongtime Kendall College of Art and Design President Oliver Evans is retiring after close to two decades at the college.

President Evans has not only been recognizable as the public face of Kendall but also as an advocate throughout West Michigan for the importance of innovative design. The college has almost tripled in enrollment under his presidency, and the campus is set to expand next year when the renovated former Federal Building re-opens as classroom, gallery and administrative space. Ferris Magazine talked to President Evans about his leadership, changes at Kendall and in the city of Grand Rapids, and his favorite artistic medium.

Ferris Magazine: By the time you retire, you will have been with Kendall for 18 years. What kind of changes have you seen at Kendall during your time with the college?

Oliver Evans: Let me start with what has remained consistent, which is an extraordinary commitment on the part of the faculty toward our students and preparing them for the professional world. When I arrived, the college had some issues with declining enrollment, but what has remained consistent throughout is the quality of instruction. The growth of the college is one thing that has certainly changed. We’ve gone from about 500 students to, now, about 1,400. Plus, there has been the growth of the physical plant. Key to that has been the merger with Ferris. It was a merger that was carefully constructed over three or four years to ensure that the college became a genuine part of Ferris and a real asset for the University. The leadership, first of Bill Sederburg and now of David Eisler, has been key to the success of Kendall, because the college has been able to explore options for itself, develop programs and move in new directions. The emergence of Kendall as a strong downtown college that reflects the commitment of Ferris to Grand Rapids has perhaps been the most transformative thing about the college in the last 18 years. Kendall has gone from something Grand Rapids has always liked and admired to something that is increasingly a point of pride for the city.

FM: Could you expand on that and talk a little about the changes you’ve seen in Grand Rapids?

OE: Kendall always benefitted from the fact Grand Rapids has a very vibrant yet very safe downtown. The commitment to the quality of Grand Rapids’ downtown in terms of the community is really extraordinary. The city has built upon its ability to draw in diverse populations and provide diverse attractions — from festivals to plays to exhibitions, galleries, the Grand Rapids Symphony and so on. Kendall has a long and very good relationship with Opera

Grand Rapids, for example, in terms of opportunities they provide for students. We also have a good relationship with the Grand Rapids Ballet Company. It’s the visual and performing arts together that invigorate the downtown, along with things such as a vibrant restaurant scene. Grand Rapids combines the advantages of an urban setting and the atmosphere of a smaller city. The partnership that led to the development of student housing at 5 Lyon has been an important part of creating the feeling of a downtown campus, and now the renovation of the old Federal Building is adding to this very stable and exciting environment.

FM: In terms of cultural life, there’s also ArtPrize, which has gotten so much attention nationally.

OE: Yes. Kendall has been a venue for a number of artists – the most dramatic of which is the seven-story-tall mural by Jeff Zimmerman on our north wall. One of the things that ArtPrize has done is create opportunities to for us collaborate — from the Women’s City Club, which asked us to curate an exhibition, to the JW Marriott, which offered us the opportunity to exhibit student work.

FM: Kendall has launched a number of new degrees and programs. Can you give an overview of some of those developments?

OE: Perhaps the single most significant development in terms of new degrees is the addition of graduate degrees. We are seen as offering a premier Art Education program, and that’s a result of the quality of the Education program at Ferris, working in combination with the Art program here. The Innovation and Design Management MBA also could not have happened without the merger. Again, it speaks to the strengths of Ferris — in this case, the College of Business, as well as the Design program here. At the undergraduate level, we are at the beginning of three new programs that will be very interesting: Fashion Studies, which began this fall, and then BFA degrees in Collaborative Design, and also one in Medical Illustration, which we are doing in collaboration with Michigan State University. Those were approved by the Ferris board last summer. We talked about changes in Grand Rapids, and one that is certainly profound is the growth of the health care industry in town. Michigan State’s presence, and the fact we were able to collaborate with them, has made a big difference in our ability to offer that kind of program.

FM: With the challenges in the economy over the past few years, have you seen any change in students pursuing applied degrees over those in the fine arts?

OE: The applied programs have always been the largest programs here. In that sense, there has not been a shift, although there has been considerable growth in the fine arts programs during this time. I think the reason we’ve gone through this economic downturn and yet been able to increase enrollment is our commitment to preparing people for professional lives. Even in the fine arts areas, people sometimes think, “Well, does that really lead to something?” There are two ways in which it does. If you’re in the MFA program you can go into teaching, and we’ve had very good success with our alumni there. Or, if you’re an undergraduate, there’s graduate school, but there’s also work with galleries. If someone wants to pursue fine art, they want to pursue fine art because of a drive they have. However, students sense that they will be able to pursue their passions on a professional level when they finish their degrees because they’re coming out of a school that is committed to professional preparation.

FM: This is probably an unfair question, but do you have a favorite artistic medium?

OE: I came to Kendall with what I would call a limited knowledge of design, both in terms of what it is and what it does. And so part of the influence Kendall has had on me is in terms of becoming an advocate for the importance of design. It has been particularly interesting to watch the perception of design as an economic driver emerge more and more strongly, especially in West Michigan. The relationship we’ve been able to establish with Design West Michigan [a regional advisory group] is a natural outcome of that. On the fine arts side, a goal I have is learning to draw. I know there are faculty members at this institution who could teach me! One of my favorite things here is to take people on a tour of the corridor where beginning drawing students’ art is displayed. Most people think these students have been drawing for years and years and years. Many of them have, but in terms of advanced instruction, they’re just starting out. It’s amazing work.

FM: What will people think about when they think about the Oliver Evans presidency at Kendall?

OE: I just hope people think I was the right person at this particular time in the college’s history, when Kendall needed to work through some decisions. I go back to the fact that I don’t come from the world of art and design, so I can’t really drive these programs in terms of saying, “I know what a painting program should look like, so you should do this.” All you can really try to do is nurture an environment in which programs can do the things they need to do. I hope I was able to help that happen.

FM: What are your post-Kendall plans?

OE: As soon as I announced I was going to retire, I felt like I was 18 again. People were asking me what I was going to do when I grew up! In a sense, I didn’t know what I was going to do when I was 18, and, in a sense, I don’t know now. I hope to stay in higher education one way or another. That might involve teaching, but not as a full-time professor. Beyond that, my wife, Eileen, and I have grandchildren, and I hope to be able to devote more time to them.

In some ways, this is a good time for me to retire — Kendall is at a good place in terms of both enrollment and programmatic growth. And, it’s a good time for the college to be asking itself where it wants to be five and 10 years from now. It’s similar to the Federal Building renovation – we know what it’s going to look like, but we really don’t know the complete impact it’s going to have a decade from now. The nice thing about retirement is I think they’ll invite me back to commencement and the student exhibitions and so on. I’m looking forward to that. When I first interviewed here, the student exhibition was the thing that really defined the school for me, so I’m looking forward to coming back and seeing how that definition continues to evolve.

Kendall has awarded a number of honorary doctorates, and I’m struck by the number of honorees who distinguished themselves by their accomplishments later in life. The ways in which people can re-invent themselves are fascinating. So I’m interested in that, although I don’t yet know exactly what that might entail.