Good Timing for the New Guy

Lucky G. David Pollick. Last month he was formally inaugurated as the 13th head of the School of the Art Institute at what looks to be one of the most auspicious moments in the school’s 127-year history. Applications are growing in number, the school’s endowment is in reasonably good shape, and the ugliness surrounding the showing of artist David Nelson’s controversial painting of Harold Washington in frilly lingerie is long past if not forgotten. The importance of the arts is being fiercely debated even as high culture in America is being threatened from every side. What’s more, Pollick officially assumed his new position in the same week U.S. News & World Report issued its annual guide to the nation’s best graduate schools. At the top of the list of institutions offering master’s degrees in fine arts was SAIC, which tied with Yale after years of falling lower in the rankings.

Pollick attributes the school’s newly enhanced prestige to several factors. Chief among them is its reputation for selectivity; for every 1,100 applicants to its graduate programs, the school chooses around 200. Despite the hardships the arts are facing, Pollick believes fine arts graduate schools with good reputations aren’t going to suffer enrollment drops in the long haul. “There will always be people who do what they love in spite of the risks involved.” The School of the Art Institute now also boasts a new $12-million, 18-floor facility at 112 S. Michigan. A former athletic club, the new building will serve as a residence hall and site for special events and conferences; it also contains graduate studio space and a public screening room. Pollick believes the new building will increase the sense of community among students, who previously had to forage for housing. “Now we won’t have so much of that feeling of being a commuter community.”

Pollick is taking a clear stand on students’ right to freedom of expression, an issue that plagued his predecessor, Tony Jones, most notably during the nasty battle with the city over Nelson’s painting. Insists Pollick: “Artists should be allowed to make us uncomfortable.” In his inaugural address, Pollick said the student body must not be afraid to speak out however controversial the message: “We have not sufficiently participated in our country’s efforts to discern and imagine….We must widen our conversations….We must place ourselves in those settings where our voices will be heard, where our imaginations can touch the future.” Pollick particularly wants to increase interaction between his students and the corporate community, by encouraging more shows of students’ work in corporate offices and setting up meetings between students and corporate managers where they can cross-pollinate on the subject of creativity. “I think there are synergies between the two groups, but right now they don’t have a common language.”

The 46-year-old Pollick has never held a post at an art school before; his undergraduate degree and his postgraduate work are in philosophy, and at times his manner of speaking is decidedly opaque. Take, for instance, the first line of his inaugural speech: “I’m not sure if it was the human need to go somewhere–anywhere other than where we were–or the desire to know if where we were was where we wanted to be, or maybe the simple manner we have of describing where we are by pointing out how far we are from where we’re not.” The school’s board of trustees plucked Pollick from a post as provost and vice president for academic affairs at the State University of New York at Cortland, apparently because they liked his ideas about making the school a more active voice within the ranks of higher education. Pollick jumped at the job, he says, because his own life was becoming “remarkably redundant” as he worked his way up the administrative ladder. “Taking this job reintroduced an element of risk in my life.”

Pollick says he’s worried about whether the school is giving its students the best experience it can. He also wants to increase minority enrollment, a tough challenge at an institution where tuition and living expenses now exceed $20,000 a year.

Stage Left’s Cure: New Blood, New Money

What a difference 18 months can make. In 1992 the 12-year-old Stage Left Theatre was on the verge of collapse: most of its longstanding leaders had abandoned the company, complaining of burnout and the absence of financial remuneration, and the momentum that had helped the company carve out a niche for itself had all but vanished. But a small band of believers held on and brought in new blood, and now the organization is on a road to recovery. Among the newcomers to the ten-person outfit is managing director Drew Martin, a former business manager at Court Theatre and Perkins Productions and a talented director who has helped shape a five-year plan for the company. In early 1993 the small ensemble chose members Mike Troccoli and Sandra Verthein as co-artistic directors, and also committed to a subscription drive and a full season of plays dealing with social and political issues in keeping with the company’s artistic mission. Though Stage Left lost its lease last season on the 71-seat space at 3244 N. Clark that had been its home for many years, it has continued producing at the Organic Theater and now at the new American Blues Theatre space on West Byron. Over the past 12 months it has sent grant proposals to almost all the city’s philanthropic foundations to help build up a production fund. Now, Martin says, the company is focusing on pulling in money from private contributors. Stage Left’s budget for this year’s three-play season (the current Boomtown is the second on the schedule) is $110,000; for 1994-’95 it will grow to between $150,000 and $180,000. But perhaps the biggest challenge facing the company is finding a new home. Ideally it would like to move into a space where it can carve out a main stage that would seat around 150 and a second stage for developing new works that would seat between 50 and 80. Martin says Stage Left is looking at a “couple of building options” that fit its requirements but that no deal has been executed.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.