Creativity Matters: Grafton Nunes and the New Unified Campus of the Cleveland Institute of Art


“Our values today are not very different from the values of  Viktor Schreckengost.  We believe in discipline, a close reading of the reality around you, a connection with the viewer and end user.  We give our students traditional drawing skills, and knowledge of color theory, composition, and perspective.  Today these very important foundational skills are being applied to 3D animation, and 3D fabrication, using all the most modern computer programs and tools.  Our students know what to do with these tools.  They’ve been through a creative process that gives them vision and a way to approach problems in a cost-efficient, time- efficient way.”    –Grafton Nunes


One of the landmark achievements of the last decade or two in Cleveland has surely been the consolidation of the Cleveland Institute of Art into a single expanded building—an event that brings together a quite amazing range of creative activities under one roof.  Among these are painting; sculpture and expanded media; printmaking; drawing; ceramics; glass-blowing; jewelry and metalwork; photography and video; animation; game design; biomedical art; industrial design; interior architecture; and graphic design—and this is leaving out some of the other notable features of the building, such as its movie-theater (home of Cinamatheque); its handsome new Reinberger Gallery (with its rapidly growing art collection); its art library with over  50,000 books; and a café where students mingle.


Few places  have facilities of this caliber or have become such bubbling hives of creative activity in the visual arts.  It’s worth stepping back a moment to reflect on how this happened, and on what it could mean for the future of Cleveland as a city.  Depending on one’s perspective, this can be seen as either a bold new departure, or as a natural outgrowth of a school with a history of creative achievement that has not been sufficiently appreciated—perhaps particularly in Cleveland.


What is now the Cleveland Institute of Art originated 135 years ago as a school of art for women.   In the aftermath of the Civil War, women outnumbered men, and had few career options other than marriage or domestic service.  The Cleveland School of Art was founded to provide empowerment to women, to provide them with design skills that would give women an alternative to working as housemaids.  Ironically, in its early years it was men who faced discriminatory barriers when they wanted to attend classes and who often had to double as handymen or janitors to talk their way into the classes being taught.   From the outset the school produced artists of exceptional distinction.  One of the school’s first graduates, for example, was Clara Driscoll, who designed lamps for Louis Tiffany, one of the greatest achievements in the history of American art in any medium.


Significantly, from its inception the school not only taught painting but design and industrial arts, and this notion that there should be a dialogue between different forms of visual expression became part of the fundamental DNA of the institution.    One of the most remarkable and significant events in the history of the school was its creation of America’s first academic program in modern industrial design, which was established by Viktor Schreckengost in 1933.  (Notably, Schreckengost, an innovator in other ways as well, also mentored the first African-American students at the school.)


Schreckengost himself excelled not only in industrial design but in ceramics, painting, sculpture, costume and set design, and seemingly every other possible outlet for artistic expression.   Over the course of his amazing career, he worked with radar, made monumental  sculpture, exhibited his paintings at major museums, fabricated artificial limbs, created the famous Jazz Bowl for Eleanor Roosevelt, and designed bicycles, printing presses, and the first cab-over-engine truck.  But the school never became simply a program of practical design: it continued to produce painters of world-class originality and importance.  Julian Stanczak, for example,  taught at the school for decades and was a key figure in creating the movement popularly known as Op Art; and a recent graduate of the school, Dana Schutz, is today one of the hottest young painters in New York.


Making creative stuff like this happen, of course, has many challenges, and one of them is paying the bills.  During the 1960s the school thrived under the leadership of the legendary businessman George Gund, who served as director of the board, and who wrote a check to make up the school’s deficit every year.  But after he died in 1966, no one in the community was ready to sustain this level of philanthropy.  Compounding the challenge,  federal and state support for education dwindled– particularly in the arts. Indeed, a recent study made clear that if it is to survive, the Cleveland Institute of Art will need  to expand its enrollment, and to derive much of its revenue from tuition.  Former president David Deming saw that in order to do this, the school would need to expand and modernize its facilities—and to consolidate them from two buildings into one.


Deming  engineered the sale of the old building and set the foundation for what has been achieved.  But completion of the project has been energetically spearheaded by the school’s current leader, the dynamic, silver-tongued, savvy, persuasive, politely tough-minded Grafton Nunes, a figure whose somewhat offbeat resume suggests a remarkable ability to combine artistic creativity with businesslike common sense and attention to the bottom line.  Nunes started off his career in the Hollywood film industry,  a business that entails similar challenges of working with intense, eccentric creative people and trying to coax them to bring work in on time and on budget.  He knows what it means to work with artists.


As a young man, fresh out of college, Nunes worked with Paul Schrader at Paramount on such films as American Gigolo and Born in the USA, and then then went on to produce a full-length feature film, The Loveless, which was screened at the Telluride Film Festival and is now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art.  This was the first feature film of Catherine Bigelow, who went on to become the first woman to win an academy award as “Best Director,” and it was also the first movie to feature the actor Willem Dafoe.


At that point, he was hired to direct a program in theater production and management at Columbia University, where he rose to be Associate Dean of the School of Arts; and was then hired away to become founding Dean of the School of the Arts at Emerson College in Boston, whose programs, under his leadership,  quickly rose to national and international prominence.  Among other accomplishments, he started a graduate film program that is now ranked as #8 in the world.


In 2010 Nunes was approached to become President of the Cleveland Institute of Art.  Like many art schools, the CIA was facing serious financial challenges.  But in reviewing its 133-year history, he was inspired, and decided he was ready to take on the challenge of reconfiguring the organization to face the new challenges of the 2st century.


The Institute’s new building  has two parts.  The first is the 1915 Ford Motor Plant which was constructed in 1915 following designs by the famous Detroit architect Albert Kahn, arguably the key figure in developing the principles of modern industrial architecture.  The building combines great walls of glass, which flood the interior with light, with steel-and-concrete pillars and floors nearly as solid as an Egyptian pyramid.  Today it poetically merges the light, airy features of a great art studio with a muscular aura that speaks powerfully of Cleveland’s industrial past.  While the machinery is gone, it’s still not hard to trace the pathway of the conveyer belt that delivered a new Ford Model A to the loading dock every few minutes.  When Grafton Nunes arrived in July 2010 the renovation of this factory building was well underway, and it was completed in December of that year.


By then plans had been drawn for an adjacent structure, which would nearly double the facility’s size, but that had not been started.   When Grafton examined these, however, it became clear that in key functional ways the design fell short.  Above all, it failed a key objective– necessary for the economic survival of the school–which was to expand enrollment from about 500 students to about 650.  To fulfill the goals of the strategic plan, the building  needed to serve a greater number of students without increasing the expense.


Dismissing the original European architect, Nunes sat down with the local firm working on the construction of the project, Stantec  Architecture, led by Anton Germisutzen, to produce a larger, more functional building, largely through a much franker use of industrial materials.  Plywood replaced mahogany paneling; the floors were not covered with linoleum but left a polished concrete; the ceilings were not masked with acoustic tile but left open, with exposed ductwork, but with tectum panels to help absorb sound.  For the student work stations, he had Dan Cuffaro and his students design units made from torn-down houses, essentially saving materials from landfill.  (The success of this design is suggested by the fact that Stanford University just ordered a set of these units for their library.)


“This is an industrial city,” Nunes comments, “and this building is connected with a masterpiece of industrial architecture.  “Why not frankly use industrial materials such a glass, steel, plywood and concrete—rather than hide them behind a false front?”


Another change was to get rid of the construction banners that covered the façade of the building—which to Nunes looked like they would have looked up-to-date in 1980, but not in 2010.  He replaced them with a media screen 35 by 50 feet in size, which makes it possible to display an ever-changing array of images, in four billion color combinations, and which, interestingly, is nearly invisible from the inside.  The decision was made not to ever use this screen for advertising.  Instead, it displays an ever-changing display of art, featuring the work of students and faculty.


The expansion  consolidated many functions, which not only cut expense but also created a new kind of dialogue.  For example, the old, divided campus had two wood shops—one in each building. Now there’s just one.  Consequently students in all disciplines now share the same facility for fabrication.  One student looks at what another is doing—whether with a sense of competition or interest.  One educates the other.   As Grafton Nunes comments:  “Art and Design of the 21st century isn’t about the solitary artist starving in a garret.  It’s about communication and collaboration.”


The highlight of the new space is the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Atrium, which rises three stories, is crossed by walkways which connect the two buildings, and is lit by a skylight 160 feet long.  It forms a sort of street and gathering place, where students and faculty can meet and mingle.


Equally significant to the physical improvements are demographic changes in the student body.  Over the last few years students have come increasingly from other states and other countries.  The  school now energetically recruits in both China and India. In the space of a few years the international student body has risen from 2% to 11% of the whole, and the minority population has risen from 5% to 21%.   At the same time, the school has worked energetically to recruit minority students from greater Cleveland, and has just recently started giving 4-year scholarships to students from the Cleveland Public School System.


The new campus is equipped not only with space for that growth, but with technology and strategy as well. As Nunes says,


“We’re at a very fortunate point in time when visual communication has become a major means to [transmit] information, ideas, and emotions.  Thanks to the computer and to digital imagery we’re moving from a solely literary model of what communication should be to one that’s both literary and visual.  What our students have to offer to society is more important than at any earlier time in human history.  Here at the Cleveland Institute of Arts we’re creating students who are eloquent in the language of visual expression—who can become leaders.”


Perhaps never before in its history has the school been so well  positioned to produce leaders of a new creative age.