Exit Interview: Cleveland Institute of Art President Nunes to Retire

DSC_7635: CIA President + CEO Grafton Nunes announces prize winners during the Student Independent Exhibition opening reception in February 2020 in the College’s Reinberger Gallery. Image credit: Robert Muller, courtesy of the Cleveland Institute of Art


Grafton Nunes has a reputation in Cleveland that goes far beyond his role as leader of the
139-year-old Cleveland Institute of Art. Anyone that knows him will tell you he’s a “nice guy.” Nunes has been a constant presence in the local art scene since his arrival in Cleveland in 2010, and has been a vocal supporter of the CAN Journal since our early days. However humble he may be about his own artistic accomplishment, Nunes holds a Master’s Degree in film history, theory and criticism from Columbia. Fresh out of film school, he worked at Paramount on such films as American Gigolo and Born in the USA, and then produced 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. After years of experience in administration at Columbia University and the School of the Arts at Emerson, he landed in Cleveland. At the helm of CIA, he led a $75 million capital campaign that paid for the consolidation and relocation of the entire University Circle campus. The plan involved adding an 80,000-square-foot expansion to the historic
Joseph McCullough Center for the Visual Arts, a former Ford assembly plant on Euclid Avenue that now houses all of CIA’s programs under one roof. He led CIA through the pandemic without a significant loss of enrollment, and is leaving the institution in a far better financial position than when he arrived. He kindly answered my questions about his retirement, his tenure at CIA, and his plans for the future.


What made you decide to retire at this particular moment?

I had always planned to stay in this position for between ten and fifteen years. COVID accelerated my thinking somewhat. We weathered the pandemic, and weathered it well, with students mentored by master teachers in person in their studios with access to technology and materials AND with very few people getting ill. It was very challenging. I used everything I ever learned in 45 years working in higher education, and even with all that experience, we improvised like crazy. Getting through this pandemic safely feels to me like the end of a chapter, which in turn indicates a new chapter. I think CIA is ready for its next chapter.

When I was attending CWRU, CIA was housed in the Gund Building, a mid-century modern masterpiece designed by the architects Garfield, Harris, Robinson and Schafer, and built in the International Style in 1956. Many of my friends completed their degrees working in studios there, and I watched many a Cinematheque film on the hard wooden seats of the Aitken Auditorium, but it was apparent that you had outgrown the limitations of that space. Obviously, selling it brought in the revenue to complete your campus consolidation, but was it bittersweet to watch the building be razed?

It certainly was bittersweet. CIA students, faculty and staff had lived, created, suffered and triumphed in that building for sixty years. Those memories are very powerful. The building systems may have all failed and the windows may have been falling out of their frames, but the spirit of the place was strong.

That was why it was very important to me that we honor the old Gund building as we transitioned to the new Gund building. We offered tours to alumni and celebrated its contributions to the school’s history with remembrances and speeches. We played a New Orleans jazz funeral march as we locked the doors and then paraded through University Circle to the new campus. During the demolition, we retrieved a large quantity of the travertine stone work, which we later distributed to alumni as a memento.

CIA President + CEO Grafton Nunes discusses CIA’s 2020–25 Strategic Plan with faculty and staff in 2019 in the College’s Peter B. Lewis Theater. Rob Muller, photo.

I understand that you were a filmmaker and a producer in the ’70s and ’80s, working with such luminaries as Bruce Springsteen, Ted Nugent, Joan Jett and Willem Dafoe. Do you think being something of an artist yourself helps you to be a better arts administrator?

Something of an artist” is a good way to put it. A movie producer is not the artistic creator of a film; the producer helps the film creators achieve their vision. But like an artist, the producer uses a variety of materials to make something real out of an idea; only in a producer’s case, those materials are time, money and creative people, using as tools schedules, budgets and talent.

I look at arts administration as the creative use of schedules, budgets and talent to accomplish a goal that benefits the maximum number of people. In my case, it is making a school of art and design. And like any theatrical experience, at a certain time and in a certain place, a curtain must open with a person at the front of a room and people in seats. In our case, it is 200 faculty and staff making it happen for 650 students.

Art school is expensive. CIA now costs more than $42,000 a year for a full-time student—for a four-year school, that would put the bill at around $170,000. Obviously, you offer financial aid, but how important is it for CIA to enhance its scholarship programs at this time?

It is always important to enhance our scholarship aid to our students. CIA has been a bridge to creative and economic empowerment for first-generation college students, through careers in art and design, from the very beginning when it was founded as the Western Reserve School of Design for Women.

Last year, we gave away $10 million in financial aid to our students. For our incoming class, more than fifty cents of every tuition dollar will be covered by CIA via need-based grants, merit-based scholarships or both. Almost half of our students are Pell eligible and benefit from that vital government grant program.

There is a common misperception in this country that the average level of student debt is about $100,000. Actually, it is about $24,000, approximately the cost of a car. CIA graduates have a very low loan default rate because of their success at finding jobs. Their default rate is low because they are working and paying down their debt.

One of my goals for my last year as president of CIA is to raise endowment money to fund enhanced student scholarships. The need to assist students, especially those from under-resourced populations, is only going to grow in the future. If we are to remain socially and culturally relevant, we must provide the means for these students to access the first-rate education and training we offer.

Grafton Nunes.

Along the same lines, how have you worked to improve the institution’s cultural equity so that everyone has equal access to a full, vibrant creative life and the kind of education offered by CIA?

Improving cultural equity was why CIA was founded: to qualify women who did not want to be domestics after the Civil War to be gainfully employed as designers. The highest-paid salaried woman in the nineteenth century in America was alumna Clara Driscoll. She designed and made the Tiffany lamps. The first female head car designer in America was Betty Thatcher Oros. She worked for Hudson. In addition, Langston Hughes got two of his Karamu House students into the school in the early 1930s: Charles L. Sallée and Hughie Lee-Smith.

Today, we constantly strive to learn from, better communicate with, and grow alongside our students and community. We’re doing that in many ways, one of which is through our Inclusion, Diversity and Equity Awareness Council. Formed in 2020, the IDEA Council consists of more than a dozen faculty, staff and students who regularly meet to share and reflect on personal experiences and discuss ideas about how best to engage and improve our community. It’s an important dialogue. One of the council’s early goals is to create a pre-orientation program that helps students from Black, Latino, Asian, Indigenous and other communities become better acclimated with CIA. I’m excited about that initiative and optimistic about proposals still to come from the dedicated members of the council.

Currently, 70 percent of our students are women, and 34 percent are students of color. In recent years, we’ve improved upon the diversity of our student body and welcomed an increasingly diverse faculty and staff, including among deans, vice presidents and board members. The whole college is about cultural equity, the flexibility to address our society’s evolving dynamics and securing the means to support our students.

What are you most proud of accomplishing at CIA?

There are so many things at CIA to be proud of. Foremost, of course, is the quality of the work created by art and design students and alumni. That is the reason we do what we do.

Building our gorgeous new campus, providing the students and faculty with the facilities to produce their best work, has proven very significant. Transforming CIA from a commuter campus to residential college by building two residence halls changed the social dynamic of the college. Balancing the budget without draining the endowment has insured the financial viability of the college going into the future. Retaining and recruiting this first-rate faculty and staff maintains the excellence that has distinguished CIA for 140 years.

And finally, telling CIA’s story to anyone who would listen for the last eleven years helped regional and national audiences appreciate not only the rich contributions CIA has made to American society, but also the opportunities the college offers current and future generations of students to develop their vision, perfect their process and contribute to the quality of all of our lives.

Do you have any plans for your retirement?

That is the $64,000 question, isn’t it! I plan to travel a bit right after I step down. After that, I will see what opportunities present themselves. I intend to stay in Cleveland because it is now my home. I love where I live, I cherish my friends and I enjoy the cultural vitality of this extraordinary place. Whatever I do, it will be to enhance the quality of life of this city that has given me so much.