Bringing to Life Transformative Ideas

By Janet Whitman    //    Volume 20,  Number 2   //    March/April 2012

“Push that one back. Nudge this one forward. That’s it! That’s it!” Antoine Predock, the architect whom Skidmore College had chosen to design an interdisciplinary teaching museum, was telling assistants exactly where he wanted them to place a 15-foot collage on three easels arranged sideby- side. Over the next few hours, he would demonstrate to me and other members of the board of trustees, senior administrators, and faculty members how the college’s past had led directly to the type of facility he was prescribing.

This vignette recounts a critical moment in Skidmore’s decision 15 years ago to create a museum predicated not on the presentation and preservation of objects, but rather on the interdisciplinary exploration of ideas. It’s a decision that, today, seems both obvious and, as Predock said at that time, inevitable. The result—the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery— has become a signature element of both the college’s educational program and public persona. And the process of its creation has, in many ways, become a blueprint for our board for building consensus around any major facilities project.

I became chair of Skidmore’s board three years ago, and I often think about the story of the Tang and its genesis. I work closely with our president, Philip Glotzbach, to move forward the ambitious agenda outlined in our current 10-year strategic plan. Included in the plan are several major initiatives, which, to some, appear to be significant shifts from our current program. It was immediately clear to me that they would require a considerable amount of work to gain buy-in from all of the key constituencies.

So when I first sat down with the president to begin strategizing how best to move such projects forward, I immediately went back to my experience with the building of the Tang museum and began to think through why that project had succeeded. What, I asked myself, could I glean from that experience that would offer insight into how to marshal support from my colleagues on the board? What questions should our board ask the administration so that we could reach the best decisions? How could we effectively engage trustees, administrators, faculty members, and donors—all of whom we would need to make projects come to fruition?

The Road from “Nice to Do” to “Must Do”

Engaging with a building project that appears to represent a break with its past is a challenge for any board. For trustees who are themselves alumni/ae or parents of alumni/ ae or students, their allegiance to the institution is rooted in their own experience. Any initiative that departs from that experience and requires a shift of attention from existing programs is immediately suspect.

And so it was for us with the idea of a new art museum, which had percolated through our conversations on the board for more than a decade. Those of us on the buildings and grounds committee at the time regarded it as “nice to do” if the resources somehow became available, but not essential. But in the mid-1990s, the discussion took a different turn, in large part because of the vision, energy, and persistent cheerleading of our president at the time, David Porter. He convinced all of us—the board, the administration, and the faculty— that the museum was not only something we could do, but something we had to do.

When he arrived, the museum was already in the conversation, but in a conventional context. Its primary advocates were the studio art and art history faculty, and its purported mission was for the traditional display of art. At the same time, conversation was developing about the need for a space to support interdisciplinary teaching. Porter soon began to weave these two strands together into a more interesting idea: He recast the proposed new building as a space to use objects (the traditional focus of museums) to explore, in unprecedented ways, ideas from various disciplinary perspectives as an integral aspect of the college’s teaching.

He pointed out our long history of exploring and accommodating a wide range of academic pursuits, our combination of traditional liberal arts disciplines with a range of pre-professional programs (exercise science, social work, management and business), and our early and wide-ranging adoption of interdisciplinary majors. In his mind, Skidmore had made itself into a virtual intellectual crossroads, creating opportunities for new ideas to develop out of the intersection of different modes of thought. It was a metaphor that the board agreed fit well with Skidmore, reflecting what we have always considered to be the college’s exceptional capacity to take risks. Most important, it connected us to our past and the “mind and hand” dictum of our founder, Lucy Skidmore Scribner.

Porter took an idea that was familiar and generic—a museum—and recast it as something new to the wider world but quite specific to Skidmore’s history and past (an interdisciplinary teaching museum). He also significantly broadened the project’s impact, moving it from the cozy confines of studio art and art history to encompass, at least conceptually, the entire campus. In the process, he gave us the means not only to enhance the essence of what made a Skidmore education distinctive and valuable, but also to make that essence apparent and material to the world.

That was, indeed, a necessary step, but ultimately it was not sufficient. Porter knew that he would need champions from all the major constituencies involved in the decision— faculty members, administrators, alumni, parents, and board members. He would also need others to expand and elaborate on his vision, along the way making it aspirational in its appeal yet familiar and real to those who would need most to embrace this project.

He recruited Tad Kuroda, a history professor who was articulate and respected by his faculty colleagues. Another important voice was that of the then-vice president for academic affairs, Phyllis Roth, who proved to be yet another persuasive advocate. Her office generally has the unenviable task of sorting out the myriad competing requests from various departments for support. Such requests generally come in what we often refer to as a “zero-sum” context: Any resources directed to one program mean that they do not go to another. “The epiphany for me,” Roth later observed, “was the idea of an interdisciplinary teaching space. An ‘art museum’ was seen as too much of a luxury for us at that time, but a building that supported many departments was something else entirely.”

The broadening of the project’s impact also proved encouraging to the board and helped immensely as we worked this through the pertinent trustee committees. For example, it answered the concerns of trustees on the academic affairs committee that the project should benefit many departments and programs. Trustees on the budget and finance committee were assured that the programmatic return, if you will, would be commensurate with such a significant investment. Those on the development committee felt reassured that they had a project that would be attractive to potential donors.

Joan Dayton, who was then chairing the college’s fundraising campaign and eventually became the chair of the board, saw its potential to excite donors and to reenergize the campaign, which had fallen into that fallow period that often comes toward the midpoint of longer fundraising efforts. “It gave us an opportunity to talk in very real terms about what we all felt made Skidmore so very special,” she said. That opportunity soon presented itself in the person of Oscar Tang, who became the project’s major donor.

Tang knew Skidmore from being married to an alumna as well as being the father of a graduate. He was an experienced philanthropist and supporter of the arts. He was clearly intrigued by the idea but, as he would later reveal, quite skeptical of the college’s capacity to pull it off. That skepticism ultimately proved to be a boon to the project. Tang’s pointed and informed questioning forced those of us on the board to dig into the many practical considerations entailed by such an undertaking. How would we fund not only the construction but also the operating costs? How would we ensure that it would be fully integrated into the curriculum? What would it mean for other programs? How would we sustain the project in the years ahead?

In the end, it was the willingness of all involved—the board, administration, and faculty—to engage deeply and openly with those issues that finally allowed us all to embrace the idea. It forced us to look at the project in the broadest institutional context—to consider not only the potential returns of this investment, but also the opportunity cost to other projects. In so doing, it enabled us to understand clearly its contribution to the college’s mission broadly writ. It also provided a forum for those who were uncertain of the project to become more comfortable with the idea. Some of us respond to the big ideas, and others need to see the fine pencil work. You need both if you are going to reach consensus.

The Tang opened in 2000, and it proved in its first interdisciplinary show that it would be more than just a place for hanging art on walls. “The World According to the Newest and Most Exact Observations: Mapping Art and Science” explored mapping as a creative act that both reflects and shapes our perceptions of reality, combining works by 18 contemporary artists with such artifacts as maps and atlases, scientific objects, and genetic sequencing equipment.

Lessons for the Future

Fast forward. This year marks the 11th anniversary of the Tang Museum. For those of us who were there at its inception, the sense of accomplishment is quite palpable. In so many ways, it has achieved and surpassed what we had hoped. Faculty members from across the college regularly integrate the museum’s exhibitions into their pedagogy, and now a four-year slate of future collaborative projects is in the works with faculty members from economics, chemistry, anthropology, and art history.

A steady stream of arts administrators and academics from across the country regularly makes the trek to Saratoga Springs to meet with Tang staff to learn from what we are doing, and the museum’s work is frequently reviewed by influential critics. The Tang is now substantially supported by its own funds and has attracted a robust and generous group of benefactors and friends. Meanwhile, its exhibitions, catalogues, and conferences have conveyed to audiences across the country what makes Skidmore distinct. Clearly, it has worked.

So, whenever we embark on our next “Tang” project, for me, there are five key questions that will need to be answered:

  1. Does the project have a clear connection to our past? Does it have the potential to make the college a better version of itself, and how will it make what is special about the institution more visible?
  2. Does it have broad support among the faculty, administration, and board? If not, what are the barriers to that support, and can they be overcome?
  3. How broad is its impact? Will its effects be largely confined to one department or will it have greater benefits?
  4. Is the vision sufficiently persuasive and well articulated to excite all of the college’s core constituencies?
  5. Who are its champions? Who will be willing to put in the time and energy to convince naysayers and help the project stay the course in the face of obstacles?

Above all, I am keenly aware that we must ensure that we provide sufficient time and multiple opportunities for the college’s key stakeholders to engage with each of these questions and to be active participants in the entire development process. These groups include trustees, administrators, faculty, students, alumni, parents, local community members, and, as appropriate, foundations and other donors who might provide some of the financial and other capital needed to make any major project a reality.

Significant new projects can often, at first blush, appear daunting and complicated, but, in many ways, the decision points are simple and clear: whether the project has a connection to the past, breadth of support and impact, a clearly articulated and powerful vision, and champions to articulate that vision. Finding those points always starts at the core of the institution and its mission.

Sometimes, we muddy the waters by using such terms as “transformative” and “groundbreaking.” But in our experience at Skidmore, the most significant goal is to make your institution a “better version of itself” and to come that much closer to its own ideal. That’s what I’ll be looking for with each new project that comes along.

I’m confident that if we stick to the key questions outlined above, we will produce our next “Tang Museum” and continue our pursuit of making our college an ever better version of itself. To my mind, that should be the goal of every board.

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