Sculpting a School

David Deming on the Art of Being a Dean


photograph by Kenny Braun

It's the hands. Even if you didn't know David Deming was a sculptor, you still might guess that he works with his hands. As he talks, they're perpetually active -- one moment shaping the air to illustrate a spoken point, the next supporting his chin as he contemplates a question, now fetching a can for a quick sip of soda, now smoothing a paper atop his desk. They're never just there; they're always engaged -- doing something, touching something. They are hands which work, which build, which create. For most of Deming's three-decade career, those hands have been at work creating art. Deming is widely known for his massive metal abstract sculptures such as the ones in front of the John Henry Faulk Library downtown and the UT Performing Arts Center. His work has been exhibited across the country and acquired by museums in Columbus and San Antonio, not to mention Austin. (The Austin Museum of Art gave his Mystic Raven a home at its Laguna Gloria site when the six-ton piece was evicted from the front of First City Centre on Congress Avenue.) Further evidence of Deming's place on the national arts scene is the inclusion of one of his works in the 1995 exhibition "Twentieth Century American Sculpture at the White House."

Inside the Forty Acres, Deming and his hands are as likely to be known for their work in the roles of teacher and administrator. Deming has been a member of the UT faculty for a quarter of a century, teaching sculpture, design, and drawing on both the undergraduate and graduate levels and chairing the department of art and art history. In 1996, after Jon Whitmore resigned as dean of the College of Fine Arts, Deming was named interim dean. In his ninth month at the post, then-UT President Robert Berdahl appointed Deming to the deanship permanently.

So it is that these days Deming's hands are as full of budgets and mission statements and managerial affairs as sculptural materials. Deming takes the helm of the college at a time when it's highly ranked among similar schools in the country, yet when the competition is fierce in providing professional training and when it faces the challenge of building a major museum, the Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art. That gives those busy hands plenty of work to do, but discussing this with the Chronicle in his office below the Fine Arts Library, it's clear that Deming relishes the work -- and that the artist is very much alive in the administrator.

Austin Chronicle: You're an artist who became an administrator. How did that happen?

David Deming: It's one of those dreaded curses. Most of my friends who are artists wonder why I did this, and most of my friends who are administrators are wondering how I'm doing it, in terms of balancing [the two], because I am continuing to be an active artist, trying to produce what I can and keep the quality up. There aren't a lot of administrators who are artists, however that's how they all started in the old days. If you wanted somebody to run the show, you got somebody who knew something about it. I think more departments and colleges around the country might be looking back toward finding people from the ranks who have the ability to get organized and a broader vision than their own as an artist. You put those combinations together and it makes sense that that's the kind of person you might want to be a leader in an administration.

Early on, I was one of the first what we called academic program directors. I headed the studio area and really enjoyed both representing the faculty and working closely with the chair, trying to be the liaison between. So I guess I was prepared for becoming a department chair. As a department chair you're sort of the bridge between the faculty in that department and the administration, and there are times when you decide that you need to be in the middle of that bridge, times you want to be on the dean's side of the bridge, times you want the faculty side of the bridge, and sometimes you want to get under the bridge. I felt very much at ease in the interim dean's position, in great part due to our former dean, Jon Whitmore. He was a terrific mentor to all of the administrators within the college. He was able to put together a team, in that the department chairs and directors of the non-academic units meet regularly as a group. We share our concerns about everything we do, and we try to figure out ways to get students and faculty interested in each other and take advantage of the tremendous facility and plant that we have here. Though other deans before him wished that and worked toward it, he was able to accomplish it. I felt that any of the department chairs could have stepped into the interim dean's position. I attribute a lot of that to him.

This is a tremendous place. It has a terrific staff, all the way through. We do great in fundraising. This is one of the best facilities in the country in almost every area. So it's not a hard job to step into. On a daily basis, there are moments when I say, "Why am I doing this to myself?" But often those are times when you're having to deal with tough personnel issues -- somebody's having a difficult time and it's hard to get around. But all in all, it's a great job.

Of course, probably the most important thing is that the students at this university are tremendous. I remember when I first visited the university. It was my first summer in Texas -- I taught at UT El Paso for two years before I came here -- and I decided to tour the whole state and find out where all the galleries and museums were. I had been to Dallas, Fort Worth, and San Antonio, and as I drove up I-35 and came over that hill and saw Austin, I went, "Whoa-oa, okay, this is more like it." I sought out the university, which had a student exhibition in the Huntington Gallery, and I was so impressed with that exhibition. I had been to two private art schools, and my prejudice was that you couldn't get the same high quality in a four-year undergraduate program in a university that you could in an art school. I found quickly that I was wrong. You may have more really good people in a private art school than in a big university program, but the good ones are going to be just as good. I spent literally two-and-a-half hours in that show and got the gumption up to go meet the chairman and introduce myself, tell him where I was, and that I was ready to come at any moment, just give me the word. The following summer, he called and offered me a summer job and a week before I was supposed to leave for the summer class, he called and said, "Do you want the regular job? It just opened up." I've been here 26 years.

AC: Lord knows, Austin has changed in that period. The university, too. What are some differences you see in the College of Fine Arts from then to now?

DD: The college has matured, I think, in this way. When I got here 25 years ago, major parts of the college hadn't been paying much attention to what was going on everywhere else. When I got to the University, I was astounded that we didn't have a major museum. We had collections and we had places where they showed up, but there was no major museum. I think it reflected the not-so-strongly committed culture. Texans were searching for a way to identify their own culture and do it on their terms and in their time, and I understand that. One of the reasons I aspired to come to Texas to begin with was -- and this probably came out of cowboy movies when I was a kid -- I always felt that there truly was a different kind of spirit in Texas, that the people of Texas were cut from a different piece of cloth. It's a myth, but there are threads of truth in that myth. And every year I've been here reinforces the idea that, hey, in Texas, if you have a great idea, you'll get it to happen; you just have to work at it.

I think the faculty in those days were isolated from the rest of the country, travel wasn't as readily available, and a lot of the programs in the university were developed by people who had studied only as undergraduates in art schools and music schools. They tried to develop graduate programs without ever having experienced one and didn't go out to look at others. So they struggled trying to define what it was that they wanted. But they had tremendous leadership from Dean Doty, who was the founding dean and dean for 34 years, because by the time I got here, the facilities were expanding and this building was being dreamed of, and every unit was strong. So there was a lot of great vision going on during that time.

I was brought in as a young faculty member with three years teaching experience at the university level -- I taught at Boston University for a year between undergraduate and graduate school -- and I was hired with three or four other people, all with some teaching experience or none but sort of a new generation of young faculty in the art department. And the old-timers basically were ready to start turning things over. So it was a good time. We weren't threatening them, and they were buying into the idea that they needed to let go, and we needed to define where we wanted to go.

Of course, that kind of process now happens on a yearly basis in every university in every division. You just don't have a faculty that's there for 40 years, then turns it over. You have turnover constantly. So everybody is put in the position of trying to either buy into or add onto the vision of the place. And that's exciting. The hiring process becomes even more exciting because every hire is really important. Every time we make a decision about replacing or not replacing somebody, we have great debates within the college about what our priorities and our needs are and where we need to go. So I think all these maturing changes have been really healthy and good for the college.

AC: You mention the museum, which strikes me as being if not the big thing on your plate, one of them. Is that the major challenge you're working with?

DD: Well, I would say they're all separate. Again, I enjoy this because of my interest in balancing things, toying with this and that in my own artwork. The museum has its own momentum now, and that's exciting. Once James Michener came up with the first $5 million -- actually, from Mari, his wife -- that got the university off its rocker, and the enthusiasm has been tremendous.

Defining the role of the museum makes the whole college look at everything it does differently. When Jon Whitmore came seven years ago, the Performing Arts Center [PAC] was in fiscal trouble, was always in the red, had no real mission. The intent in the beginning was that it was going to be this sort of town-and-gown place for Austin -- and it was -- but it didn't have a clear mission in terms of the university. It started to define itself as time went on, but when Dean Whitmore came, his challenge to [PAC Director] Pebbles Wadsworth was to reorganize it to define the teaching mission of the PAC. If it's going to be a university performing arts center, how does it affect the students?

When it first got built, I don't know that many students went in there other than to look it over. Couldn't afford the tickets to the events. It was just that thing that the townspeople came to. Pebbles wanted to focus on the idea that this [facility] is for the students and faculty and staff. She got students involved by having them volunteer to usher for things and get free tickets. She started employing students to work in various aspects where you didn't need skilled labor necessarily but students could learn what it's like to work in a performing arts center.

So we went from introducing that thought to totally reorganizing the staff in such a way that the staff are now teaching. They're not faculty but they're teaching. When a scene designer is doing designs for some of the plays we're putting on, the students get involved -- aiding with the design and creating the work -- and learn the process. So the professional technical staff are teaching the students. They've really bought into it now. It took a few years for that to happen, but the crew we have now has really bought into the idea.

Performance-wise, everything we bring in, we try to get the artists to find a way to touch our students. Before Itzhak Perlman came last time, Pebbles Wadsworth asked him if he would play with the UT Symphony instead of the Austin Symphony. His response was, "I only play with professional orchestras." So Pebbles sent him a tape of UT's orchestra, and he called back and said, "That is a professional orchestra. I'd be happy to do that." So he came a little earlier, really got into the students, and the evening of the performance you could tell he was pumped. He wasn't just performing and going to acknowledge the orchestra. He was listening to them play. When he wasn't playing, he'd lean back this way or that and acknowledge the good playing. Those are the kinds of experiences we want our students to have, to be able to mix with these great artists.

Artists succeed because they get opportunities to be around people who knew how to get there and know how to help. You know the old adage, you have to know somebody to get somewhere? It's always been true. It's how you get to know them that seems to be important. But you do need to know people and you need to know where the opportunities are and be ready to take advantage of luck when it happens to come around. James Michener was honored at graduation a couple of years ago, and he talked about how he always felt that he was lucky but that if you do the hard work and you put yourself out there, when luck comes by, you'll be ready to jump on. I've always believed that. So I think part of our mission is to expose our students to as many kinds of opportunities as possible and prepare them.

AC: Are there challenges for the students that are different today than 10 years ago, 20 years ago...?

DD: I think the biggest challenge for students now is that they can't remain naïve as long as you could when I was 21. At the end of my fourth year [at the Cleveland Institute of Art], the director of the school got us together -- there were about 70 in our class -- and told us what the certificate that we were going to get was worth. Basically, he said this gets you the ability to apply to another school or to apply here for a BFA, or it tells places like American Greeting Card that you had a terrific arts experience and you're probably capable of moving right into their studios and being a designer. I remember most of us looking at each other and thinking, "Gosh, where would I go to get all this equipment to use and the space to work? I think I'll stay." Nobody was talking about what they were going to do when they got out. Now, you can't afford to think that way, because if you don't learn how to survive, your lack of survival skills will bury you. You can't rely on just the luck; you have to find more ways to get out there and be competitive. Most artists don't like to think of being competitive, but if you do the things that it takes to get it out in front of people, in that sense you're being competitive. Though it's a dirty word in the arts, it exists. And we pay attention to that.

In the Sixties and Seventies, the atmosphere in education was, "We're here to expand you, and we're not worried whether you get a job or not." And they could afford to say that because people who were good would get jobs. Now, people who are good don't necessarily get jobs just because they're good. The faculty are starting to sense that, and when the faculty finally fully buy into that, wonderful things start to happen. We're developing a terrific advising center. Over the past seven years, the college has multiplied the number of people who are professional student advisers. We want professional people in the college that students can go to other than just the faculty to talk about "What can I do to get where I need to get?" Because sometimes faculty are slightly prejudiced to what they think you need to do to become a painter or a musician, because that's the way they did it or the kind of musician they wanted to be. If, after four, five, six, years of arts education, someone turns out to be a manager at Sears, my question is: Are you a terrific manager and do you love doing it? And if the answers are yes, what's the problem? Our mission is to help people understand what it is to be creative and enjoy life. If you can do that by being an artist, that's great; if you can't do it by being an artist but you can learn how to appreciate art, that's great.

After my first teaching experience, I came back to Cleveland to visit the sculpting teacher who had been my mentor and gotten me that job. He asked me how things were going and I said, "Well, I really enjoy this place, but I'm a little bewildered by something. There are 24 girls in this class that I'm teaching and two guys. And as the semester went on, some of these young ladies were showing me engagement rings and telling me, `My husband-to-be is going to be a lawyer.'" It was that old cliché of young women going to college to find a rich husband, and though I didn't buy into the cliché so much, it worried me. And he says, "Let me tell you a story." He'd had a student that he'd spent a lot of time with because she really wanted to learn, but she was mediocre. And about five years after she left, she called and invited him to dinner to meet her family. On the way there, all these things go through his mind: "Gee, should I have spent all that time with this student? She's probably not doing any art." And at dinner, he thinks, "I shouldn't have spent all that time." Then after dinner, she says, "Bill, I have a surprise. Okay, kids, bring out your stuff." So her three boys came out and plastered the living room with drawings and paintings they'd done, and they were jumping up and down, they were so excited about their stuff. The mother was ecstatic. And Bill sat there with tears in his eyes, realizing that what he did was he passed on what he knew to somebody, who did what she needed to do with it and that was pass it on to her kids. He passed on the joy of understanding and loving creativity. In that moment, he learned: Don't be judgmental in terms of who you're going to give of yourself to. I went back to Boston University with a totally different outlook on what I was there for. And I've carried that with me all my life.

A lot of judgment has to be made when you're dealing with the arts and it's so subjective. Sometimes you're down to deciding who's going to get the scholarship out of two terrific artists. It becomes a judgment call. But when it comes to: Are you going to spend more energy with the person you think is better and less energy with the one you think isn't better? Baloney! I don't buy into that at all. And there are enough people in the university who think that way that makes this a great university. It allows students, whenever they kick in, early or late, to have a chance at success without a prejudice of the faculty or their peers.

AC: Are you a terrific dean and do you love doing it?

DD: Well, I would not be the one to evaluate that. I judge myself on a number of criteria. There are thoughts that if nobody's complaining about you, you must be okay. Well, that's not necessarily true. You can be hiding out and not even be known. So I don't believe in that. If you have a reputation of a sort, there's probably a reason for it. And if my reputation is that I'm fair-minded but strong enough to make decisions despite a group feeling otherwise, I'll take that as a compliment. But as soon as that comes out of my mouth, I know the next thing that comes up, I'm going to go through all the trauma that everybody else goes through.

Here's where I go back to the idea that being an artist teaches you a lot about life. When I go to my studio, I want to create something unique; I don't want to just make the same thing over and over. I want to be stimulated to make the next leap. Now, it doesn't always happen and I acknowledge that, but that's the goal: to move forward, to make something happen that's different, that can change the way I think about almost everything else. If I can do that as an administrator and get the other administrators under my supervision to do that, what else can I ask for? It doesn't mean we always make the right decisions, but we're moving.

It's not equal to but it's as stimulating in a way as being in my studio and making decisions about, "Should I weld this piece over here or over here, or should I throw this away and start something else?" It's a lot of the same kind of thing.

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