Too Edgy for Art School? A Case of Decision-Making Failure at an Art College

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“We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth.”

— Pablo Picasso

In the morning of March 21, 2018, Anna Duvall, a Portland-based artist received an email from William Siebold, Program Director (General Education) at The Art Institute of Portland (AiPD). In the email, Siebold informed Duvall that her upcoming exhibit at the Marcia Policar Gallery at The Art Institute of Portland had been cancelled. The reasons for the cancellation cited by Siebold included two fabrications: (1) The Interim President, Wendy Butler, wanted to “go [in] a different direction with the gallery display,” (2) Dream Center Education Holdings (DCEH), owner of AiPD and 30 other Art Institutes, “require[s] more control of our public-facing representation and messaging.”

Siebold’s email devastated Duvall. She had been working on the paintings and drawings for the exhibit for four months. She had taken days off from her work as a bartender to complete the artwork on time. She had invited her mother and stepfather from Hawaii and her father from Michigan for the show's opening on April 5, 2018. Her parents had booked their flights to Portland. Duvall had printed postcards to advertise the exhibit and invited scores of fellow artists and friends.

Duvall did not know that the cancellation reasons were not true. She took Siebold's words at face value. Butler did not have a different direction for the gallery display. She was influenced by the college’s program directors and a couple of full-time faculty members, who found Duvall’s art amateurish, borderline pornographic, and an insult to their art sensibilities. They deemed Duvall’s art as something “we don't do here.”

That was not true either. Drawing and painting were taught and practiced at AiPD all the time. Semi-nude models posed in drawing classes at AiPD and the students often created and presented artwork that was provocative and edgy. In the Winter’18 portfolio show, for example, graduating student Savanna Chambers (BFA, Digital Photography, 2018) presented photographs of lingerie models in provocative lighting and poses. The portfolio show took place five days before Duvall’s exhibit was cancelled.

Dream Center Education Holdings, on the other hand, never requested more control of AiPD’s public-facing presentation and messaging. After Duvall read Siebold’s email, she called Gregg Crowe, who had scheduled the exhibit six months ahead of its opening. Crowe had served as the Campus President of The Art Institute of Portland until November 1, 2017. Crowe was certain that DCEH did not care what the Art Institutes exhibited in their galleries. He called his former supervisors, Claude Brown, the President of the Art Institutes, and Elden Monday, the Vice President of the Art Institutes, to confirm. As he suspected, DCEH did not censor, and had never censored, the art displayed at the Art Institutes.

On March 22, 2018, Brown called Butler early in the morning, and, as her supervisor, ordered her to reinstate Duvall’s show. Butler did not do anything that day nor the following day. She was busy with an accreditation visit from the Northwestern Commission of Colleges and Universities (NWCCU), AiPD’s accrediting body. After the visit ended on March 23, 2018, Butler, who resides in Cincinnati, flew home without reinstating the show. She intended to work from home the following week and return to Portland on April 2, 2018.

Duvall got the news that the exhibit had been reinstated at the Marcia Policar Gallery on March 26, 2018. She was very happy. She had been waiting for five days to find out what would happen to the show. She held off telling her parents to cancel their flights. That day, Elden Monday called me, as I was Butler’s executive assistant, and empowered me to reinstate the show. I reinstated the show across the campus and AiPD’s website within hours.

Butler found out that the show had been reinstated on March 28, 2018. By that time, seven days had passed from the moment Duvall read Siebold’s email. During that time, the news that the Art Institute of Portland had cancelled a scheduled art exhibit by a local artist spread far and wide.

When Butler heard that she had been overruled and the show had been reinstated without her permission, she called Brown, who reiterated that she had to reinstate the show. She reluctantly agreed, but reserved the right to pull down the show as soon as possible and have Duvall’s artwork curated by a faculty member. Duvall brought her drawings and paintings to the gallery on April 3, 2018, the artwork was hung on the walls, and the show opened on April 5. Duvall sold close to $3,000 worth of art at the opening. It was the highest sale amount by an artist in the history of the gallery. The exhibit was pulled down on Monday, April 9.

The decision by the leadership at AiPD to cancel Anna Duvall’s art show was a mistake. It was not a simple mistake with limited consequences, but a serious mistake with long-lasting repercussions. With one email sent to an artist, the decision delivered a big blow to AiPD’s already fragile reputation. The decision also revealed four characteristics of AiPD’s leadership: lack of self-awareness, lack of a decision-making process, lack of skin in the game, and lack of responsibility for AiPD's future.

Upon agreeing that Duvall’s art was not worthy of the college’s stature, AiPD’s leaders should have reflected on their decision and asked themselves: “Who are we to reject the art of an artist?” If they looked around, they would have realized that their average age was 59. They also would have realized that most of them were not active artists and had little to no knowledge about art. Their decision confirmed recent research that showed that the higher the average age of a leadership team, the less creative and prone to change the organization. Moreover, their lack of domain expertise blinded them to what art was, what it meant, and how it was made. The fact that their sensibilities were offended by Duvall’s art was not a sufficient condition to cancel the exhibit.

Had AiPD’s leaders been self-aware, they would have asked questions, which, in turn, would have initiated a decision-making process. During that process, they would have examined opposing views, debated the pros and cons of canceling the show, and looked for an outside view of the situation from other Ai colleges where similar situations had happened in the past. None of that was done. No opposing views were expressed. As a result, groupthink prevailed, as personal biases converged and led to the final decision.

The decision makers also failed to realize that they did not have skin in the game when they decided to cancel the show. Nobody showed empathy and imagined Duvall as their best friend, daughter, sister, or wife. If any of them were related to Duvall, they would have had skin in the game, because the cancellation of the show would have had an adverse effect on them, too. In other words, the leaders of AiPD made the decision without sharing its downside. Such decisions are dishonorable and unethical. AiPD’s leaders did not have to lose money from missing work days (like Duvall did), did not have to pay cancellation fees for canceled flights, and did not have to disappoint invited friends and guests. They made the decision and continued to receive their regular paycheck.

Finally, as leaders of a college that depended to a large extent on Millennials to operate as a college, AiPD’s leadership did not realize that the college could not afford to cancel a show by a Millennial artist, whose art was highly informed by social media. Butler and company did not realize that by deciding to cancel Duvall’s show, they were putting the college’s reputation on the line. As a general rule, a declining college reputation leads to less students applying to a college, which leads to lower student body population, which eventually leads to the closure of the college. The decision jeopardized the future of AiPD, the future of its students, and the jobs of AiPD’s faculty and staff.

By the time the show closed on April 9, 2018, Butler had already flown home, where she stayed for the next two weeks. Her last day as the Interim Campus President of AiPD was April 20, 2018. A few days before she was last seen on campus, she received a notebook with congratulatory words and a bottle of champagne for a job well-done from a group of full-time faculty members. Butler left AiPD falsely believing that her leadership had a positive impact on the college. The rest of the decision makers who played a role in the cancellation of Duvall’s show continued to work for the college. While they were getting older and more out of touch, the students they were supposed to serve were creating art, which, unbeknownst to the students, was too edgy for art school.

The Art Institute of Portland closed doors on December 28, 2018.

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King Lear said it best, “In jest, there is truth.”

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Krasimir Karamfilov

Krasimir Karamfilov

King Lear said it best, “In jest, there is truth.”

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