Roger Mandle's Ecology of Change

New president of Rhode Island School of Design emphasizes `visual literacy'

WHEN it comes to being an advocate for art, Cervantes might have found a touch of Don Quixote in Roger Mandle, the lanky new president of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). Don Quixote, also a man of substance in an age of pretension, banged against the spinning windmills of his time.

But Mr. Mandle would fairly burn them down and erect new structures to catch the wind. ``I'm determined to be action oriented, and have something of consequence take place here,'' he says two weeks before his inauguration on April 30 at the 117-year- old design school.

As the former deputy director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington for five years, and director of the Toledo Museum of Art for 11, Mandle brings an eclectic poise and leadership to a design school with an international reputation for educating artists as well as training them.

RISD has sent illustrators, industrial designers, graphic designers, animators, architects, video artists, and other creators into the commercial world with an edge: A solid liberal-arts education is piggybacked onto their skills as artists.

``RISD has been relatively trouble-free,'' Mandle says,``and well-managed over its history, and now we move into an evolutionary change. The buzzword is empowerment. I'm concerned that people here feel enfranchised, that they have a stake in the outcome.''

Located near downtown Providence, and adjacent to Brown University, RISD has an enrollment of nearly 2,000 students with 52 foreign countries represented. The faculty is equally international. The cost of a year at RISD is about $25,000.

Mandle's inaugural theme, ``Creativity and the Ecology of Change,'' puts the artist and designer in a central position to help shape contemporary change in community, manufacturing, governance, education, and even recycling.

Seated in his office on the third floor of a stately old mansion for an hour-long interview, Mandle says with wry intensity at one point, ``I don't know that people have killed for art. But if they have, it doesn't make the news as often as the people who kill for religion or bigotry or economic gain. The arts aren't often mentioned in that frame of reference, yet art is the vessel into which we can pour all our best aspirations.''

The following are excerpts from the interview.

What is the computer's impact on the world of art and art students?

We recognize now that technology is an issue in almost every art we teach. I just had a discussion with the head of our sculpture department, and he said computers are mandatory for students. Most sculptors write and draw, and to be able to draw something in two dimensions on the computer and then rotate it in three dimensions, means the sculptor will know more about what he or she is creating. Through the wedding of technology and art we are going to have some extraordinary developments, not only visually pleasing but ergonomically better and with a better use of resources, which are becoming so scarce these days. But the more exciting technology becomes, the more important will be the expression of the hand, and the more we will want to feel the intimate manipulation of materials, say, in a Rodin sculpture. We say, `Wow, there he is.' I'm waiting for the day when a computer screen has that same intimacy....

The intimacy of the computer?

For kids in kindergarten now, who are computer literate, there is no doubt in my mind it will happen. They know how to draw with a stylus and can see the gesture of the hand. I've seen graphics programs where bearing down and picking up the stylus is reflected on the screen just like a brushstroke. I'd say the moment of intimacy is at hand.

One of your focuses is the artist with a sense of global responsibility. Why?

Our position is to see ourselves as an international institution with opportunities to send students abroad and bring students here from abroad. Art does not have boundaries, and we are not trying to de-Westernize our curriculum but to see the arts and design as a global issue. My goal for a RISD graduate is to create a responsible citizen who also makes art. In studying our alumni, we've learned that by the time they reach middle age between 30 and 50 percent are not in the arts. They are homemakers or manufacturers or lawyers, and their liberal-arts education here means an advantage.... If students don't end up making art, they will be more appreciative of their surroundings and visually literate. And we are just about to learn in the new technology of the electronic highway how important it is to be visually literate. Also we know that RISD has not done a very good job of attracting people of color to our campus, and we're working hard on that to not only have more students, but to create role models as well.

In your quiet moments, do you feel a sense of almost impossibility when you realize how far the arts would have to go to make an impact on Bosnia, or the Middle East, or Rwanda?

You mean do I feel like the canary in the coal mine? Yes, a little, because when the canary stops singing, it's time for the miner to get out of the mine. But the problem is, this is our mine. We have no place else to go, and that's why the arts are so important, and why we have to listen to arts and artists because they are our life-enforcing values. The arts either reflect or project, and sometimes in projecting the future, art tells a pretty mean story about what's coming, often like a mirror. Yes, I do think the arts are like the canary in the coal mine.

Is there a defense to be made for moral values in art?

I am firmly on the side of thinking that the arts, inherently and externally, have moral values. An artist has thought about creating a composition, about balance, and he or she has eliminated extraneous ideas and forms. In their thought they have confirmed it to have values. I suppose you could argue that in creating a bomb or hand grenade that all extraneous weight has been removed, and that therefore it will fall just the right way with just the right amount of explosive. But what is left in the wake of the bomb is very different from an encounter with a work of art. With the bomb, there is nothing you can count as having life reinforcing values.

Art is what makes us human and singularly important.

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