Corn sees a studio education becoming more important in the age of AI.

It was no surprise that Melanie Corn ended up in academics. Growing up in the Chicago suburbs, her dad was a professor, with a specialty in reptiles and amphibians, and her mom a high school guidance counselor—although as a child Corn thought she might be either a lawyer, a Broadway star or president.

Corn is also proof that sometimes the things we excel in aren't the things we love. When she met with her academic advisor at Stanford as a freshman, Corn, always a good math student, was told she had tested into a calculus class. Her face must have fallen, because the advisor added that she didn't have to take it.

“I remember thinking, ‘Oh wow! I'm in college now! I can do what I want, not just what I'm supposed to do,' ” says Corn, who didn't end up taking the calculus class. “All of a sudden I had this opening in my schedule and my advisor talked about an art history class that he knew of, so I signed up for that.”

A fortuitous decision on her part, since her career has never really deviated from this focus, eventually taking her to the Columbus College of Art & Design, where she's served as president since 2016. “It was probably by the description one of the most boring classes you could take,” Corn says. “It was ancient Greek art history—not even the cool stuff with the Parthenon, great sculptures, but the pottery shards. But the teacher was phenomenal. ... It really turned me on to continue that early love that I hadn't really thought about as an academic area of study in college.”

Most of Corn's 22-year Bay Area career was spent at California College of the Arts, where she made the transition from art historian to academic administrator. CCA had a different feel from her studies at Stanford, where she was used to lectures, seminars and writing papers. She had entered a “magical world where every class is 10-12 students, it's six hours long, sitting in a studio working with materials.” She says she felt like she had the zeal of the newly-converted as she began working in that environment. And her passion for studio education has carried over.

Corn came to CCAD at a tumultuous time for the school. Former CCAD President Denny Griffith had retired and his replacement, Tom White, had stepped down less than a year into his tenure. Then right before Corn started, Griffith died of cancer. She says she thinks the gap between Griffith's leadership and hers allowed the community time to grieve and become ready for a new leader. While she acknowledges White probably wasn't a good fit for CCAD, she says she thinks anyone coming in right after Griffith would have struggled to follow him.

“When I got here I found a faculty and staff community who was able to still honor everything that Denny had done but also have room for a new direction,” she says. “I wasn't confronted by a great deal of pushback to new ideas. … I know that it's sort of common for a lot of workplaces, especially small colleges, where people use the word ‘family,' but it's something I heard a lot applying for the job here at CCAD, and it's something I've really felt a lot over the past two years.”

The first initiative Corn tackled was a refreshed strategic plan, since the previous one was conveniently ending as she came in. She thinks the process of strategic planning is just as, if not more, important than the end product—to be able to ask as a community, “ ‘OK, where are we as an institution? What progress have we made? Where do we want to go? What's important to us?' ” The resulting plan, launched in January 2017, focuses on three key areas for CCAD.

“How do we continue to strengthen and develop the success of all of our people—our students' success, but also our employees'? How do we increase the visibility and prestige of our institution—both as a higher education degree-granting institution but also as a cultural leader in the region? And finally, how do we ensure our prosperity?” Corn says.

Included in these three P's is the construction of the new Cloyd Family Animation Center, animation being one of the most popular majors CCAD offers—and one that has turned out employees of animation giants such as Disney Pixar, Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network. Right now, animation students are bursting at the seams of their current workspace. CCAD officials expect to finish the new facility by the fall.

Corn says the new animation center is a good demonstration of public-private partnership in Columbus. “We got a substantial amount of money from the state capital bill,” she says. “We have also gotten some significant private donations from friends of the college and alumni and others. Our goal is to build this without drawing on student tuition dollars through public-private partnership, and I think we're going to be able to do that.”

Mutual Benefits

Corn is a member of the Columbus Partnership, the city's most important civic organization. This prominent role, unusual for a small college president, shows how much city leaders value CCAD. Corn says the relationship between CCAD and the Partnership is symbiotic. She learns a lot from rubbing shoulders with its roughly 70 members—the top leaders in the city—helping her grow professionally, not to mention getting together with like-minded individuals committed to developing Columbus as a city. CCAD adds to the Partnership too, with its unique role as both an arts and higher education organization.

Columbus Partnership President and CEO Alex Fischer echoes that idea. “It is a really unique situation to have CCAD in Columbus,” he says, explaning that CCAD adds to the vibrancy of the city, with its graduates making a mark in fashion (a major industry in Columbus), as well as helping produce some of the most acclaimed animated movies around today. “All of the above [symbolizes] what a great cornerstone that CCAD is in our community.”

Fischer says Corn is an initiator in both ideas and their executions at the Partnership. “She started helping us think about different marketing strategies for our Columbus 2020 economic development activities. … She's really a can-do kind of person,” he says. “Melanie's come both into the college but also into the community and really brought her experiences from the West Coast here to the college and to Columbus—great perspectives on the work we're doing at the [Columbus] Partnership.”

As someone who has lived in both the Bay Area and Columbus, Corn sees some similarities between the two regions. But as a Chicagoan, her heart beats for the Midwest.

“The similarities are that Columbus and San Francisco/Oakland—Bay Area—both have a really vibrant art and design scene, they both have a great food culture, they both have a really diverse and open and welcoming community, which I think is really critical,” she says. “Bay Area may win out on weather a little bit, but as a Midwesterner, I have to say, that after spending so many years in California, I missed the thunderstorms and lilac blooms and everything else you get in the Midwest.”

But the differences between the two places may be more important than the similarities. Corn says Columbus is in a “sweet spot” in that it shares many of the characteristics that make the Bay Area attractive for work and play, but with a more reasonable price tag and its famous amicability.

“I acknowledge as we are becoming more popular, prices are going up a bit,” she says. “But man, it's still a heck of a lot easier to find a really cool storefront to start your own design firm or pop-up art studio here in Columbus. The accessibility of that here is incredible. … The West Coast is wonderful, and it's all very friendly and West-Coast-like, but there's this kind of surfaceness to that. This is all, of course, generalizing, but I think there is something about Midwesterners, that we're a truly generous, sharing, collaborative people. You see that a lot in Columbus. I know that's part of our city identity, the Columbus Way, but it's true. It's not just a slogan.”

Yet Corn thinks Columbus can be even better and identifies areas for improvement.

She says that, as the city continues to grow, it needs to do so in a way that is inclusive to all who call it home, continuing to tackle the issues of segregation of housing and schooling, infant mortality, equal pay for women—things to which she says organizations like the mayor's office, Columbus 2020 and the Partnership have brought attention.

“It's something we can do a better job of even here at CCAD,” she says. “We have a lot of needy students, and I think we do a good job of offering a wide variety of scholarship opportunities for our students. ... I think that we can do even more to ensure that we've got a diversity of voices on our faculty and in our staff and administration and board that really speak to the strength that is the Columbus community and region.”

More than a Pretty Picture

Corn's focus for CCAD—with the eyes of an art historian—not only includes the locale of Columbus, but also the world surrounding it. She can remember going to the Art Institute of Chicago growing up and seeing one of her favorite paintings there, a Pointillist work by Georges Seurat called “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” The idyllic scene of sunshine and people looking out over the water outside of Paris may seem nothing more than a show of artistic talent now, but when it was painted in 1886, Corn says it was a provocative political piece challenging both our understanding of optics—which was a topic of great discussion at the time—and our ideas of socioeconomic class, with both lower-class workers and upper-class elites lounging together on the grass. “It's not always just pretty pictures on the wall,” she says.

Corn wrote her senior honors thesis on 1980s artists who focused on feminist identity in works that broke the traditional art-gallery mold. “It struck me that, here is another moment where there were these incredibly important political conversations happening about really fundamental issues of who we are as people,” she says. “How do artists both document that moment and also help push that moment forward by the work that they're doing? And what might we think about that work 100 years from now? That's from that art historian perspective. That's what really fascinated me about that work.”

One of her goals is for CCAD to train artists who are both creative practitioners and creative citizens. And at the core of studio education is a culture of critique that Corn says is a valuable skill, particularly now. Students show and explain their work to their peers and receive appraisals and suggestions. It may take several iterations before students are finished with a piece.

“The reason I start with that context is I think it's also a really great way to think about how engaging in that creative practice is really a way to engage in the world around you,” says Corn. “I feel like we're always in a moment, but we're in a particularly strong moment right now where there's a lot to say about the world going on around you, regardless of what your political beliefs are or your cultural position in the world, and art and design is a great way to say it.

“To me, part of being a citizen is about being in conversation with those who might have a different perspective than you, and doing that in a respectful, responsible way, and not by tearing people down,” she explains. “That's really hard for us as a society right now—harder than ever, maybe. While I can't say every student at CCAD is an expert at that, I think they are getting training that facilitates that. I do think calling upon our young people through their coursework in college to actually have to engage in conversation with each other about differing opinions, things that ... are high-stakes to them—this is their work, their passion—and to be able to have someone across from you say, ‘I don't like that,' or ‘I don't think you should have done it that way, why did you choose that,' ... is an incredible skill to develop.”

As the world changes—particularly the business world, as jobs continue to be lost or threatened to artificial intelligence—Corn says CCAD is in the perfect position to keep up as a purveyor of creative ideas and professions for students. Creative jobs are hard to automate, she says.

“So, what's the sales pitch for a place like CCAD? To me, the sales pitch is [that] you can get a degree from CCAD and do what you're passionate about for the rest of your life and also get a really great job that's going to be around in 10 years. And if that exact job isn't around in 10 years because the world is changing so quickly, you'll be well-prepared for that next creative job that will be around,” she says.

Corn loves where her creative education has taken her. “I tell people sometimes that I have the best job in the world because I work where everyone wants to be. No one's mom ever made them go to art school. That might be changing soon—maybe they'll make their kid go to art school instead of business school—but it's a great place because everyone is so passionate here.”

Chloe Teasley is staff writer.

Q&A

What steps have you taken to grow CCAD enrollment?

In fall '17 we brought in a bigger class than the previous fall for the first time in a number of years, and we are on track to bring in an even bigger class this coming fall. We've got a really fantastic admissions team now as well as a marketing/communications team who all really think differently about higher-ed marketing, which is great—they are able to reach a young audience through social media.

How do you evangelize about CCAD?

Most of my traveling is to meet alumni. I've had the pleasure of traveling all over the United States and even other places in the world—Canada and China—meeting with alumni in different cities and really learning their stories, their success stories. That is an important part of recruitment as well because one of the best ways we can evangelize about CCAD is by telling stories of our successful alumni.

How do you enjoy art and practice creativity?

I keep saying I want to take some time at some point to take a class. I'd love to blow glass. I've never blown glass, and I've been at an art college over 15 years now. ... The other thing I would say for me in terms of hobbies—when I was at California College of the Arts I still taught one class a year and would teach mostly on contemporary art but then started to teach more media studies so TV became a little bit of a hobby and an excuse to watch some bad TV because it was part of my teaching as well. … I still do that. I still like to engage in interesting dialogues and conversations around what's happening in popular culture.

How do you want CCAD to be seen by members of the Columbus community?

I think it's really important to see CCAD as a cultural leader in the region beyond just the college. We have over 100 years of Saturday morning art classes at CCAD and continuing education and trying to expand that to being in more post-professional education.