Q&A: Denny Griffith, CCAD president

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From the June 2014 issue of Columbus CEO

Denny Griffith was intimidated upon taking over as president of the Columbus College of Art & Design. His first and only presidency, Griffith came to CCAD in 1998 after spending thirteen years as deputy director of the Columbus Museum of Art.

“I was thrilled out of my mind and honored beyond measure and totally cowed,” Griffith says, laughing at the memory.

He spent a solid month researching and preparing for his new role, but when it came to leading he stuck to his gut instincts. “I found that if I just treated people the way I wished to be treated, listened to them and found ways to engage them, that we could move the ball way, way down the field.”

He and his team have certainly scored some big points over the past 16 years.

Griffith has led the systematic expansion of both campus and curriculum at the 135-year old college. Enrollment has remained steady, but the campus footprint has nearly doubled, adding 275,000 square feet over the last seven years including the MindMarket, a first-class student design lab and business incubator. Griffith led the implementation of a masters in fine arts program; this fall the college will launch a new curriculum designed to school artists in business and entrepreneurship. Annual giving has grown 500 percent since 1998; the Griffith Faculty Excellence Fund with a goal of $2 million has been established to carry forth his legacy.

“You can have great buildings, but faculty members are the soul of the enterprise,” says Griffith. The fund will reward high-performing faculty, innovative research and fund influential artist residencies at the college.

Griffith, 61, announced his retirement last August. In February, a cancer diagnosis disrupted the plans he and his wife, Beth Fisher, had made to retire to their vacation home in Asheville, NC, but the diagnosis has hardly dampened Griffith’s spirit. His delivery quickens when the conversation turns to the future of the creative economy as defined by CCAD’s young graduates. Griffith took this interview as an opportunity to enthuse on the future of CCAD, reflect on the mentors he found among his board members and explain the value that a business curriculum brings to a fine arts education.

What were your first goals upon taking over as president?

My only goal was to lift the place up….Over time, it became clear where the strengths were that we could leverage, where the weaknesses were that we could address.

It became very clear that the campus needed to be enhanced.

Now, we’ve got a place that’s got a sense of place….It’s worthy of people’s attention and affection. I feel great about that.

How did you prepare for the job?

A lot of pushups (laughing).

A couple of years before I got the job, I got the opportunity to go off to the Getty Institute in Museum Management. It was kind of a month-long mini-MBA, very intense, six days a week, Harvard Business School case-study methods. I came back from that experience with a really good toolkit of things I needed.

After I was appointed president there was an interim period. I asked the board if they would underwrite a busman’s holiday for me. I made field trips to a handful of other art and design colleges around the eastern part of the United States so I could go and interview the sitting presidents of those places; talk to them about the challenges and opportunities they saw both within their institutions and in the field in general. I took a month to do that. Those two things really helped tee me up for this job.

Who has mentored you or influenced your career?

The mentors that have helped me succeed the most were a whole succession of my board chairs. Jeff Scheiman was chair of the board when I was hired. He gave me great advice. (He was) followed by a guy named Jack Edwards, who was an attorney at Jones Day, followed by Randy Arndt, who’s a real-estate attorney in town. Rocky Saxbe, Fred Ransier, Michael Fiorile and Bob Restrepo. These guys are all amazing guys, hugely talented, very connected in the community.

The dynamic between a CEO and the board and, certainly, the CEO and the board chair is critical to success, particularly for small to midsize nonprofits like ours. Having a really open, transparent relationship with them—the ability to trust one another, to speak in total confidence with one another and to work together to advance the enterprise is key. We’ve been able to do that every step of the way.

How do you asses the role CCAD has played in the citys economic development?

What we’ve found over time is that we could link our curriculum and link our faculty to the interests of the business community. We could create some really dynamic partnerships to help students and help the college create a robust learning environment that had practical, real-world, feet-on-the-ground experiences. There’s also a splendid opportunity to leverage the innovation and out-of-the-box thinking that only our young people seem able to provide.

How does CCAD contribute to the Columbus arts economy?

The fine arts experience and the degrees that we offer in the fine arts are very, very important. But three-quarters of what the college does is in the design arts.

My preference would be to talk about arts culture and creative-economy economic development. Because where we’re relevant is for enterprises like…L Brands, whether it’s Victoria’s Secret or Bath & Body Works. Great design, great visual communication, great packaging. Those are all companies that differentiate themselves in the marketplace. CCAD is a pipeline for talent...not just in the arts but in the design field.

Over my 16 years at the college, I’ve been at pains to help people change the nomenclature to not just refer to us as an arts institution, but an arts and design (institution). We’re an institution of higher education, first and foremost. Secondly we’re about creative-economy development.

How many CCAD grads stay in Columbus for those jobs?

Roughly half. We’re fond of saying we’re part of brain gain not brain drain. The big change we’ve made over the past half dozen years is to really drive business education into the arts and design curriculum. A business education plus arts and design education means you have people coming out of the college who are truly workforce-ready.

When did you realize CCAD needed the MindMarket incubator on campus?

We formed a business advisory council. We brought in key employers of our graduates. They included Victoria’s Secret and Abercrombie and Fitch, NBBJ and significant companies that do fashion merchandising, design work, agency and marketing work. A number of the people we had come in, some of them were alumni, some were not. We wanted to know what they felt was missing in the education that our students were getting at that time. They said, ‘We need to see more business acumen.’

(We) generated the idea of the MindMarket. Then we went out and fundraised to secure the operating money to fully underwrite the first three years of the MindMarket operation. Six years ago, the conversation starting the planning kicked into effect; the MindMarket launched a year ago.

What it’s creating is a platform for a really serious, dynamic integration of cross-disciplinary pairings with businesses who are savvy enough to know they need to take a deep breath, stop for a minute and find some innovative solutions to some problems that they have.

Safelite did a comprehensive rebranding (through the MindMarket). They wanted some of our fashion and graphic design students to work with them on completely making-over the uniforms for their frontline employees worldwide. What a great project! They took the time to come in, be the client, interact with these interdisciplinary teams of students and faculty at the MindMarket. The MindMarket facilitated the whole thing. It creates a wonderful way for our community to cross-pollinate.

How has the employment market for artists changed in recent decades?

The employment market in the design arts is extremely robust, more robust than it’s ever been.

What we see is about 25 percent of our graduates start off as sole proprietors of businesses. Many of them get small businesses launched. In a few cases--like Beverly Ryan who founded Ologie--they become pretty substantial, large influential businesses with dozens and dozens of employees. Or like Cliff Snell who many years ago founded (the company) which is now Inventiv, which has hundreds of employees worldwide.

It’s all over the board. You can get CCAD alumni who are in New York City who are successful visual artists, and you can get senior designers for major fashion merchandising companies and everything in between.

Is there anything you feel you’ve left unfinished as president?

I’d love to be leaving the college having an extra $150 million in its endowment. But you know, by the time I leave in June I think we will have raised, all in between campaigns and annual funds and so on, somewhere a little north of $27 million. I suppose that’s a slow day at the Ohio State University, but it’s good for us.

We’re connected with the business community, we’re recognized by the business community as full partners. It’s been such an honor and a great learning experience for me to be on the Columbus Partnership and to be able to interact with all those folks; to have them honor and celebrate the impact that CCAD has on our regional economy.

All these things coming together make me feel really terrific about my time here. You always like to leave the campus with more money. Endowment growth is a marathon not a sprint. That’s the kind of thing that mostly comes to institutions through late-in-life gifts and planned gifts, bequests, people’s estates. It just takes time.

What have you learned in your time leading CCAD?

What a blast it’s been. It has been the ride of my life.