Last March, President Lorne M. Buchman sent out a letter to the ArtCenter community in which he announced his plans to retire from the College in June of 2022. “I make this announcement with mixed emotions,” Buchman wrote. “My time at the College has represented, without question, the peak of my professional life, and I will be forever grateful to this remarkable community for the opportunity to serve as its president.”
The 13 years during which Buchman has served as ArtCenter’s leader have been a time of profound changes for the institution. Just some of the many advances at the College since Buchman took office: ArtCenter has significantly expanded its second campus in downtown Pasadena; completed a campaign that raised $124 million; added several new academic programs; established the Center for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion; created community hubs to keep its international students connected during the pandemic; and launched a new online learning program.
Before she was named the new president and CEO of ArtCenter, Karen Hofmann (BFA 97 Product Design), current provost of the College, sat down with Buchman to discuss his philosophy of leadership, some of the more substantial changes he’s overseen during his time at the College, his penchant for engaging conversation, and what it means to “make to know.”
KAREN HOFMANN: Lorne, when you took the helm in 2009, there was already a growing understanding that what makes an ArtCenter education special is not just that we teach those traditional artistic, creative and technical skills—which we did, and still do—but that we also teach our students to take risks. And, thanks to programs like Designmatters, we were also developing a reputation as an institution that produces artists and designers who believe they can affect the world as creative citizens. But you entered and began speaking about educating the whole person. Can you expand on that?
LORNE M. BUCHMAN: Since its inception, ArtCenter has had a deep commitment to professional education. It’s long been a hallmark of the College’s most basic philosophy. But at the time of my arrival, we also needed to ask how ArtCenter could evolve in a changing world and still be true to itself. In other words, how was the definition of a professional education changing? With an ear to industry and to the needs of the world, I began to engage with my colleagues on the questions of how the education we were offering would be most relevant to the moment, and how we might think about educating the whole person.
We want our students to understand their agency. Importantly, it's not the radius of the influence that matters, but rather the fact that their work is creating change.Lorne M. BuchmanPresident, ArtCenter College of Design
We wanted to reinvigorate, for example, an education that included a life of the mind. We wanted students to see that their Humanities and Sciences classes—their academic classes—were not some sort of appendage to the “real” studio classes, but rather fundamental to their experience as growing artists and designers. We were engaged in talking about the core relationship between the studio and the seminar room, about contemplating human experience in literature and philosophy, about understanding the various creative communities to which our students belong. Artists and designers need to know about the outstanding achievements of their disciplines, the histories behind them, and where their field of interest is heading. We want our students to be deeply involved in those conversations as practitioners and as people who are knowledgeable about and sensitive to the nuances those issues present. Right now, for instance, some of the most vital questions of our time revolve around diversity, equity and inclusion. If our students are going to be effective professionals, they need to be conversant, if not deeply involved, in that discussion.
And all of this gets to something we’ve articulated over the years, which has to do with the notion of “influencing change,” echoing the second half of ArtCenter’s mission statement, “Learn to create. Influence change.” We’ve embraced the profound idea that the education our students receive should enable them to create change in the world in significant ways. We want our students to understand their agency. Importantly, it’s not the radius of the influence that matters, but rather the fact that their work is creating change. Sometimes that change may be highly visible; sometimes it will happen in small ways. I’m a believer in the butterfly effect. The important thing is that our students go out into the world and make it a better place.
HOFMANN: And all that fits nicely with what industry today is demanding. Industry wants “unicorn” employees, who are technically proficient but are also strong leaders and change agents and, on top of all that, have business savvy. I was very appreciative of your timing, Lorne, because you came in and really helped shape our community. On that topic, could you talk about Create Change, the strategic plan for the College that asked the question, What should an art and design education in the 21st century look like? Please describe, too, how you brought the community together for that effort.
BUCHMAN: These questions hark back to where the institution was at the time, and they’re also relevant to my philosophy of leadership. When I arrived in 2009, ArtCenter had come through some turbulent times. There was a need for a sense of focus and for some engaged work, and for the community to wrestle with the fundamental values and identity of the College. The moment was ripe for that kind of interrogation and exploration. And my approach to leadership in general is more of a “make to know” philosophy. It’s not about my coming into a situation with some preconceived vision and then setting up a structure of “follow the leader.” It’s about opening up a conversation—a making, if you will—of an institution, an education, and a realization of mission.
And so Create Change 1.0—just called Create Change then—became a matter of choreographing a very large group of people who had a lot to say and who wanted to participate in shaping the College. There were hundreds of people involved. There were students involved. There were faculty involved. There were staff, alumni and members of industry involved. My role was not only about my own personal learning, but also about directing the discussion and getting things to a point where we could articulate our collective ideas into a plan for the future of the College. No one person could have ever come in and said, “Here’s my vision—follow me.” We had to get together as a community to create it, to make it.
We realized we weren’t going to succeed at making real change unless we approached diversity, equity and inclusion as something woven much more fundamentally into the mission of the institution.Lorne M. BuchmanPresident, ArtCenter College of Design
HOFMANN: That was really a revolutionary way of approaching ArtCenter. We had never had that kind of in-depth, campuswide engagement in terms of defining where we wanted to go as an institution. It shaped the trajectory of the College into the next decade. And it was an early example of what we’re now calling “culture shift.” It also led to the formation of the Center for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI). Can you talk about that?
BUCHMAN: The Center for DEI absolutely came out of those conversations. There was no doubt that ArtCenter needed to focus so much more on diversity, equity and inclusion, and the discussions we had helped clarify our thinking. The story of how the Center for DEI evolved is interesting: When we first posted a job listing for a diversity officer, we quickly faced an important philosophical and structural issue that we needed to address. After posting the position, we received 80 applicants. The search committee came back to me and said, “There’s not one candidate in that group that we found interesting or exciting.” So I thought, hmmm…to paraphrase Shakespeare, the fault may not be in our stars but in ourselves, and maybe we need to take a closer look at what we’re doing here. So we had some really important conversations, and we realized we weren’t going to succeed at making real change unless we approached diversity, equity and inclusion as something woven much more fundamentally into the mission of the institution. We realized that it was misguided to create an administrative position without creating the structure within the organization necessary for such a position to succeed. We realized that diversity, equity and inclusion needed to be integrated into everything—who we were recruiting, who we were hiring, the curriculum, the exhibitions, our shared governance model, and so forth. That is what spawned the idea for the Center for DEI.
This work we did predated the murder of George Floyd, so when that national moment of reckoning arrived, we were in a place where we could take a deep look at ourselves as an institution, realize where we had fallen short, articulate a greater urgency, and make a plan of action to move forward. We went through a painful time trying to figure it out.
HOFMANN: On a lighter note, but very much in line with much of what we’re talking about here—particularly in terms of the art of listening—can you talk a bit about why you started your Change Lab podcast?
BUCHMAN: Change Lab has been a critical part of my presidency. I think the world is clamoring right now to hear from creative people who have powerful insights into how we might address our most complex problems. And that’s what ArtCenter is all about: educating students and giving them the courage to go out into the world to engage creatively in the pressing challenges facing humanity.
As such, the podcast has been essential to my work. It has been a complete privilege to participate in each conversation. You know, there’s a lot of talk about how a leader or president can be the public face of an institution and the spokesperson for the values of the community. But I think equally effective is the act of creating conversation on the deep, pressing questions of our time—in this case, with respect to art and design. The podcast has engaged an audience far larger than any we’ve ever reached before, inviting them to be a part of that conversation, to learn with us, and to experience the brilliance of the people who have been able to give shape and articulation to the issues we wanted to cover. Those conversations became the foundation for my book Make to Know: From Spaces of Uncertainty to Creative Discovery.
Read an excerpt from the book and listen to a discussion between Buchman and ArtCenter Senior Vice President Tom Stern.
HOFMANN: There’s great value in the art form that you’ve created with Change Lab. That kind of dialogue and engagement has to continue in some form. But since you’ve brought up your book, can you tell us how Make to Know connects to ArtCenter?
BUCHMAN: The book’s premise is that making is in itself a revelatory process. Creativity is rarely an activity that realizes a preexisting vision. It is, instead—as many artists and designers make clear—a making that leads to discovery. ArtCenter’s fundamental philosophy of education has everything to do with students’ experiencing the knowing that comes from making. It’s not about theory preceding practice. The theoretical and conceptual questions are born of the making.
These ideas also get back to something I talked about early in my ArtCenter career: embracing the conservatory approach of the College. In order for our students to succeed, they need to have certain skills, values and experiences that together create a “scaffolding” for their work. They can then begin reaching into places of the unknown through an applied making. Our students have typically already started to build some of that scaffolding before they arrive at the College—a distinctive feature of the ArtCenter applicant. Like the great conservatories, ArtCenter looks for students who demonstrate gifts and talents in a particular discipline and show a readiness for the very intense applied experience that we provide. And while I may have championed the idea, those assumptions long predate me. That’s always been ArtCenter’s approach.