The unique opportunity led Gerry Snyder to become the first executive director of the School of Art at the University of Arkansas.
Snyder was named to the position in May and began to lead the first art school in the state in July. The school was established in fall 2017 with a $120 million gift from the Walton Family Charitable Foundation. Later that year, the school received $40 million to create the Windgate Art and Design District in south Fayetteville, which is expected to be completed in 2022.
Snyder, 66, has spent more than 30 years in higher education. He served in executive roles for multiple art schools while they were undergoing significant changes. Snyder was the first dean of the School of Art at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, chief academic officer at Santa Fe University of Art & Design, vice president for academic and student affairs at Pacific Northwest College of Art, and director of operations for the art department at New York University. He began his higher education career at NYU, where he earned a master’s degree in video art. He also received a bachelor’s degree in painting from the University of Oregon.
As an accomplished and internationally recognized artist, Snyder has artwork in public collections at Whitney Museum of American Art, de Young Museum, New Mexico Museum of Art and Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
Snyder recently spoke about his decision to lead and plans for the UA School of Art in an interview with Northwest Arkansas Business Journal. The following is from the interview, edited for length and clarity.
Jeff Della Rosa: Why were you selected to lead the first School of Art in Arkansas?
Gerry Snyder: From my perspective, I have kind of inadvertently just a lot of experience with startups.
I think that I have a certain skill set to where oftentimes at the beginning of a project there’s ambiguity and uncertainty. I see that as an interesting place to be opposed to something to kind of defeat or control. There’s opportunities when things aren’t completely kind of fixed. I have a lot of experience, too. Thirty-something years, you’re bound to learn something.
Della Rosa: What most attracted you to the position?
Snyder: What drew me to here is this is a really unique opportunity — when you look at the support that Northwest Arkansas enjoys from various foundations and just opportunity for kind of the business profile here. But the Walton Family Foundation gift, the Windgate gift — both would be large gifts in any context. You kind of think about the philanthropy landscape, and there’s a lot of places to give your money. But to choose the university and an art school is kind of unique. I’ve said this before, and it’s kind of a once in a generation opportunity and gift to support these core programs of art history, art education, studio and design. If the gift is managed and leveraged right, it should be able to do a lot.
Some of the mandates of the gift [include] the partnerships with Crystal Bridges. What we can do is create an interesting, hopefully, array of partnerships that could include joint residency programs, significant internships.
An early thought of mine — and I’ve said this in a few places — [and] it’s not new, but to think about Northwest Arkansas and the Ozarks as a hub. The first circle of the hub would be regional, which I describe from Houston to Chicago, Denver to Atlanta. The next ring would encompass the entire U.S., if not North America. So that could go from Montreal to Mexico City as far as a scope. It’s going to take time to build. The gift, a lot of opportunity, but there’s a lot of structuring to do to make it successful.
Della Rosa: Describe a typical day in your life at the school. What have you most enjoyed about your time here?
Snyder: The generosity of the people has been amazing on-campus and off-campus in the community. I love the size of the community. I grew up in a small town in Idaho, and I’ve always loved big cities. And it can be really big places like Shanghai or Mexico City or more modest cities like Paris or Portland, Ore., but if you’re not going to be in a big city, this is a perfect size community.
I rent a place right behind the Walton Arts Center, and I have a 12-13 minute walk to the office. There’s a metaphor in there. It’s almost all uphill. (Laughs) Going home, I can get there a little quicker.
If I would use the last week as a typical day, it’s all meetings. Most of my time is spent internally. But externally, I have connected with Walton Arts Center, the NorthWest Arkansas Community College, Momentary, Crystal Bridges, Art Ventures. I’ve had some just fun opportunities like being invited out to see the Tyson collection, which is a really great art collection. I’m always interested in people who collect art and how that is manifested, their tastes, their desires, all of that.
I’m working on a strategic plan that would be ready by the end of the spring semester. I was going to say I’m so busy I’m not quite sure when I’m going to be working on that — maybe over the holidays.
Della Rosa: What changes to the school have you made or plan to make soon?
Snyder: The most obvious one is moving from a department structure to a school structure. Within a school structure, we will move toward discrete programmed departments that get to determine their own future and how they get to do that. It creates more autonomy but more agency for that disciplined kind of future.
The biggest thing will be restructuring the school … This is really important to me … to structure it in a way where voices are heard, communication happens, that there’s a structure that encourages trust. That’s what I’m pretty keen on working on right now is to set that up and then make sure that it’s working and that we have the right people.
Della Rosa: What are your goals for the school over the next three to five years?
Snyder: The first goal would be to implement the [$120 million] gift. There’s a $50 million endowment just for scholarships, which is great. Of the $120 [million], $110 [million] is endowment, and that endowment is very specific … $50 million is set aside specifically for scholarships. We have plans for 11 endowed positions. We hired our first endowed professor this year in art education. My position is endowed. We’re searching for two endowed positions for art history. This year, we’re searching for one, possibly two in design.
With the gift, we have more students, more scholarships, more faculty, more opportunity. And what the Windgate gift allows us to do is give visibility to all of this. The new building will show the commitment from the university and the school and the community.