Aiming for Excellence: A Conversation with Dean of Academic Affairs Charles Wright

Posted December 6, 2018 in Campus, Public

This article originally appeared in the fall 2018 issue of Portfolio magazine. Read the complete issue

Long before his career brought him to KCAD, Charles Wright was fascinated by the way different elements can play together in harmony. For years, that notion inspired his work as a painter and sculptor, and today, it’s an important aspect of his job as the college’s dean of academic affairs.

“I’ve always been interested in combining things to see how they work,” Wright says. In his sculpture, that might take the form of layering wood, steel, and stone and polishing them to create a smooth, unified surface. Outside the studio, he says, “That informs my work as an administrator too—understanding the individual elements and seeking opportunities for growth.”

Elderly gentleman with glasses smiles into the cameraKCAD Dean of Academic Affairs Charles Wright

The Path to KCAD Dean Wright joined KCAD in July 2017. After earning an associate’s degree from Coastal Carolina University and a BFA from Kent State University, he followed one of his professors to Washington University of St. Louis, where he earned an MFA with a concentration in sculpture before returning to Coastal Carolina to teach in the art program. Eventually, he took over as chair of the program and served in that capacity for 15 years before becoming chair of the art program at Western Illinois University. “In my 10 years there, I enjoyed the opportunity to see at a high level how individual efforts lead to professional and institutional advancement,” he says. In his capacity as chair, he brought groups together to tackle the university’s first accreditation review, create faculty leadership development opportunities, and develop course scheduling strategies that led to a more efficient progression through programs as well as access to a broader range of courses for students and facilities upgrades.

While at Western Illinois, Wright visited Grand Rapids during ArtPrize— a visit that would pique his interest in the area. “We were discussing the possibility of hosting a small arts festival and thought ArtPrize was a good model to research. The day I was leaving Grand Rapids, I said, ‘I’m coming back to this town. This is wonderful,’” he says. Seeing the open position at the college, “I was intrigued by the opportunity to be part of such a well-regarded institution in an art and design-centric community.”

Following his appointment as dean, Wright’s first goal was to listen to the people around him, getting to know his colleagues and his new institution. “I wanted to learn everything I could about the people, the places, the processes,” he says. “Listening is the most important thing I can do.”

Group of people standing in front of a cityscape Dean Charles Wright, far right, with Fashion Studies students and faculty in Hong Kong, China. (credit: Jacky Wong, This is Asia Tours Hong Kong)

Points of Pride Throughout his first few months on the job, Wright discovered some particular strengths of KCAD. “There is a collaborative spirit here among students, faculty, and disciplines,” he says. “Not only does KCAD have strong programs in fine art and design, but it understands how fine art and design are connected as well. That broader perspective of what creative professionals are capable of feeds directly into an approach that’s all about positioning students to succeed, no matter what discipline they’re studying.”

The college’s relationship with the West Michigan community also stood out. “KCAD faculty helped Grand Rapids Public Schools design the curriculum for the Grand Rapids Public Museum School, which emphasizes design thinking and place-based education. In collaboration with Spectrum Health Innovations, LLC, KCAD students helped develop a prototype for the Epilepsy Monitoring Unit to facilitate improved care for patients and are now working on medical device innovation, design, and development,” Wright says. Projects with disability arts organization DisArt and contemporary arts group SiTE:LAB and community murals facilitated by KCAD’s UICA, as well as opportunities to meet and interact with an international roster of artists and designers via the Grand Rapids Art Museum, are additional examples he cites. “How exciting to be at a college where this kind of work happens every day!”

Aiming for Excellence While getting to know the KCAD community, Wright has also noted opportunities to enhance programs and student learning experiences. “As an institution, KCAD is always looking for ways to evolve its academic programs, increase inclusivity, and achieve high safety standards,” he says.

In the area of academics, Wright is considering ways to build on KCAD’s combined strengths in fine art and design. “KCAD has an opportunity to help the world understand the connections between the two. We’re looking at the interface between design, art, and new technologies like augmented reality,” he says, noting that a new AR course was recently developed by Sculpture and Functional Art Assistant Professor Natalie Wetzel, while others work to increase student opportunities to publish work, apply for patents, and explore interdisciplinary possibilities.

In terms of inclusivity, Wright notes that barriers to higher education and to art and design careers must be addressed at the K-8 education level, and he cites the efforts of the college’s Art Education program to ensure that arts education is included in state Title I funding and that arts access is a factor in school evaluations; Painting Professor Margaret Vega’s Site Studio project, which brings after-school art and design experiences to the Roosevelt Park neighborhood in Grand Rapids; and the intentional diversity of the Museum School as examples of how the college is addressing these challenges. Internally, Wright praises recently implemented improvements to hiring practices, as well as the work of the college’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee, and he brings his experience in these areas to the discussion.

Man in ceremonial green robe stands at a lecternDean Wright addressing the graduating class of 2018 during KCAD’s annual commencement ceremony.

Regarding health and safety, Wright says, “KCAD does a great job,” and with his expertise in this area, Wright is looking closely at materials, practices, and facilities, with a keen eye for both safety and environmental responsibility. Thinking Ahead “Dean Wright brings the national conversation on innovation in art and design pedagogy to KCAD through his service on boards and committees for national arts organizations. He is a passionate advocate for the arts and art and design education,” says KCAD President Leslie Bellavance.

As a newly elected member of the board of directors for the International Council of Fine Arts Deans, Wright aims to identify fresh opportunities for KCAD students, and he is intrigued by the possibilities of international curriculum and collaborations with research institutions. “My involvement in this organization will allow me to interface with a diverse group of leaders and make connections that will ultimately benefit our institution and our students,” he says. 

Closer to home, he says, “One of my goals is to help the college own its place as a leader in art and design education and as a model of how design and visual art can be integrated. KCAD is in a position to become a destination school for people who understand and want to leverage the power of creativity to make a difference in the world.”   

Getting to Know Dean Wright

Inspirational art and artists The vitality and energy of Richard Hunt and his monumental sculptures always inspire me.

In my studio My focus has been on sculpture, but my next iteration is probably going to be focused on painting.

On my reading list My favorite book right now is called Black Count. It’s about Alex Dumas, a general in Napoleon’s army and father of novelist Alexandre Dumas, whose adventures inspired the younger Dumas’ classics such as The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers.

Favorite spot on campus The Spark Park, the pop-up park installed in front of the Woodbridge N. Ferris Building each ArtPrize; I love that. It’s a wonderful way to create a dialogue about the potential for green space on campus.

On motivation The opportunity to make a difference and help create opportunities for the next generation of artists and designers motivates me every day.