With a record-breaking gift of $120 million from the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation, plus another $40 million from the Windgate Foundation to support the development of an art and design district, the University of Arkansas’s School of Art in Fayetteville has monumental financial support backing its expansion. The person tasked with overseeing that growth is Gerry Snyder, a self-described small town Idaho boy who came to academia later in life, after working a bunch of nontraditional seasonal jobs so he could carve out more time to paint. Snyder recently moved to Fayetteville in July after five years as the inaugural dean of the School of Art at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute. He brings with him 30 years of experience working in art higher education. Although when he spoke with the Arkansas Times he’d only been on the ground a few days, he’d already experienced what he deems as “Arkansas hot.”
“I thought I understood heat and hot weather because New York is known for it,” he says. “It actually surprised me, but even that I love.” When asked to talk about artists he likes, he quickly admits he doesn’t like to do any sort of top 10, adding “I’m a very generous viewer. I like almost all kinds of art and see its value,” before gushing about all types of artists — a young New York City-based performance artist named Shaun Leonardo and Louis Bourgeois, who created the giant metal spider that now greets each new visitor as they walk into the main entry to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
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Although Snyder is tasked with enormous developments, he wants to spend his first year listening and getting to know the unique needs and opportunities in Northwest Arkansas. Ahead of his inquisition, we caught up with him to learn more about his vision and background.
You’ve got big tasks ahead of you. What do you want to accomplish in your first year?
I see a lot of potential. The gift itself is phenomenal. I think of it as a once-in-a-generation gift in the sense that this would be a large gift in any setting — medicine and museums — but the fact that its been given to education, and specifically to art, is visionary in my mind. Art is a centering place for civilizations, societies, culture. It’s basically when we know we’ve arrived at a certain level — when the arts are at a certain level when the arts are visible.
The gift has very specific goals, so the first year will be spent developing a strategic plan to make sure those goals are achieved. I have a lot of experience in leadership in academics and what that has taught me over the years is: listen carefully. So I’m going to spend a lot of time this first year getting to know the School of Art, Fulbright College, the University, the local community, how that’s connected to a national community in the arts. What’s happening in Northwest Arkansas — it has already become a destination, Crystal Bridges has become a destination museum. And with Momentary, that will only increase, and it has easy access. We’re only two hours and 40 minutes from LaGuardia, so that’s a small investment in time to get someplace. People I know in the art world know about Northwest Arkansas because of the arts.
I’d love to hear about your own journey and what brought you to the world of higher education arts administration? When did you really engage with art for the first time?
By age 4, I was drawing with focus. It was something that I liked. I started painting when I was 12. Somewhere between 4 and 12, I knew my destination was to be an artist.
I didn’t start college at a traditional age. I was more determined to learn on my own so I spent time working seasonal jobs I could do five or six months at a time at, and then take four or five months off to paint. I was on a helicopter fire crew in the forest service in central Idaho. I was on a fishing boat in Alaska. I worked around the oil fields in Wyoming. In each one of these, wherever I worked, invariably I would be tapped for a responsibility — you know, “We’re going to put you in charge” — but my focus was on art.
When I went to graduate school I was hired to help consolidate a very large program from six locations to a central location. It just seems to be a skill set that makes sense to me. At a certain point I tried to run from it but eventually I just embraced it. You have to know who you are.
What do you see as the biggest challenges you’re up against?
I’m not viewing it as challenges, but just pure opportunity. Everything that needs to happen can happen. It’s more of having the right strategic plan to drive the goals that take into account people, location, resourcing and structuring within the university to make sure all the parts align. If you design a kitchen for a tall person and a person who is not tall moves into it, you have a structure that’s probably not going to succeed unless you have some sort of add-on, like a stool or ladder. So when I think about structuring programs and opportunities, it’s to make sure the structure supports the goals, the people and the institution. If you get those things right, it usually goes quite well.
I know you just got to Northwest Arkansas, but what are your first impressions?
Fayetteville’s lovely. The people are really nice. A quick story: I was driving across country one time and it didn’t get beautiful until we got to Arkansas.
I’ve moved around a lot. I always look for communities. I do like urban areas. Being a kid from Idaho, cities always made sense to me, but I know smaller places well. I lived in Santa Fe for 14 years and it’s about the same size and has a lot in common with this area. I’m looking forward to getting to know the arts community. I’ve leased a place to live right downtown. The one thing I truly did like about New York — or anyplace I live — is if I can walk.
When I was younger, I loved theater, and it was hard because there’s not a lot of professional theater in Idaho. But I extensively read playwrights and saw whatever I could. From my window I can see TheatreSquared, so I’m looking forward to it. Last year I saw “The Iceman Cometh,” which is a favorite play of mine, starring Nathan Lane. Beautiful work. Three hours and 45 minutes and it was over in a minute. So I’m looking forward to getting to know the local community.
Why is art important for all of us?
That question has filled libraries. I personally think the creative impulse is given to everyone. Maybe not everyone makes a painting, or drawing, or picks up an instrument, but if you look at life, even in its most challenging circumstances, creativity is important. I think art is central to almost any civilization or culture. A large part of the history of the world we only know through art, craft and material culture. It’s what people look at. It’s how we create meaning. We make things and then we imbue them with meaning and then we make some more things. It’s a wonderful process.
I always liked it because to me it offered the most freedom. In math and spelling, precision is pretty important. There’s a right and a wrong. You can use that creatively, but it really has its limits. When I was young and thinking about art, the rules seemed broader and less clear. I was drawn to that place where you could make things up. Or you could look at things, employ allegory, politics — or anything you wanted to bring to it — and it was also working with materials. To me, it always made sense.