Paula S. Wallace is a rare breed. She’s the trailblazing academic who reimagined the American art college from a Georgia studio. That was nearly 40 years ago, before students of fashion, design, and architecture realized that success in their vaunted disciplines required mastery of less-flashy skills. “Most art students don’t know that majors like industrial marine design or user experience even exist,” says Wallace, 67, whose new book, The Bee and the Acorn (Assouline), chronicles the growth of the Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD) from a hair-brained idea to a curriculum and an accredited school with four campuses across the globe. “It doesn’t occur to them that they need to go to school to learn luxury management, or branded entertainment so they can compete.”
Wallace saw all of this coming four decades ago. Back then, she was an Atlanta school teacher who believed that higher education lacked the student-centric approach that she was giving her pupils in grade school. “Colleges focused on teaching subjects, not students,” she says.
So in 1978 she sold her Volkswagen Beetle, received some money from her mother, and bought an old armory—which would become SCAD’s first building—in the highly livable historic town of Savannah. The only furnishing was her kitchen table, and on it Wallace wrote the first curriculum devised specifically for students seeking careers in creative professions. “Going from zero to one student was the biggest challenge ever,” she says. But by 1979, SCAD had enrolled 71 students and enlisted seven teachers. Eight degrees were offered, and the first student, a transfer interior design major, graduated in 1981. “All the staff wore caps and gowns and that one graduate was delivered on horse-drawn carriage to Madison Square for the ceremony,” she says.
Now SCAD has 12,500 students across four campuses—Savannah, Hong Kong, Atlanta, and Lacoste, France—with some 42 disciplines and more than 100 degrees ranging from the first MFA in motion media visual effects to game development to historic preservation.
As its president, Wallace has her finger on the pulse of the up-and-coming creative class. In the 1980s, SCAD was one of the first art colleges to offer computer art as a major. Now students have the opportunity to work with companies like Google, Pixar, NASA, Proctor & Gamble, and Disney. “We listen to students with one ear and to the professional world with the other,” Wallace says. Job placement at name-brand firms is high.
To Wallace, education is a kind of immortality. “You are passing on the essence of all you know to people who go on to succeed,” she says. “It’s gratifying to know that you’ve been a small part of someone’s story. That’s why I wrote the book: to hopefully share a bit of my story.”