“Maybe coffee and a few M&Ms will get me where I need to go,” laughs Denny Griffith, as he reaches into a bowl of the colored candies sitting on a desk in his office. It’s a cold, cold Tuesday. The sun reflects brightly off the snow-covered quad and floods Griffith’s top floor office, its wall of windows looking out over Columbus College of Art & Design. The signature red ART sign that serves as a gateway to the bustling campus is in view, as are a number of new and/or renovated buildings that have been built and polished during the President’s tenure.
A piece by distinguished alumna Aminah Robinson hangs on the wall, while rows of three-ring binders line a bookshelf; the bric-a-brac of close to 16 years at the helm of one of the country’s leading art and design colleges adds pops of personality.
“Here’s a great picture – we do this Halloween party, the Big Boo, and I went punked out the first year. I had people in our 3D illustration class make me a mohawk. Oh man, let me tell you, it was great.”
Griffith will retire from his position at the end of this school year and it is a time of reflection. Before Griffith took the wheel of the 135-year-old institution (he is only the school’s third President), CCAD was a mystery, an island of paint-stained students swarming a small corner of downtown. Today, the school is a Discovery District favorite, with students working for and with numerous local companies, and the general public spending more time engaged with the campus, visiting galleries and attending lectures, events, and continuing education classes.
Amazingly, in between fundraising – which has grown 500 percent under Griffith’s watch – and speaking with parents, Griffith has nurtured his own talent as a painter, showing around the world. Now that he is bowing out of the college game, Griffith will relocate to Ashville, North Carolina and making painting his focus. “I want to be living robustly in the third third of life. It’s like jumping into the deep end – scary. Columbus is smokin’ hot and it’ll be a bitch to leave.”
Do you remember when you realized that you wanted to be an artist?
I always wanted to be an artist…that’s just what I did. I was tall, so everyone assumed I’d play basketball, but I didn’t play well. I always loved to draw and that’s I what did. When I went to college (Ohio Wesleyan), probably like most of us in the early 1970s, it was kind of a wild time and we went to school to find ourselves. You would go to school and get a degree – it was the era of liberal arts; you’d go and figure yourself out and find your way into the world. While I was there, I became an art major and got a BFA and went to NYC to spend a semester doing an internship with an artist.
How is the college experience different today?
It is tough today, for all kinds of reasons: the economy, the cost of education, the cost of technology which drives up the cost of education, the cost of regulation which drives up the cost of education. All that stuff combines to mean that the expectation of a degree is that it’s going to get me this kind of job; we’ve come to the expectation that this is vocational training – that term is an overstatement, but it’s designed to make the point that we now expect a return on investment. Some of the searching that happens while trying to become a whole person, and then using your personhood to find a life that is both productive and joyful, may be a little rarer than it used to be. Maybe that’s just how the world is now, and economically there’s not much we can do about it. I suppose I can sound a little nostalgic.
What was CCAD like when you first got here?
It was almost like a monastery. There was this mystery about what went on here; you’d see students walking back and forth across Broad Street carrying their portfolios and that was the way people knew us. It has been a bit of a crusade to help the community understand the value of what we do, the fact that we’re all about applied creativity. You know, we’re in the Midwest, so everybody kind of understands things like craftsmanship and work ethic and we’re all about that stuff in a way that is really indigenous to where we are. One of the reasons we’ve gotten so much stronger is because the business environment here – well, there’s a symbiotic relationship between CCAD and all the companies, and you can start with the New Albany companies. Victoria’s Secret, Tween brands, Abercrombie & Fitch – they hire lots of our students, not only to design garments but to work on their websites, packaging, the whole deal, store displays. And then you’ve got companies like Ologie, which was founded by one of our alumni, Bev Ryan (neé Bethge), who is now on the CCAD Board…[she’s] an incredible woman, creative and generous and wise. She sort of exemplifies the kind of person that can come out of a place like this. She shapes the world through her work. We’re really proud of people like that, and they, in turn, help us back. It’s been a really really neat process to take the best of the college and leverage it. And there are a lot of really good, smart, committed, and passionate people here. I always get a little squeamish when people say “Denny, you’ve done this and you’ve done that” and sure, I’ve tried to set the tone, be strategically thoughtful, or even sometimes strategically crafty about how to advance the college – but there’s a ton of really great people here and that makes the job easy.
How has CCAD grown or changed?
Part of my whole crusade here has been for the business and civic leadership not to underestimate CCAD by seeing it just as a place that generates artists. We are a place where design is by far and away the larger part of what we do here. Our people are basically the stem cells for the creative economy. Huge companies like Cardinal Health or a video production firm or an agency like Resource [Interactive] need talent; they need designers who can make things for the web, who can do video work, who can do great compelling visual communications, who can tell stories in service of commerce, or to shape products in service of commerce. We here are fond of saying we shape culture and commerce. So, my deal has been trying to help the community understand the value of the college.
You mentioned that Ron Pizzuti once told you, “Denny, you need to decide whether you’re going to be an artist or an administrator.”
I veered less towards suffering for my art and more towards living a rich life and continuing to make my work. So, I keep doing that. I’ve always made my work. But now I’m at this breaking point where in June I will wrap up my 16th year at the college and I felt like the high road would be to leave maybe slightly before I was ready but before I became, I don’t know, slothful in some way – that’s really not the right word – I didn’t want to take the job for granted. This is the kinda thing you have to drive constantly – there’s this silly phrase about jobs being 24/7, but this is one of them. And so I’ve loved it, every minute of it. We’ve made a lot of great changes. It’s a team sport, but I just could sense that my stamina – maybe stamina’s the right word – my stamina might wane, and rather than being the guy that people are lined up to help pack the boxes to get him out the door, I want to be the guy that leaves on a high, with the campsite a lot better than I found it. This is a splendid, splendid job and it’s not all bad to share that with someone new. It’s a helluva gig.
CCAD will be holding its annual Discovery Day on February 8, for those interested in finding out more about the school. For more, visit www.ccad.edu.