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Breaking the mold: Social scientist, policy scholar helms ASU design and arts school

Steven J. Tepper, the new dean of ASU's Herberger Institute
October 01, 2014

Five years ago, at a time when many universities were reducing or eliminating studies in design and arts disciplines, Arizona State University crowned creative practice as one of its core values by establishing the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. Built on a combination of disciplines unlike any other program in the nation, the institute comprises the schools of Art; Arts, Media + Engineering; Design; Film, Dance and Theatre; and Music; as well as the ASU Art Museum.

Now the university has broken the mold again, by selecting a social scientist and policy scholar to lead the Herberger Institute.

Steven J. Tepper, one of the nation’s top authorities on creativity and cultural participation, comes to ASU from Vanderbilt University, where he helped lead the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise, and Public Policy, and was associate professor in the department of sociology.

“Professor Tepper is a renowned expert on U.S. cultural policy, and his work has fostered national discussions around topics of cultural engagement and the transformative possibilities of a truly creative campus,” said ASU President Michael M. Crow. “He is visionary and entrepreneurial and is perfectly suited to help the Herberger Institute become the model of the 21st-century arts school.”

Tepper’s research and teaching focus on creativity in education and work, conflict over art and culture, and cultural participation. He is the author of “Not Here, Not Now, Not That! Protest Over Art and Culture in America” and co-editor and contributing author of the book “Engaging Art: The Next Great Transformation of America’s Cultural Life.”

Tepper’s writings on creativity and higher education have appeared in numerous national publications, including the Huffington Post and Fast Company. His article “Thinking ‘Bigger Than Me’ in the Liberal Arts,” in which he asks the question, “How do we nurture (‘bigger-than-me’) experiences in the generation committed to Me?” was published Sept. 15 in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

“Dr. Steven Tepper is a brilliant and much-welcomed addition to the cultural community in Arizona,” says Colleen Jennings-Roggensack, executive director at ASU Gammage. “ASU faculty and students will benefit greatly from his commitment to excellence and his creative vision, rigor and innovation in partnership.”

The first to point out that he is not himself an artist, Tepper is also one of the first to champion the power of art and creativity. He firmly believes that “the artistic imagination and the artistic process” can open up discussions about public issues and prompt people, and policymakers, to think about them in new and productive ways.

Tepper is enthusiastic about the possibilities at ASU, which he calls “an innovation habitat.”

“The expectations for transformative thinking are so present that all of my meetings with colleagues across the university result in not just one small quiet collaboration, but big, bold, transformative ideas.”

Tepper brings big, bold, transformative ideas to the table, too, informed by the first few months he has spent immersing himself in the culture of the Herberger Institute specifically, and ASU and the larger community more broadly.

“The possibilities of scale are so exciting here, and I think the willingness of the institution to try things means that we can craft the most compelling creative campus model we can imagine, where creativity is a core value across the campus, and where the arts can be a driver for animating and catalyzing creativity in every discipline.”

What Tepper has in mind is nothing short of a reinvention of 21st-century design and arts training. By that, he doesn’t mean changing the pedagogy, curriculum and methodology of arts training, which his research indicates is particularly well-suited to deep, engaged learning and good outcomes.

He believes, however, that society needs “to think radically differently about the role of a design and arts school within a larger institution, and the role of a design and arts school in the region and beyond, and the kinds of careers we’re preparing our graduates for.

“There are so many mythologies around how an artist thinks and what an artist is and where art belongs in society. I want to shatter those completely,” he said.

The way to do that, Tepper says, is to find “non-routine places to be, and non-routine partners to work with.”

He lists several Herberger Institute projects as examples of art and design in non-routine places: ASU School of Art faculty member Gregory Sale’s “It’s not just black and white,” a social practice exhibition at the ASU Art Museum in 2011, created a space for dialogue around the critical issue of incarceration in the U.S. Beginning in 2011, students from The Design School traveled to Rwanda to conduct field research as part of a design studio focused on addressing some of the critical health and wellness issues facing people in parts of Central Africa. This past spring, Allyson Yoder, a junior in the School of Film, Dance and Theatre, traveled to Panama with Movement Exchange, a national “dance diplomacy” group that “fosters civic engagement, cross-cultural understanding and creative expression through dance and service.” And the music therapy program, in the School of Music, uses the study and practice of guitar music to help military veterans find new ways to cope with stress and improve the quality of their lives.

“Those projects show how powerful an arts-infused conversation/investigation can be,” Tepper said. “The unique advantage of having such an interdisciplinary set of programs (at the Herberger Institute) is that we can put together creative teams that can truly imagine things that couldn’t be imagined from a single discipline.”

He cites the School of Arts, Media + Engineering for its groundbreaking work in putting interdisciplinary projects into practice and working at the outer edge of our creative understanding to develop innovative models, such as the new book “Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future,” edited by Arts, Media + Engineering faculty Ed Finn, and including a story inspired by the thinking of Darren Petrucci, faculty in The Design School.

Tepper has high praise all around for what he calls the “superhero team” at the Herberger Institute.

“This is a faculty that is getting recognized every single day by peers and colleagues, and by arts leaders and gate keepers across the country and the world,” he said. “And the genius behind the hiring of the directors of the schools and the director of the museum, all of whom share a common set of core beliefs about art and society, is remarkable. It’s a very powerful team. I feel very lucky to have a chance to work with them.”

One issue that Tepper is passionate about, and has made a guiding principle at the Herberger Institute, is access to design and arts education. He emphasizes that access isn’t just about providing an affordable education to every student who has the talent and the desire – as critical as that is. It’s also about “guaranteeing our nation’s expressive life is constituted by the voices of all of its people.”

Tepper points to Steve Yazzie, the Herberger Institute’s outstanding undergraduate of 2014, as a shining example of the importance of developing diverse voices. Yazzie grew up mostly on the reservation and joined the military out of high school. He turned to painting as a way to wrestle with the aftermath of his experiences in Desert Storm, and went on to develop a successful career as an artist. In his 40s, he returned to school to get the college degree he never thought he would.

Yazzie credits ASU with pushing him in new directions. He developed a model of working in film that he says is “a great way for Native people to retell stories, to create platforms, to make work in a way that can be shared.”

“The ability to be an artist in this world is the privilege to contribute to telling the nation’s and our world’s stories,” Tepper explained. “It’s the power to help shape our identity as communities and as citizens, and so I think it’s a significant ethical concern that our design and arts schools are not making sure that all voices get projected. I think ASU and the Herberger Institute can train more artists from underrepresented backgrounds than anywhere else in the nation.”

Tepper notes that the ideas on which he wants to focus – innovation, interdisciplinarity and access, to name a few – are areas of existing strengths at ASU and within the Herberger Institute.

“Our challenge is to bring coherence to all the work we’re already doing,” Tepper said, “to bring in new partners who want to support that work, and then to stretch ourselves, to invent some models that are scalable, so that we can maximize our ability to create change and create pilots that others can follow.”

In addition to being an expert on the power of art and creativity, Tepper is also one of the nation’s foremost authorities on the lives and careers of arts graduates. As the research director of SNAAP, the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project, he has spent the last decade investigating the training, prospects and outcomes of more than 100,000 graduates of arts training institutions, and the data he has gathered has only reinforced his sense of the importance of design and arts education going forward.

“Our story about the value of an arts degree is really compelling,” Tepper said. “We have got to tell that story, because not only is it not a risk to send your child to get a degree at the Herberger Institute, it may be one of the best preparations for a 21st-century economy.”