SCAD Founder Paula Wallace dared to dream of a world-class art school in her hometown. Forty years later, that dream has transformed the city of Savannah.
Founded on a dream and funded by the resale price of a used Volkswagen Beetle, SCAD has grown from humble beginnings into a global powerhouse of the art world.
For anyone who has ever doubted the power of a dream — even a dream so outlandish that most folks would just laugh it off — Paula Wallace would like a word.
Wallace’s impossible dream turned 40 last year, and as the celebration of its first four decades winds down, Savannah College of Art and Design — better known simply as SCAD — is reflecting on its past while trying to stay one step ahead of tomorrow.
Since Wallace, then an elementary school art teacher, went all-in on her dream to create an art school in then-struggling downtown Savannah — and convinced her parents, Paul and May Poetter, to do the same — SCAD has grown into a global powerhouse in the creative world.
A POWERFUL STORY
From SCAD’s unlikely origins to its position as a leader in producing top-flight talent across multiple creative fields, it’s all detailed in the recently opened SCADstory — an immersive 4D experience created by a group of SCAD alumni, including former Disney Imagineers.
Located in Poetter Hall — in the former Savannah Volunteer Guard Armory where the university got its start 40 years ago — SCADstory features an animated version of Wallace giving the abbreviated version of the school’s origin story and meteoric rise. The presentation is moving, equal parts inspirational and whimsical, and serves as an excellent primer on the university that reshaped Savannah’s historic district for visiting tourists, prospective students, or anyone in between.
As the animated Wallace tells visitors to SCADstory, downtown Savannah was mostly forgotten and dotted with dilapidated buildings in the late-1970s, but she was determined in her vision to transform the historic district into SCAD’s living, breathing campus. Beginning with the initial purchase of the Savannah Volunteer Guard Armory, the university has rehabilitated more than 50 historic structures in Savannah and is credited with playing a major role in the city’s rebirth.
SCAD and the modern version of Savannah have grown up together, both mimicking the real-life metaphors Wallace often invokes when sharing her story and in her memoir, “The Bee and the Acorn.” The bee, which is SCAD’s mascot, defies logic by flying and works with its peers to create something greater than it could alone. The acorn seems insignificant until it blossoms into a mighty oak.
It’s easy to see why Wallace favors those metaphors when describing SCAD’s growth from offering one program to 71 students in 1979 to enrolling nearly 15,000 students in more than 100 degree programs in 2019.
“SCAD invented higher education for the creative professions by boldly declaring, ‘No starving artists!,’” Wallace says. “Forty years later, SCAD is the preeminent source of knowledge in every discipline we teach.”
These SCAD students won Walt Disney Imagineering’s 28th Imaginations Design Competition. They are, from left, Ezekiel Waters, Carolyn Teves, Nicholas Hammond and Remi Jeffrey-Coker. [photo by Gary Krueger]
A POWERFUL DRAW
One of the most climactic moments during the SCADstory experience (spoiler alert!) comes when the room darkens and a storm blows in. As thunder rumbles through the room and lightning flashes all around, the animated Wallace recounts the arrival of Hurricane David, just weeks before SCAD was set to open, and wonders aloud whether anyone will show up.
They did. And they haven’t stopped coming.
Since that first enrollment class of 71 students, SCAD has produced more than 35,000 alumni at four campuses worldwide — in Savannah, Atlanta, Hong Kong, and Lacoste, France — as well as through e-learning.
Students come from all over the globe — but the draw can be just as powerful for creative types growing up in SCAD’s sizable footprint. Senior Zeke Waters, who will graduate as the valedictorian of SCAD Savannah’s 2019 class, is from the textile hotbed of Calhoun, Georgia, and grew up hearing about SCAD and seeing the large sign marking the university’s Atlanta campus.
From a young age, Waters declared his intention to attend SCAD, but when it came time to actually research potential colleges, he was taken by the idea all over again.
“When I started doing more research to apply for schools, I started seeing the alumni and the type of work that was being done out of SCAD,” Waters said. “I kind of instantly knew that these people were creating industry-leading work, and that was exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to create work that was thought-provoking, as well as just really cool, for lack of a better term.”
Oh, SCAD does cool.
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