By Dave Ghose
Denny Griffith was a new kind of leader when he arrived at CCAD from the Columbus Museum of Art in 1998.
If his legendary predecessor Joseph Canzani was the brilliant, demanding coach who scared the bejesus out of his players, Griffith was the amiable quarterback whose teammates loved him for his warmth, quick wit, and gracious spirit. “Denny is charismatic enough to compete with the memory of Joseph Canzani, while being completely different in his leadership style,” says Julie Taggart, dean of the School of Studio Arts.
That open and accommodating manner defined Griffith’s 16 transformative years at the helm of CCAD as he modernized the campus, energized its academic programs, and integrated the once sleepy and isolated school into the life of the city.
With his tenure as CCAD president ending in June, friends, colleagues, and former students shared memories of Griffith’s compassion, kindness, and generosity. Oh, and his ready supply of energy bars.
“There was a general concern [on the presidential search committee] that Denny didn’t have any experience running an institution of higher education or an art school. He was the assistant director at the Columbus Museum of Art and an accomplished painter.
I saw some parallels between Denny and my career, and I told my colleagues on the board about them. I said, “Denny knows the community, and the other candidates don’t. Denny is an artist at heart. He’s well respected. He knows the trade as I knew my trade.” I started my construction company in 1980 without any construction experience, but I had the fundamental knowledge of how to put things together because of my formal education. And I said, “With his personality, he could be a great new leader for this school.”
Joe Canzani really nurtured CCAD and made it a well-respected art school, but it was an unknown entity in the community. When Denny got there, he took it to the next level. He put CCAD on the map.”
— Bill Heifner, president of Renier Construction and a member of the CCAD board when Griffith was hired in 1998
“I’ll never forget my first experience with Denny Griffith. I was in a class in Kinney Hall when the 9/11 attacks occurred. Somebody whispered something into the ear of the teacher, and the teacher looked really alarmed, and the class was dismissed.
Like a big swarm, everybody walked out towards the student hall, where there was a big television. I walked into the room, and I saw the second plane crash into the World Trade Center. It was a very traumatic moment — a lot of people crying, people shocked.
And I will always remember this image of Denny Griffith holding a student as she cried. He wasn’t up in his office sending messages, as you would expect a president would. That was typical of Denny.
I came from Mumbai, India, and there weren’t a lot of international students at CCAD back then. But Denny really made me forget I was in a place very, very far away from home. And he continues to support me. I recently had my first show in New York City, and Denny told me all the people he thought I should invite to my opening.”
— Manjari Sharma (CCAD 2004), photographer in New York
“When we were working on our economic development activities, Denny had been a leader in a group that had been gathering around the branding of Columbus. And he had been involved in a group that was trying to get college students more engaged in their community. And every retailer in town has partnerships with CCAD. So as we started to expand the Columbus Partnership and make sure that we had more faces and voices at the table, Denny was a real natural to include, though he’s certainly nontraditional. He’s one of just three college presidents who are part of the Partnership.
I would say his involvement with the Partnership is a manifestation of how he’s raised the profile of CCAD. Before, I don’t know if the president of the college would have been sitting at the table with the key business leaders of Central Ohio — and not only sitting there but also being one of the more active members.”
— Alex Fischer, president and CEO of the Columbus Partnership, a group that includes the top CEOs and civic leaders in Columbus
“My best memories of Denny are the private words of support and encouragement he would provide at just the moment you needed it. He seemed willing to drop anything to talk things through and provide some direction and support. He focuses on his responsibilities and doesn’t micromanage.
Denny didn’t interfere with the curriculum at all, though I think he always hoped it would evolve. I’m sure that with all the changes we now have underway, he is seeing CCAD become what he hoped it would.
—Julie Taggart (CCAD 1991), dean of the School of Studio Arts
“On my first day on the job 14 years ago, there was a note waiting for me on my desk. It was a hand-written message from Denny welcoming me to the neighborhood. He was the first person to say hello, and that’s how I’ve known him all along. He’s been a good friend, a great neighbor, and just a remarkable man.”
—Rev. Tim Ahrens, senior minister, First Congregational Church in downtown Columbus
“[When I was a student at CCAD] I had the privilege of being hired on as a work-study for the President’s Office. I was petrified of the position, knowing that I would be responsible for directing phone calls from the CCAD main line and that I would be representing the college whenever VIPs came around.
When I met Denny, a good bit of my fear took a hike. Denny is thoughtful, respectful, and hospitable. When he speaks to you, he treats you with honor and makes you feel valuable.”
—Sarah Hout (CCAD 2004), an illustrator and muralist in Columbus
“Denny is someone who really mentored me in the profession. When he was at the museum, he focused on issues of diversity and inclusion, from programs all the way through collections. It really left a legacy at the museum. Without the path he set us on, I’m not sure that we would be moving toward the global diversity that we now all talk about.”
—Nannette Maciejunes, executive director of the Columbus Museum of Art
“Denny and I have known each other for almost 30 years. His passion for the creation of his personal work is clear, and the dedication he has to the creation of the larger artistic community is equally clear. Both are the very fabric of the work that we would all ideally contribute to as educators, but for Denny it’s realized every day in the impactful enthusiasm with which he’s asked and answered the question of ‘what’s next?'”
—Kevin Conlon, provost
“I was an adjunct instructor in the Illustration Department at CCAD from 1999 to 2011.
In the spring of 2011, I got a message from the President’s Office saying that Denny wanted to talk to me about a planned trip to China. After I gave him some suggestions, he decided I should go to China with him. We toured two art schools in Shanghai and two art schools in Hangzhou.
Although Denny doesn’t speak Chinese, he is sensitive and artistic. He was on top of everything. And even though the trip was stressful, Denny often found chances to make jokes.
Because of short notice, the Foreign Affairs Office of the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou couldn’t guarantee us a meeting with the president of the school. The only time he might have available was a short lunch break on a Saturday. After we waited for a while, Xu Jiang, president of CAA, rushed into his office and greeted Denny and us. The two presidents talked about the necessity for international exchanges for better understanding of different cultures.
After the meeting, President Xu Jiang had to attend another meeting without having had his lunch. Denny dug in his bag, took out a chocolate energy bar and handed it to Xu Jiang. It was like a secret weapon. Xu Jiang was astonished, and we all laughed.”
—Leah Wong, CCAD liaison to Chinese art schools
Share your own Denny memories with the CCAD family by posting a comment to this story.
Tags: Bill Heifner, board of trustees, class of 2004, columbus museum of art, Dennison W. Griffith, Denny Griffith, Julie Taggart, Kevin Conlon, Manjari Sharma, Sarah Hout, spring 2014 edition, Spring 2014 issue
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