Welcome Dr. Melanie Corn! March 21, 2016, marks the first day on the job for our new President — CCAD’s fifth President (and first female President). After a “wonderful, very idyllic” childhood in suburban Chicago, Dr. Corn went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in Art History from Stanford University and a master’s degree in Art History from University of California Santa Barbara. She joined California College of the Arts in 2003 and earned a doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania during her tenure there. Before departing for CCAD, she most recently served CCA as Provost.
We’re thrilled to welcome Dr. Corn, 40; her partner Tanner; and their 8-year-old son Julian to Columbus. In advance of her arrival, we chatted with Dr. Corn about her early exposure to museums, how she came to study art history (and from there, work in higher education) and what brought her to CCAD — plus, what she’s reading, watching and even eating.
We think you’ll enjoy this taste of what’s to come from the art and design college veteran. (And for a dive of a different sort into her resume, find Dr. Corn’s official bio here.
Q: Where did you grow up?
A: I grew up in Gurnee, outside of Chicago. My older brother is a web designer; he and my parents still live out in Chicago’s suburbs. I had a very wonderful, idyllic childhood.
Q: How did you get interested in art? What kind of museums did you visit?
A: My dad is a biologist, and as a kid, I probably spent more time in the Field Museum and the Shedd Aquarium and Adler Planetarium. We also went to the Art Institute of Chicago — I loved being in that museum.
After high school, I went to Stanford, and my freshman year, I remember meeting with an advisor. I tested into Calculus 2B, but my advisor said, “Well, you don’t have to take that if you don’t want to.” And this sort of opened up college life: “I can do what I want to do!” I opted not to take Calculus 2B. As a result, I had space in my schedule and my advisor said, “You should take a class with this faculty member who teaches ancient Greek art.” And I did. The content of that course, pottery shards and whatnot, was boring, but she was a phenomenal teacher and she inspired me.
Q: Walk me through the rest of your academic life as a student.
A: I continued to pursue art history at Stanford. I did my thesis and undergrad studies on feminist artists in the 1980s and working outside the gallery space. Primarily Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, the Guerrilla Girls, looking at the ways in which they were using political tactics and design to bring that kind of artwork out in the public sphere. I thought I was going to get my PhD and go be a professor. After graduating from Stanford, I ended up attending UC Santa Barbara, which has a full-on contemporary art history faculty. I did my master’s thesis on Catherine Opie’s photography, and I went all the way through, becoming what they call ABD, “All But Dissertation.” I finished my PhD coursework and exams and was working on my dissertation when I moved back up to the Bay Area and started working at California College of the Arts. I was going to finish that PhD, but I was having a much better time actually working. So I put that on hold for a while and dove into work.
Q If you could own any piece of art, what would it be and why?
A: I’ll give you two answers. I would love to own one of Catherine Opie’s portraits from the 1990s. They speak to the lush, rich tones of 18th century royal portraiture, and yet they’re primarily portraits of people from the margins — people from alternative communities who typically don’t receive the grand treatment of photo portraiture.
The other is A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat. It’s a preeminent piece in Chicago and has the great pop cultural references of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and other things. Today it’s seen as no more than a pretty picture, but at the time of its creation, it was an important political piece of art that was as transgressive as an Opie photograph. The sort of post-impressionist pointillism that Seurat used was transgressive from a visual perspective. But it was also a painting of sort of an inter-class utopia that, in late 19th century France, made an important political statement. There’s something that I love about that work, that it still has all of that radical political transgressiveness, yet masquerades as this lovely museum piece.
Q: What’s the last good book you read?
A: Right now I’m reading a couple books that probably speak to my life rather than the quality of literature. I’m reading Percy Jackson for my son and I’m also reading, the, I can’t remember the exact title, but it’s a book about the first 100 days. I haven’t spent too much time lately reading grownup fiction. I’m focusing on young adult fiction, appropriate for 8-year-old boys. And getting ready for this new job!
Q: Do you have a guilty-pleasure TV show?
A: TV, in general, is my guilty pleasure. At CCA, I taught gender and sexuality and popular visual culture, which was my excuse to watch bad TV and have intellectual conversations about it. I just finished the final season of Mad Men, which was pretty great. I like a lot of TV — I don’t like reality TV but I watch everything from the Walking Dead to Modern Family.
Q: Do you have a thing that always has to be in your fridge or in your kitchen?
A: Cheese, probably cheese. My preference is for really amazing, great steak or the sharpest aged cheddar you could find. Something like that.
Q: What attracted you to CCAD?
A: I had the great pleasure of meeting Denny Griffith a few times at meetings of our peer group AICAD, the Association of Independent Colleges of Art & Design. He was a joy, so smart, so funny and so delightful. That made me pay attention to CCAD. Then I had the chance to come to CCAD in the fall of 2014 for the AICAD symposium. CCAD and CCA share the conviction that a creative education is one that will allow you to both do well in your life and career and do good in the world. That is the core tenet of an art and design education that is most important for me.
I think CCAD is at a precipitous moment. There is so much opportunity for growth and development of graduate programs, growing the enrollment to be more national and international, to strengthen its regional importance while also expanding its reach. It’s an exciting place to be, it’s not going to be a boring job and there are plenty of challenges, but the challenges aren’t so great that they seem too daunting.