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President Search 2016: Gordon Knox

Over the past year, SFAI has been undergoing an extensive search for a new President after the departure of the last, Charles Desmarais. At the start of the Fall 2016 semester, it was announced that three prospective candidates would be visiting at the beginning of September and would be holding public presentations to introduce themselves to the SFAI community and answer the question "What do you think the role of SFAI should be in the future, and what personal and professional experiences will you draw on to bring that role to life?" 

SFAEYE is covering these candidates' presentations as they happen and will be releasing complete recordings of their talks, along with a written recap and at-a-glance summaries of each candidates' qualifications. 

Meet Gordon Knox, the second presidential candidate to visit SFAI. 

From an ASU article on Knox’s appointment as Museum Director: “ “Gordon has a track record of conceiving and directing creative, thought provoking, collaborative programs resulting in opportunities to effect social change and to transform our understanding about art and artists.” Knox, whose work explores the transformative role of the arts in society, was recently recognized by Forbes Magazine for his work on collaborative projects at the [Stanford Humanities Lab] that brings together experts in the arts, humanities and sciences and engages them in on-the-ground efforts to effect social change. Knox brings to ASU an extensive background in establishing and developing environments that recognize and foster new talents across all art disciplines and mediums. "Gordon Knox is deeply committed to engaging with community while connecting the museum to his broad global networks” (Image courtesy of ASU Art Museum) 

From an ASU article on Knox’s appointment as Museum Director: “ “Gordon has a track record of conceiving and directing creative, thought provoking, collaborative programs resulting in opportunities to effect social change and to transform our understanding about art and artists.”

Knox, whose work explores the transformative role of the arts in society, was recently recognized by Forbes Magazine for his work on collaborative projects at the [Stanford Humanities Lab] that brings together experts in the arts, humanities and sciences and engages them in on-the-ground efforts to effect social change. Knox brings to ASU an extensive background in establishing and developing environments that recognize and foster new talents across all art disciplines and mediums.

"Gordon Knox is deeply committed to engaging with community while connecting the museum to his broad global networks” (Image courtesy of ASU Art Museum) 

Gordon Knox At-a-Glance

Education:

BA Anthropology, 1977 UC Santa Cruz

MA Anthropology, 1979, University of Chicago

M. Phil (PhD coursework) Anthropology, 1982, University of Cambridge

Professional Experience:

1983: Founder, KNOX URIU Inc.

1990-2002: Executive (Founding) Director, Civitella Ranieri Foundation

2003-2008: Artistic Director, Montalvo Arts Center

2008-2011: Core Collaborator in Global Initiatives, Stanford Humanities Lab

2010-Present: Art Museum Director, Arizona State University

 

Knox’s complete resume can be viewed at his Linkedin


 

Here is the full audio of Gordon Knox's presentation in the SFAI Lecture Hall on September 8, 2016. A recap can be found below. Notes from the Q&A session with student leaders following the public presentation can be found here, courtesy of SFAI student AJ Schnettler. 

Editor's note: At the beginning of the recording, the board member introducing Gordon Knox incorrectly states that he began at ASU in 2006. He was appointed in 2010. 

Gordon Knox introduced himself to the crowd of people in the lecture hall and spoke about how glad he was to be invited to SFAI. He began his presentation by discussing the architecture of the school and of the lecture hall. He gave a 20-minute history lesson on SFAI and its influence in the Bay Area - citing many of the notable artists that have come through campus. He described the ways in which the Bay Area has been at the roots of many significant cultural movements in recent history, including Black Panthers, LGBTQ and Black Lives Matter. Knox talked about current issues facing the Bay Area and how “SFAI is on the threshold of really extraordinary change...a revitalizing inflection point…” He mentioned the work being put in by the Board and administration into the move to Fort Mason Center.  

Knox moved forward with his presentation with a discussion on the current changes in the Bay Area, particularly relating to Silicon Valley. “This Institution has a well-earned veneral [sp.] reputation of leading the vanguard through a deep understanding of humanities and history of image and object making that sets this institution up for a central and a supported seat by the new technologies and industries that are transforming the city. Not by, um, mimicking the industrial training, not by adopting the wholesale new technologies, but because the actual type of critical, challenging thinking that this Institute has been exploring and advocating for 150 years is precisely that sort of transformative awareness of who we are that is the very core, core coding of the Silicon Valley digital movement. So there is incredible opportunity by claiming our history, by representing it clearly, by repositioning the role of the institution with relationship to the city and to the Bay Area and by marching forward and saying “these values are solid and these values are what will drive us.” He spoke about the changing social economy and its effects on colleges and universities, especially small art schools, as well as the economy of the Bay Area and how these are challenges that SFAI faces. He said there would not be a Silicon Valley without the strong arts teachings in the Bay Area brought about by SFAI.

Knox spoke about the first steps in the next few years of moving SFAI forward, and cites examples of creating alliances, building institutions, telling our story and getting our story out into the public. Knox then finally gets to the question “What would I do?”. He states “The first thing I would do is start with the faculty and staff. You are the ones that actually make this place work. You are the first point of contact between students and training. You are the place that actually energizes what this Institution does...the delivery of vision, curiosity, and agency to the next generation. Nobody is more committed than the faculty...and the staff. People [at this school] are really here for the next generation and this Institution. So, the role that they would play in understanding how we would move forward has to be essential. I believe profoundly in the idea that an organization operates when it is really wrapped behind and clearly focused on a well-articulated vision on how that works. And understanding how everybody’s single role is part of that picture. The way I’d operate here is my door is always open, I’d always be involved in everything that’s going on in the classrooms...I’d be working closely with faculty to understand what are interesting policies, approaches or new ideas that we haven’t implemented for student retention, recruitment, alumni...engaging with that core ingredient that we engage in...which is the movement of ideas from generation to generation.”

Knox continued on to reiterate his stance on open doors and open engagement and listening to the faculty at the school as well as his interest engaging with operations and the running of the school. He spoke about his experience as a “Big Picture Guy” and “Mr. Visionary”. “Every single institution I’ve built I’ve either built from the ground up or worked closely within the organization through a period of transformation and I’ve done it by working meticulously with the actual nuts and bolts of operations. Every single institution I’ve been involved with is solid, strong, stable, and well-funded now. And that doesn’t happen by just delivering big picture.” Knox continues to discuss working closely “on the ground” with staff and faculty while also focusing on big picture. “What I bring to SFAI is the reorientation around the core values of what this Institution does and what this Institution represents and where this institution can go and that’s about teaching, that’s about the next generation, that’s about radical released curiosity, that’s about disciplined studio practice, that’s about outreach and community building, about telling our story to the world and to future students and the inclusion and incorporation of alumni as they move on.” He states that he brings these goals to SFAI with his experience at “many, many institutions”.

Knox expands on his history and professional experience. He shares images from his childhood and a timeline of the many places in which he’s lived since being born in Vienna and talks about his early interest in people and different cultures. He lived in Suriname for a year after graduating high school, and then decided to go to UC Santa Cruz to study anthropology. He then went to Cambridge and University of Chicago to study anthropology further. After college, Knox founded a high-end construction and renovation company called KNOX URIU Inc. where he first began working with artists. Knox then described how he built, founded, and ran the Civitella multidisciplinary artist residency in Italy, which he left with a $25m endowment. He spoke about how he went on to California to the Montalvo artist residency, where he moved it into a new direction - leading an $11m capital campaign for new buildings, established sustainable annual income stream, developed a team and systems for selection and operations. He spoke about how Montalvo became known for corporate and international research partnerships and is still running on systems and networks he introduced. Knox described moving to Stanford Humanities Lab in 2008 and how he built a network of projects around the world that “engaged artists in temporary opportunities often working with municipalities to address particular issues in particular communities.” in 2010, Knox was brought in to ASU Museum and built an international artist residency program and then he spoke about the many artists he worked with there.

Knox ended his presentation with a photo he tied to his feelings on education - “Free as Air and Water” and spoke again about his feelings about SFAI and its relationship with the Bay Area and about empowering students and faculty and making a clear presence in the community

QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

So, first I have a clarifying question: when did you start at ASU as the director, when were you appointed?

“January 2010 I started half-time and by July 2010 I was full-time”

Okay, great. So my question is: every president we’ve had since 1976 has come from a  museum director background. How do you think you will transition to an arts education leadership position, especially in such a smaller university, and how will you address the issues that face students?

“Good questions. I don’t really come from a museum director background, I have been working as a museum director for the past 6 years but as I told the head-hunter then and as I told the Dean when he hired me, I said you have no business hiring me as a museum director. I don’t have a degree in art history and I don’t have a background in conservation and collection management, um, but I am really good with artists. I’m really good with how art affects society and what is that relationship and I’m really good with small organizations, nimble organizations, that are capable of actually exploring that deep relationship. And they said “that’s what we want, come come come.” and I did, and it’s a great job and I’ve had a nice time there and I’ve enjoyed being at the museum and its in very strong, stable position. But what really answers your question about how I’ll transition to here, um, I start with the artists...the faculty and the student in the position of the artist. They are the core, uh, components of this institution. They are what we’re all about, and what they’re thinking and what they’re transmitting from generation to generation or out laterally into the community or between themselves is this powerful concept and ability to look at the world around us with a disciplined, critical, and absolutely irreverent eye and to take that information and share it in a way that really means something. This is how things happen, this is how things change, and having students central and having the faculty central in the understanding that that’s what we do I think will go a long way to getting to know, to understanding, exploring, and listening to input from both those bodies, but also really trying to design the institution to care for, and take care of it. And it’s also good for the institution, you know, we want to recruit many bright, wonderful people from around the country, we want them to stay here, and then we want them to go off and become whatever they are and with great happiness and love for this place. So, I would say, I don’t really come from an institutional background, I’m really good at building alliances, building support structures, and I’m really interested in how an organization works and its core activity and that would be students and faculty.”

As a historian, I appreciate your regard for the past and the traditions of critical thinking here at SFAI, um, and also your comments about how your background is very unusual for someone in your position at a museum. But I wonder, as disciplinary boundaries melt and dissolve, in contrast to SFAI’s constant claim that it’s one of the few fine arts institutions, how do we even define what fine arts is in the second quarter of the 21st century? You know, I’m thinking about things that have happened here in the past like Xerox Park that still seem visionary to me, but yet certainly wouldn’t have seemed like, you know, when it originated, didn’t seem like fine art either. And a footnote to that is I wonder how you would leverage your anthropology background from Santa Cruz directly to the institution.  

“Um, I think that the way to start with this is anthropologically, the way to understand how we define the fine arts and understand the fine arts is to really explore what is the relationship between art and human society, what is the evolutionary role of art, and it really is that ability to question and to communicate and i think it’s absolutely fair to say that art provides adaptability to the species, what art does is allow us to ask questions which allows us to adapt and change. So if we start with art there, then you have a very big road, a very big field to work from. The discipline, the focus, the knowledge, the year-in, year-out practice of painting, of photography, of traditional three dimensional art making, these are hugely important disciplines, these are really really core to some of the most radical thinking that’s ever taken place, and it doesn’t need to be discarded by any means but it also doesn’t need to be a prison for anyone going into that. You can go in through and out of a painting major and find ways to be engaged in all sorts of activities that are beyond the typical scope of the fine arts. So, I would say there are two ways to do it, one is to look at art really as a bigger picture than the disciplines of what we call the fine arts, and look at it in terms of its questioning status-quo and its ability to build and activate community. And the other side is to understand that you can spend your 10,000 hours in the darkroom or print studio and come out with an incredible, incredible set of skills that’s never going to go away from you, even if you end up moving into quite different forms - filmmaking, documentaries, whatever. Um, so, uh, I would start by saying we really need to give deep deep cred and respect to the traditional art forms, the disciplines that SFAI really holds close, but also understand that this is also part of an evolving changing system of communication that this planet is engaged in. So if that answers your questions, I wouldn’t be stuck at all in any of these disciplines but I would really, really recommend that we take them seriously and we allow them to continue as a really powerful opportunity for learning.”

Notes from the Q&A session Knox had with student leaders can be found here

 

Editor's Note: a prior version of this post listed Gordon Knox receiving his MA in Anthropology from Cambridge. Knox received his MA from University of Chicago and did PhD coursework at Cambridge. 

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