'Never in a million years' turned into opportunity

December 14, 2009
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The new decade is about to bring some new developments to Ferris State University’s Kendall College of Art & Design in Grand Rapids.

New programs and possibly new space are in the stars, said Kendall President Oliver Evans.

A $28 million renovation of the old Federal Building is awaiting action in the state legislature, Evans said. The Senate has sent a bill to the House that would award a Michigan Business Tax credit to FSU for repairs and conversion of the 1911 building into classrooms, studios, exhibit space and auditoriums.

“From the university’s point of view, the proposed state tax credits offer the best possibility of making our acquisition of the building,” Evans said.

Owned by the city of Grand Rapids, the former post office and courthouse at 155 N. Division Ave. housed the Grand Rapids Art Museum from 1981 to 2007. Evans said the university also plans to earmark money for the project, and fundraising will pick up the remainder. He said that the plan tentatively calls for FSU to own the building after five years.

“These things are still, of course, not 100 percent certain, but we’re very hopeful about the outcome,” Evans said. “At the moment, the exact scheduling of this is not in our hands.”

The school’s enrollment has nearly tripled since Evans became dean of the 500-student private school in 1994. Enrollment this school year is 1,395, an increase made possible by the merger with FSU in 2000.

Kendall was founded in 1931 through a bequest from Helen M. Kendall and named after her late husband, furniture designer David W. Kendall. It started out at the Kendalls’ home on Fountain Street, moved to College Avenue, and in 1984, settled in its current location in the former Manufacturers Building. In the 1990s, Kendall bought the neighboring Interstate Building and used an atrium to meld the two into the home it has today at 17 Fountain St. NW.

Evans said that not only is the Federal Building project on the horizon, but some program additions also are being planned, including:

  • A partnership with the fashion design program at Parsons, The New School for Design, in New York City. Evans said students would attend Kendall for three years, then enroll in Parsons for a year. Kendall would accept the Parsons credits and grant a bachelor’s degree in fashion studies.

“We get a lot of people who will ask us about fashion,” Evans said. Launching a career in fashion from the Office Furniture Capital of the World is a rare feat, he said, but several Kendall graduates have attended Parsons and done well in the industry in New York. Evans said the college decided to seek stronger ties with those alumni and forge a relationship with Parsons, which is one of the country’s best-known fashion schools.

OLIVER H. EVANS
Company/Organization:
Kendall College of Art & Design of Ferris State University
Position: President
Age: 65
Birthplace: Burlington, Vt.
Residence: Kalamazoo
Family: Wife, Eileen; two grown children; one grandchild and another on the way.
Community/Business Involvement: Member, Rotary and Grand Rapids Economic Club; former board member, Grand Rapids Ballet Company.
Biggest Career Break: Being hired as director of advising at Nazareth College.

However, students would attend Parsons at NYC prices, Evans noted, not the relatively economical annual tuition rate of $14,000 that makes a Kendall degree a bargain among art schools.
  • A bachelor of fine arts degree. Evans said that while untangling concentrations has attracted more students and led to hiring of more faculty over the years, a BFA would add marketability to a Kendall education during the economic downturn.

“One of the things that we’re looking at is, are there new opportunities, new kinds of programs that we might try to offer students that would prepare them for careers,” Evans said. “The second thing we’re looking at is, are we preparing them for fields where the nature of the degree may give the public the impression that it is a very narrow preparation, and that, in this market, it would be better to provide students with a broader preparation.

“So we’re looking very seriously at a new BFA in design which would be more of a general degree, allowing students to specialize in particular areas.

“As an example … there are schools that have programs in toy design. If your degree says that you have a bachelor’s degree in toy design, and there are no toys to be designed, you can have a challenge explaining to people that you can design other things. If we can prepare students who can demonstrate that they can design across a range of businesses and industries, and across a range of products or services or whatever, then we prepare them to be more competitive in the market.”

  • A master’s in business administration with a concentration in arts administration. Evans pointed out that FSU already offers a design and innovation concentration in its MBA program.

“We have developed a set of classes as part of Ferris’ MBA program and we think those are working very well for us,” Evans said. “We are also looking at trying to develop a set of classes — maybe three or four classes — that would be part of the MBA program in arts administration.

“We want to do that within the context of the MBA because, again, that’s a general degree. If your degree is limited to arts administration, you may have trouble convincing a bank that you can work there. But if you have an MBA, people understand what an MBA means. If you have this focus or specialization, it allows you to try to pursue a career in an area that’s especially interesting to you.”

Evans is in frequent contact with students, walking around the Kendall building and bantering with them easily, despite an average age difference of four decades. He recently traded his first-floor office for former law office digs on the seventh floor. Student activities, which have grown dramatically as Kendall attracts more and younger students seeking a traditional college experience, have taken over his old space.

As might be expected, Evans’ new office serves as a personal art gallery, including two paintings by Mathias Alten, a well-known late 19th and early 20th century Impressionist painter from Grand Rapids.

Yet Evans, a leader in the West Michigan arts community who is a classical pianist favoring Bach and Chopin and who holds a Ph.D., is not an artist. Other than what he has absorbed as the leader of Kendall, he has not studied art.

“My background is in English, not art and design,” said Evans, who grew up in the decidedly blue collar city of Flint.

Evans was raised in New York, then moved with his family to Flint as a young teen. He and his younger sister were the children of Samuel, a Methodist minister, and Louise Evans, a hospital dietician and homemaker, both now deceased. He graduated from Southwestern High School and then, inspired by a high school teacher, went to Albion College for an undergraduate degree in English and to Purdue University for graduate degrees in American literature and poetry.

“American poetry — yeah, that’s a growth market,” he joked, giving a hint of the self-deprecating humor that quietly peppers his conversation. “I would have thought I would be an English professor today somewhere.”

Cupid, however, intervened at Purdue, introducing Evans to his wife, Eileen, a Pennsylvania native who also is a college administrator. They detoured to South Dakota before returning to Michigan 30 years ago.

“When we came out of graduate school, it was the early ’70s. It was a horrific economic time, and we decided we would go where the first person got a position. Eileen got a position in South Dakota,” Evans recalled. The college nearly withdrew the offer, however, when it learned that her jobless husband would be tagging along. “It was an interesting time,” he said.

From there, Eileen moved to Western Michigan University, where today she is vice provost. Once again, her husband followed her, picking up teaching work at WMU and eventually an administrative job at Nazareth College.

“While Eileen was holding jobs, I would do a year here, a year there,” he recalled.

“There was a school and an English department that suddenly decided it wanted to develop business and technical writing classes. Well, initially, I would have said never in a million years am I going to be doing those kinds of things. But even then, I could tell that this looks like it’s got more chance for growth than the literature classes do. So I became involved in that, which actually then got me my next two jobs, including, initially, my job at Western, because that was in the College of Business, teaching business communication.”

That’s a life lesson that Evans tries to teach Kendall students, one they might never encounter in classes on drawing or sculpture.

“It’s very hard to predict where you’re going to go, and what you need to do is try to be attuned to and responsive to opportunities that come along,” Evans said. “What I thought I would do, I obviously am never going to do.”

What he did do, however, was lead a struggling art school into a vision for its future and, in the merger with FSU, a way to achieve it.

“Because my background was not in art or design, I was not interested in trying to tell the art and design faculty how they ought to teach,” Evans said.

“What the institution needed was the opportunity for the faculty to really develop a vision for where they saw the institution going, and then to try to provide the means that could make that vision possible. That’s what the merger did.”

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