Carmon Colangelo, Dean, Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts

Designing a Collaborative Approach to Arts Education

By Susan C. Thomson

Carmon Colangelo has a talent for bringing things together in new and creative arrangements. As an artist, he makes arresting multimedia prints that layer images of life forms and inanimate objects. As director of the Lamar Dodd School of Art at the University of Georgia for nine years, he presided over planning for a $40 million building housing all of the school’s programs.

So he was a natural to become the first dean of Washington University’s new Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, uniquely combining under one organizational roof an art school, architecture school, and art museum, each highly regarded in its own distinct right.

Colangelo says he was attracted by the job’s open-ended possibilities and by the thrilling new Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum and Earl E. and Myrtle E. Walker Hall, both designed for the Sam Fox School by award-winning architect Fumihiko Maki.

Colangelo arrived at the Sam Fox School from Georgia in mid-2006. “His challenge was to transform the art and architecture schools and museum into one interdisciplinary entity,” says Sabine Eckmann, the museum’s director and chief curator.

Doing that has been a creative process, Colangelo says, with his role less that of administrator—a title he shuns—and more that of leader, director, or collaborator.

His leadership style is based on “dialogue and communication,” and it has proved productive, Eckmann says.

For instance, he organized a faculty committee to write the School’s new, unifying tenure and promotion policy. Because he saw to it that the faculty members were invested in it, a task that might have taken several years elsewhere got done in one year, says Bruce Lindsey, dean of Architecture.

Lindsey, formerly architecture head at Auburn University, is among several new people Colangelo has attracted to the Sam Fox School. Colangelo himself was one of the School’s attractions, Lindsey says. “He’s passionate. He’s very positive, and he’s got a great sense of humor. It’s rewarding working with him.”

Interviewed in his Givens Hall office, Colangelo comes across as Lindsey describes him while giving the impression of being totally relaxed and unhurried. But make no mistake for, as Lindsey also says, the dean is “very focused and intense about building a great school.”

At the same time, he is equally focused and intense about his own art, maintaining studios at home and school, attending workshops, and continuing to produce and exhibit work. He sees this not as a sideline but as fitting to his and the entire faculty’s exemplary role at a professional school that produces “practicing architects, practicing artists, practicing designers.”

So how does he do it all? His wife, Susan, an artist he met when both were graduate students at Louisiana State University, says her husband of 23 years has always had a strong work ethic, a high energy level, and an ability to multitask. She remembers him at school—at his desk, drawing while conversing with passers-by.

He’s a “very social” person, she says, an observation shared by Lindsey. At a conference of about 100 college arts administrators that the two deans attended together, Lindsey says, “Carmon knew every one of them, and they knew him.”

Born in Toronto, Carmon Colangelo was the second of four sons of parents born in Italy. His father was a barber.

Colangelo started drawing in kindergarten. Betraying yet another lifelong passion, his first subjects were sports figures.

He played hockey in his student days and took a year off between high school and the University of Windsor to play semi-professional soccer and to work as a roofer, an occupation that helped him pay his way through college and graduate school and avoid taking out student loans.

Racquetball is his competitive sport of choice these days. He still skates, recreationally, in season at the Steinberg Ice Rink in St. Louis’ Forest Park, typically in the company of one or more of his and Susan’s three daughters. Jessica is an architect intern in Boston, Ashley studies at the Art Institute of Chicago, and Chelsea is an equestrian and freshman in high school.

Colangelo speaks of the Sam Fox School as a work-in-progress, noting that University Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton promised in his 1995 inaugural address to make a priority of “securing new resources” for the then-separate schools of art and architecture.

Eleven years and $60 million later, Chancellor Wrighton fulfilled that promise and vision, and the School was officially born. Named for a Washington University alumnus, benefactor, and former vice chair of the Board of Trustees, Sam Fox, the School physically consists of two new Maki buildings and renovated Bixby, Givens, and Maki-designed Steinberg halls.

Looking toward the future, Colangelo talks of the School’s long-range strategic plan, which includes space for the 45-student Master of Fine Arts Program, now housed off campus. The plan, a collaboration of the art, architecture, and museum faculties, calls for a number of new initiatives and spaces between now and 2020.

Clearly energized by the prospects, Colangelo ticks off the highlights—a new interdisciplinary undergraduate curriculum, more tenured and tenure-track faculty, more study-abroad programs, more scholarships, more original exhibits, more symposia, more research, and three new graduate programs, including a master of landscape architecture, a doctorate in architectural history and theory, and a master of fine arts with a concentration in communication design.

While he can picture enrollment eventually growing by 50 students to a total of 850, it’s not a bigger Sam Fox School that Colangelo or anyone else there has uppermost in mind. “I think we’re all impatient to be better, not necessarily bigger,” he says.

Susan C. Thomson is a freelance writer based in St. Louis.