VCU School of the Arts’ New Dean Talks About His Innovative Approach to the Arts and Leadership

When Shawn Brixey was a child, his parents could teleport people. At least that’s what he thought.

His father was an actor on Broadway who performed for Moss Hart and George Kaufman before World War II, while his mother was a symphony cellist. But by the time little Shawn was born and growing up in Missouri, they had migrated into film and television, he says, as well as Madison Avenue advertising.

“My parents encoded people’s dreams, their mysteries, their imaginations, their voices, their agency,” recalls Brixey, the new dean of the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts, “into some sort of electromagnetic force that was decoded or reconstructed somewhere else. That really stuck with me.”

Brixey is part of a rising generation of hybrid artists educated with a more pluralistic, interdisciplinary mindset who are coming into administration work with a profound sense of collaboration, exploration and discovery. Talking to him by phone can be a head trip — in a good way. An eloquent speaker, he comes across as equal parts artist and scientist, having graduated from the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in design, media science and engineering. He’s leaving a job as dean of the School of the Arts, Media, Performance and Design at York University in Toronto, clearly excited about the interdisciplinary potential at VCU.

“Shawn is one of those rare individuals that not only has vision but a worldview and artistic practice that engenders inspiration,” says Allison Kudla, who worked with him at the Center for Digital Arts and Experimental Media, which he founded at the University of Washington. “He opened my eyes to seeing the doors that I, and the status quo, were imposing around my own art practice. … I made the most transformative art of my life.”

Another former student, Rachel Gray, adds that he provides his students with “real tangible skills, experiences, and opportunities that normally you would have to seek out years after school.” Gray, a filmmaker who now works for Netflix, says that Brixey is inspiring “a generation of visionaries and empathetic leaders.”

The new dean is moving to Richmond and getting his family situated as well as going through “a soft launch” of his position between now and Sept. 1. Style spoke with him to learn more about his background, his philosophy about art and his vision for the program.

Style Weekly: Can you talk about your own philosophy or approach to art?

Shawn Brixey: When I was growing up, I had a natural facility for drawing, painting and making things. As an undergrad, I went to Kansas City Art Institute, where Walt Disney, Robert Rauschenberg, even Dennis Hopper were all alumni. It’s one of the most extraordinary art schools in the country. And it was an open and experimental school.

But for some students who didn’t quite fit the mold, they had this thing they did where they took you in an old yellow school bus and drove you into western Kansas and dropped you in 10-mile increments all by yourself with art supplies and enough food and water to last for 10-12 hours. They’d leave a special assignment: “If you want to be a painter, make a perfect line. If you want to be a sculptor, make a perfect moment.” Then they’d come back and critique you after a long day alone. And it was 100 degrees out there. Something an art school couldn’t even imagine doing today.

Anyway, like most exhausted art students I fell asleep and woke up with a terrible sunburn, panicking. My heart was racing and I thought I was finished because I hadn’t done anything. On impulse, I dug a hole in the ground and put my jug of water in it and cut the top off to make a small pond. I took a piece of wheat chaff and cut it about 4 inches long and split it, and laid it flat like a raft, then I magnetized a darning needle and basically made a compass.

“I had to become a scientist and engineer to become the artist I really wanted to be. Hybridization is becoming a primary modality that many artists embrace, and art schools need to embody a culture that inspires an industry of creative daring in every community member. The beauty of the arts is we have a 40,000-year portfolio.”

When they came back, everyone stared silently at the hole and didn’t say anything. But the professors knew that by building a compass, I had drawn an invisible line that circumscribed the globe 24,000 miles with unerring accuracy, but invoking Faraday lines I had projected all future lines, right? So, it was not just a perfect line but all possible perfect lines. On top of that, if you understand the compass is interacting with the Earth’s field, it’s a field that in a concrete sense never really is, because it’s always becoming. So, it was also a perfect moment. They thought I was like King Arthur or something, who had pulled the sword from the stone [laughs], solving what was essentially an intractable art assignment.

But instead of letting it go to my head, I thought to myself, what did I just do? Could I actually build a philosophy or practice on this? When I came back, in my drawing, painting, sculpture classes — I began to sense every time I made something it was never the thing I wanted, but always a representation of that. I thought if I could better understand physics, astronomy, cosmology, neuroscience, chemistry, all of that, I might maybe jump over the limitations and find a way to make art that was essentially the thing itself. It’s a naïve but bold assumption.

I got into graduate school at MIT — only five of us artist hybrids were admitted in those days — to explore this emerging intersection of art, science and technology and discover in those new relationships how might the arts be different today, as well as lived and imagined tomorrow. Thirty years later, the way I might distill it down: Humans are poised to inherit every scale in the universe. While that might seem abstract, when I was at University of Washington, I had students whose parents worked on Mars [project]. That’s a real location, just remote and really far away from our true location.

While it’s still relevant to talk about art in a gallery, an aestheticized space or museum, you and I are more than 100-year biological vessels, we’re million-year creatures embedded in a billion-year process. How might we begin to make art in this context? How does art help us discover what it means to be human and document that in radically new and enduring terms?

How did you apply this to your own artwork?

In 2004 and 2005 I built a project called Altamira which was roughly the size of a smartphone. It attached tiny electrodes to frontal temples and the bones behind your ears. When you were a kid, maybe you remember pressing your hands on your eyes and getting those hypnotic patterns of light — those are called mechanical phosphenes. Pressure from the hands release sodium and potassium ions which cascade down the optic nerve, and the brain converts that information into something recognizable, perceived as light.

Well, Alessandro Volta, even Benjamin Franklin, used to have phosphene parties with electrostatic generators where people would touch each other in the dark, holding hands and letting go, making and breaking a circuit and artificially generating these flashes of light. I was interested to see if a range of deep structures in nature produced a similar signal that we might commune with. I worked for years and couldn’t find anything. Then I was walking down a hallway at MIT one day, and it has chalkboards that go for city blocks like in “Good Will Hunting.” … Someone had crudely drawn analog waveforms from the data on the chalkboard, and it dawned on me: These dead stars that are 25 to maybe 100 million years old. When they collapse, they fall in on themselves, they spin violently in space and give off a radio signal, and if we’re lucky enough for it to sweep the Earth, it has a pulse period and signature that mimics the waveform the brain would perceive as the same as those that produce phosphenes.

I took this device and had my friends contact folks at Haystack Observatory– the large radio telescope in Massachusetts — and had them send me recordings of dying stars. Using my device as interface, the minute you put that signal into your head — boom. I can’t quite describe it — it’s like a hallucination of colors. The idea was that I created a work of art that no one can see except in the mind’s eye — it’s utterly real but can never be pictured. It’s not a representation. But it’s something the body immediately recognizes from 25 million years ago. It’s a work of art that attempts to hold in the same resonate reflective moment who we were, who we are, and who we will become. …

I had to become a scientist and engineer to become the artist I really wanted to be. Hybridization is becoming a primary modality that many artists embrace, and art schools need to embody a culture that inspires an industry of creative daring in every community member. The beauty of the arts is we have a 40,000-year portfolio. It helps us discover what it means to be human, and we continually document that in radically new and enduring ways. Sometimes that means rediscovering work and techniques from centuries ago, or equally pioneering work that redefines the possible.

So, what interested you about the VCU job?

Toronto is a top-10 city in the world to live, with the hippest prime minister on the planet, so it had to be a pretty big magnetic pull. … [At VCU] you have a lot of folks who are quite good monastically — concert pianists, painters who work solo. But the DNA there is fairly strong in terms of a big broad view of the arts and a strong interdisciplinary mindset.

The arts are sort of shifting from being the jewel in the crown, [to where] you want to be the finger on the hand that wields the hammer that builds the empire. VCU has the No. 1 ranked art and design school in the U.S., No. 2 ranked graduate school, and they’re having a national conversation on pivoting the arts to embrace our history and cultural value and the migratory path we took through ’80s and ’90s toward economic development and shifting it toward the research impact.

VCU is a little below the top 200 universities in the world. The compression is so high to get from 100 to 50 — but VCU is climbing quickly. It’s got all the right momentum, right leadership, right place. When I met everybody, I fell in love with all of them. [Music department Chairman] Darryl Harper, head of the committee along with [librarian] John Ulmschneider. Daryl is strong in jazz improvisation, we were talking about jazz thinking as a way to focus on improvisational idea generation — an interesting approach when you think about a culture of innovation. Bill Royall was astounded by a lot of statistical data intelligence I’ve used in ways other North American deans haven’t. As you know, we’re living in an era of social media in the way millennials imagine and dream and think of investing in universities and themselves.

Speaking of which, I talked to a friend from New York who compared you to the film “Moneyball” in the way you use statistics. Can you tell me more about this?

Let’s say you have a thriving program, then over a 3-year period it tanks, like bee-colony collapse. No real reason, right? Did we change curriculum, is there lower demand, is the high school system failing to inspire students? Or maybe it could just be someone put up building a block away that was highly reflective and in time periods where those classes were most productive, the temperature increased by 5 degrees. That subtle difference at a particular time of day can offset and turn into an urban myth that has nothing to do with programming, quality of instruction, but rather a tiny environmental shift.

One thing we did here, by using customer relations management software on the back end, kind of souped up. … We shifted our recruitment model to being interested — that was a radical shift, and we noticed a gigantic increase in demand to apply. Rather than trying to woo them, you promote to them things they’re already interested in, you become interested in them. Only rarely do you try to sell them. Rather than saying, come here to do dance and astrobiology — you say, “You can do that anywhere, but this is the place it’s most likely.”

One thing we’re really sensitive about at VCU is thinking about students and their first big investment in themselves. Not just a degree, but a preparation for a world of dynamic change, a crucible of every kind of creative option. You want your students to become the world’s leading experts in their own area of practice. So that you use statistical data analysis in a very positive way to drive positive organizational change and provide for students in ways they’re not articulating yet, but they know, they sense something is changing. They can use that, like in “Moneyball,” to get to the heart of something.

You’ve also been a professor at University of California at Berkley, where you founded what is now the Berkley Center for New Media. That university has been in the news a lot lately with speakers being canceled, violent protests and free-speech issues being raised. Are you comfortable with booking controversial speakers?

The short answer to your question is pretty simple — the university is a place that encourages and supports the free exchange of ideas and perspectives. While it’s sometimes challenging to fully achieve these ideals in a world wrestling with such a high volume of polarizing rhetoric, we must still hold the highest principles on this, as it’s a cornerstone of a free society.

What kinds of visiting artists and teachers would you want to bring in?

Sometimes you’re going to place investment in a speculative area, maybe not fully emerged yet, but you know students are curious. Faculty hiring is different, but we may bring in visiting artists because there’s a historical event or social justice conference. You try to line up a constellation of intellectual and creative resources to amplify the values and interests of the students and university.

On the faculty side, when it comes to diversity and inclusivity, you can look at data very carefully to find places for growth, expansion and commitment in an institution. … Data has to be paired with evidence-based decision-making, years of instinct and good input from colleagues.

Finally, what are your big hopes for the Institute for Contemporary Art, which was just bumped to a spring opening?

It’s an audacious building. When you put that on the university’s front porch as a grand entryway into the institution and the city, you’ve got to get it right. Even on a scale of that size, it has to harmonize with the community and a lot of things.

Writ large, I’m very excited to be working with Lisa Freiman — she has a long history. People within our milieu have a tendency to know of one another, and she’s done great things. I have every ambition to believe she and I will have a phenomenal working relationship and that the school and institution will undertake things that might not be possible at other universities — whether that’s conjoined activities, graduate programs and curatorial studies, or fundraising, maybe expanding exhibition opportunities for alumni and graduate students. There are so many options on the table. But the beautiful part is Lisa has done a great job driving the building toward completion and we already have good working chemistry. … So, we have a great opening to chart a new course. That’s about as much as I can say at this point. S


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