Founded in 1873, Massachusetts College of Art and Design is the nation’s first independent public institution of higher education dedicated to the training of artists and designers. MassArt is committed to excellence, accessibility, affordability, and diversity. President David Nelson is beginning his second year of leadership at the Boston institution and shares his thoughts on the first year, what’s in store for the school and his journey to lead one of the most acclaimed art and design colleges in the country.
What has been most surprising, enlightening or challenging in your first year of your presidency?
I’ve been surprised by the number of people in Boston who either don’t know about MassArt, or who don’t understand that it is a premier institution, the first of its kind in the U.S., and that it is a public university. Massachusetts is known around the world for its elite educational institutions, including several educational “firsts” in the U.S. We have the first institution of education on what would become U.S. soil – Harvard. We have the first public high school in the U.S. – Boston Latin. And we have the first art and design college in the U.S. – MassArt. Founded in 1873 as a public institution, MassArt is evidence that the citizens of our state had significant foresight in their desire to fuel both the culture and the economy with a college built on creativity. This is a gem of a Massachusetts history and one that should make the people of the Commonwealth proud.
How do you like/manage/leverage the consortium and relationships with the other LMA presidents?
I appreciate how the institutions in the Longwood Medical Area collaborate to solve problems and improve the experience for those who work, visit, or live in the LMA. For example, MassArt partners with several hospitals in the area to bring student artwork into their treatment facilities to create a healing environment for their patients; these valuable opportunities also allow our students to find new meaning in their work beyond campus. The LMA is comprised of some of the top medical, research, and arts institutions in Boston---and in the world. I look forward to exploring new ways we can bring the arts and sciences together at a deeper level to learn from each other and collaborate in ways that can have global reach, while also making us good neighbors in the LMA.
Mass Art's New Design and Media Center
How is Boston and specifically the LMA a different environment for you as a leader?
Boston is a remarkable place to live and work. In sense, the environment in Boston isn’t drastically different from Winston Salem, North Carolina, where I lived previously. Both cities are culturally rich, filled with vibrant educational institutions, and marked by a socially-conscious business community. My previous school, the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, was near the Wake Forest Medical School and its Innovation Quarter, so I’m used to not only being in proximity to a medical area, but am used to having a lot of interaction, both professional and social, with people in the medical community. The difference is scale: the sheer number of students and educators and thought leaders concentrated in the LMA makes the opportunities in Boston for collaboration and innovation unusually invigorating.
If there is one piece of advice you could have given your 25 year old self, what would it be? Personal or professional?
Don’t let anyone, including yourself, place limits on your imagination. Other people had ideas about what I could or should do, and I spent too much of my early adulthood on their ideas while often stifling my own. I have my eyes open for young people who need to hear that they don’t have to settle for other people’s stifling ideas, that it’s okay to unleash their own imaginations.