Leslie Bellavance came to Grand Rapids less than a year ago to take on the role of president of Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University, and she said every day since has been full of excitement.
Bellavance was first attracted to the school because of the amazing commitment she saw from the community related to supporting the arts.
“Everything I perceived has been confirmed,” she said. “Every day I’m so excited to go to work. I don’t always know what is going to happen, but I know it will be interesting.”
Bellavance said in many ways KCAD’s programs are ahead of similar institutions. She noted the collaboration between its medical illustration program and Michigan State University; the collaboration between its industrial design and interior design programs with Spectrum Health; and its new collaboration with the Grand Rapids Public Schools Museum School.
Bellavance said these types of collaborations are not typical or easy to develop, making what KCAD is doing unique.
“Our medical illustration program is a true collaboration with MSU to bring students into clinical spaces to study medical illustration,” she said.
Similarly, the collaboration with Spectrum Health brings students into contact with doctors and nurses to provide them with “real world” opportunities. Bellavance described one such project:
“The students worked with health care professionals to re-conceptualize a particular kind of clinical space, understanding what the purpose of the space was and what they could do to design a space and the objects in it to actually enhance the purpose of the space, as opposed to having a cookie-cutter hospital room.
“What I loved about the presentation was students got up and talked about the depth of their research, their results, and showed their designs, and the doctors and nurses were all in the room along with the faculty members and other interested parties. This is a really positive result of a collaboration with an academic program and an industry.”
Bellavance believes KCAD is in a good position to move forward on changes and issues that higher education currently is facing. Conversations around student debt, diversity and accessibility to education are just a few topics drawing attention and forcing colleges and universities to rethink how they deliver education to students.
“Part of the attraction of coming here for me is how KCAD and Ferris State addresses these questions,” she said. “I believe as administrators in higher education, we need to attend to the question of how affordable education is and also what the education leads to. That can be a complicated thing in art and design.”
Bellavance said KCAD and FSU have made affordability a goal, and KCAD’s tuition is a positive point.
“For urban art schools in the country, ours is the most affordable,” she said.
She said paying attention to the school’s fiscal health will help keep the university on the right track. She will also work on providing more opportunities for financial aid and scholarships for students.
As for the challenge of bringing more diversity to the college, Bellavance has several years of previous experience. While working as director of James Madison University’s School of Art and Art History in Harrisonburg, Virginia, she was the founding chair of the school’s diversity council.
“Diversity was the top priority of that institution,” she said. “For an institution to begin to have a conversation about diversity, it has to be a top priority and it has to be institution wide, and leadership has to take a key role. My impression here at KCAD is the community is interested in moving forward with this.”
She said she created a workshop that involves an approach to recruitment of faculty and staff to increase the diversity of the pool — an approach that will now be utilized at KCAD.
Bellavance said KCAD recognizes its responsibility is not limited to a student’s time at the university; it extends to their success beyond the classroom. One of the myths society has come to accept is that a student with an art degree will probably have a non-art-related “day job,” but Bellavance said a study is helping change that perception.
An ongoing national study called the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project is looking at visual and performing arts alumni across the nation and is finding a high percentage of arts graduates are, in fact, working in arts-related fields, and even those who aren’t credit their arts education for the skills they need to succeed in whatever field they are in.
“This was refreshing news for all of us,” she said. “This has transformed the discourse about arts education in the country.”
Bellavance is a great example of the value of an arts education. She followed her interest in art to the Tyler School of Art of Temple University in Philadelphia, where she received a bachelor’s degree. She then earned a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Chicago.
While in Chicago, she became involved with a number of nonprofit arts organizations, including the artist-run West Hubbard Gallery. She also worked as a medical photographer during that time.
She became interested in an academic position, and with a stroke of luck, she found out about a job with the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, which she said seemed as if it had been written for her because it combined the rarely paired disciplines of photography and drawing.
In addition to her technical expertise in color photography and alternative processes, the university liked that she had experience in art theory and contemporary theory of art practice.
“They were interested in someone who could bring that to their curriculum,” she said.
She spent 24 years at the university, during which time she became head of the photography program and director of its graduate program.
“It occurred to me I was already delving into things an academic leader would do,” she said.
Bellavance began seeking out more administrative opportunities. She was soon elected chair of the graduate council for the university, and not long after she was asked to serve as associate dean, a position she said she really enjoyed.
Bellavance left Milwaukee to join James Madison University. She said the position provided important learning opportunities.
“As a university, it was committed to best practices,” she said. “I learned about managing a budget and HR procedures.”
She also worked with the administration and legal department to set up the first contracted agreement among three universities for an exchange of exhibitions, which quickly became a model for other disciplines interested in similar arrangements.
Bellavance remained with the school for five years before being named dean of the School of Art and Design in the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University. During her time there, she achieved several objectives, including learning how to develop a strategic plan — knowledge she now brings to KCAD, which is just embarking on the development of a new five-year strategic plan.
“I’m really excited about that because I believe it’s a moment in this institution that, looking to the future, is extremely important.”
She emphasized the final plan will be a living document and road map.
Throughout her career, Bellavance has continued to create art and has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Wisconsin Arts Board, among others. She also has had multiple solo exhibitions and has been featured in more than 40 group and invitational exhibitions.