Steven J. Tepper, New ASU Herberger Institute Dean, Talks Arts, Policy, and Community

No need to wonder whatever became of the little boy whose mom sent him to his first drawing class at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. when he was just 10 or 11 years old.

You'll find Steven J. Tepper heading the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University, where 4,700 students are studying in five schools.

His purview also includes the ASU Art Museum on the Tempe campus.

Until recently, the institute's new dean was an associate professor in Vanderbilt's sociology department and associate director for that university's Curb Center for Art, Enterprise, and Public Policy.

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He continues to serve as research director for the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project based at Indiana University, which gives him powerful insights into what becomes of art students once they graduate.

See also: Steven J. Tepper Named Dean of ASU's Herberger Institute.

Tepper is part policy wonk, part creative collaborator -- a vibe reflected in his colorful array of bow ties, often worn slightly askew.

His workspace on the Tempe campus consists of a simple desk and round conference table bordered by bookshelves filled with titles clearly read rather than perfectly aligned for show.

Two defining experiences have long informed Tepper's work.

After drawing a still life during a high school arts class, Tepper felt confident with his technical prowess, but noticed his boot, vase, and book looked far different than those of his classmates. One student drew an object dripping with wax, and another an object giving rise to butterflies.

"I'm not an artist; I'm not drawing weird things," Tepper recalls thinking at the time. "A seed of doubt was planted."

He still entered college considering a career in the arts, and encountered a professor who didn't believe in grading art. Instead, he gave every student a 'C' grade, believing real artists shouldn't care about grades. If you're a true artist, he told them, nothing else matters.

"That," says Tepper, "was the last art class I ever took."

Arts and design are central to public life, he says. And artists aren't some "rare, crazy, eccentric" breed.

"Those experiences redirected me," Tepper says. "I've spent much of my life trying to dispel those myths."

Tepper eagerly touts the unique qualities of metropolitan Phoenix and the rest of the region. "The Southwest is in a class of its own," says Tepper. It's rooted in diverse traditions, and has an increasingly diverse population.

Arizona's strengths include its "frontier spirit and its newness as a region."

The Valley's arts scene is bursting with eagerness, aspiration, and talent, but isn't yet solidified like some other major metropolitan areas. That's a plus, Tepper says, because it means there's a willingness to engage and a capacity to nimbly change and evolve.

"Valley arts leaders are extremely open and seeking opportunities, but haven't tied down the balloon," he says.

Tepper is working from an important premise: Arts and design create value in every sector, including education and the economy. They offer precisely what the 21st century world demands: people with creative problem-solving skills.

Today's college graduates hold an average of 11 jobs between the ages of 22 and 44, he says. Time studying arts and design can help people in every field become better creators and collaborators who move more readily between shifting landscapes.

"The artist in the 21st century is a civic leader who works nimbly across sectors," Tepper says. The "vast majority" of arts graduates work in the arts, but those who don't say their arts training is relevant to their career.

The stories people tell about the arts' power to transform matter, but can't replace the value of doing good work. "The arts have got to move away from advocacy," he says. Instead, people should be compelling in the things they're doing.

Tepper's plans for the Herberger Institute include graduating more students who look like the changing demographic of America, giving students a "bigger toolbox" by connecting them to other disciplines, embedding students in teams tackling social issues such as world hunger and sustainable cities, creating partnerships in the community, and helping others recognize the value of education in design and the arts.

Tepper hopes his work at ASU will help the nation's half-million art students better appreciate the value of their degrees and "create a model that others will follow."


Art ecologies get more institutionalized over time, says Tepper. The players, the rules, and the philanthropy are set in major cities, making it "harder to see innovative models there."

The arts in America now operate on an old model centered on building non-profit, discipline-based institutions. Boards set certain income goals, and audience development is focused on ticket sales.

A few hundred of the country's more than 100,000 non-profit arts organizations have succeeded wildly, Tepper says. But it's a costly enterprise, he adds, because they've built a lot of facilities that are starving the arts now.

Members and audiences are decreasing and younger audiences don't want to participate in old ways. "There's a new reality," he adds.

So what's to be done?

"In general, innovation happens through cohort replacement," Tepper says. "New entrepreneurs and artists will dream up what's next, not the ones with a stake in the game." When it comes to defining what a truly creative and collaborative environment looks like, those working in the arts only have 10 percent of the answer. The rest is yet to emerge.

"Organizations can help themselves by taking young leadership in the arts seriously," suggests Tepper. If they're really committed to aggressively challenging all assumptions, half their boards of directors should be 30 years old or younger.

Particularly in the performing arts, people tend to assume that more means better. "We get caught up doing so much that we don't have time or money to create truly buzz-worthy events."

So Tepper wonders: Could there be a business model based on doing less?

Current models of marketing and demographics need to be inverted, he says, so organizations are engaged in conversations rather than simply pitching their wares in top-down fashion. Buzz builds from the ground up.

Open sources strategies that allow other entrepreneurs and artists to come up with their own models can help too, says Tepper. "It forces you to let go of some control," he says. And that can be a good thing. "Ceding control gets powerful engagement."

"We have to have a play zone where people can pilot ideas and experiment." 

So where does the man filled with ideas about art, policy and community find inspiration?

Four names came to mind when we asked Tepper about mentors.

First was Richard Sennet, author of The Craftsman. Seems Tepper marvels at all the intellect that goes into working with hand and body. It's a myth, he says, that making things is a rote exercise rather than a creative one. Materials don't always respond as expected, he says, so making things requires a true merger of body and mind.

Next he noted Keith Sawyer, author of Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation, praising the creativity scholar's work in arts pedagogy and learning sciences. Then Liz Lerman, a choreographer, performer, and writer whose works he calls "transformative."

And finally, Allen "Big Al" Carter, an artist and friend who died in 2008. Tepper saw in Carter "the power of someone in the grips of creative power." Tepper learned from Carter that categories are irrelevant when you want to make something happen in the world. "He worked in every medium."

Tepper describes Carter as "deeply curious about the world." His power of observation was so acute, recalls Tepper. He read everybody's face, and every piece of light in a room. "He was so present in the world."

Sounds a bit like a certain man we know with a thing for bow ties.

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