Sanjit Sethi, the new president of the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, can't remember the last time he got bored.
"There are people who wake up and they're not sure what they are going to do," he said. "I haven't been one of those in years."
When he's not lining up coffee dates with community organizers, curators, artists and MCAD alumni in Minneapolis, he is making art, curating an exhibition about monuments and memorials (he doesn't have a venue yet, but he's already got the call-for-artists in mind), or thinking about doing something outdoors. (Lately he's mainly been indoors, flying around the country to meet with MCAD donors and alumni.)
Last July, Sethi became the 19th president in the art and design college's 134-year history, relocating from Washington, D.C., where for four years he served as inaugural director of George Washington University's Corcoran School of the Arts and Design. He's also held leadership positions at Santa Fe Art Institute, Memphis College of Art and California College of the Arts.
A trained artist, Sethi holds master's degrees in ceramics and sculpture from the University of Georgia, visual studies and public art from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and also did a Fulbright Fellowship in Bangalore, India. His art practice focuses on issues of nomadism, identity, the residue of labor and memory.
He's also a dad and husband. His wife, Cristin McKnight Sethi, a curator and art historian of South Asian art, daughter Kusum, 6, and son Haroun, 8, will be relocating to the Twin Cities this summer.
Boredom, it would seem, is the least of his worries.
"I feel like I have the quintessential ADHD," he said. "I need to have multiple points of focus."
We managed to squeeze into his busy schedule to chat about the future of MCAD, why he left the land of blue crabs and D.C. politics for the icy paradise of Minneapolis, and how he approaches pedagogy from an artist's perspective. The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and concision.
Q: MCAD holds a special place in the state, but I feel it's somewhat under the radar. If you met someone casually at a party, how might you explain what it's about?
A: I would explain that MCAD is a college that exists as a place to educate the next generation of cultural leaders. It does it through fields of study like printmaking, sculpture, furniture design, product design, painting, photography, a variety of mediums, but does it in a way that understands that these are individuals that are going to go out and do remarkable things in the world.
Q: You have a background as an artist, you have an MFA. How do you bring that whole mix of arts experience to a position like this?
A: I approach the work that we have to do as a community from the perspective of a maker. For me, creative-based leadership is an extension of a studio practice and a making practice, and by that I mean it's a process informed by passion, dedication, intuition, by a real hunger to know more about a certain field or area or community, in a way that I can better articulate where something needs to go. I think a similar creative process extends into the type of leadership work that I've been able to do.
Q: Did you have a teacher in undergrad or grad school who were inspirations to you?
A: I've had so many mentors and people who have had a profound impact on me. Artists like Krzysztof Wodiczko, who I worked with when I was a grad student at MIT. Wayne Higby, a ceramics artist who I worked with at New York State College. They really believed in the fundamental understanding of critical inquiry — that finding solutions was about asking the right questions.
Q: How do you feel that MCAD fits into the larger arts community?
A: I am still growing and learning about these communities that intersect with MCAD locally. One of my draws to this area was in great part due to the hive of cultural activity I see here, whether it's next door at Minneapolis Institute of Art or other institutions. The points of intersectionality I see are with alumni, staff, faculty, and these are so deeply embedded in these institutions. For me it forms this interlaced network. My goal in the future is for MCAD to play a more critical role in some of the conversations we see around more pressing issues that exist in a more focused manner locally, but also nationally and internationally. I think that's how we can build on the reputational identity of MCAD.
Q: How can MCAD play a role in issues locally, nationally and internationally — and, for you, what are the most pressing issues?
A: They are everything from gentrification to community policing to climate change. MCAD's role is: How do we begin addressing the most critical issues of our time? Frankly that's got to be part of the work we do in educating the next generation of cultural leaders.
Q: How do you assure artists that they can make a living once they graduate from MCAD?
A: We are always looking for professional advantages or opportunities. One thing MCAD does well is the art sale [MCAD's annual fundraiser that sells student work]. Students keep 80% of their sales and MCAD keeps 20%, most of it going to support scholarships and everything else. It's an example where you are graduating and able to sell work. The students have to understand pricing, and what work they want to submit. A lot of folks who don't know a lot about MCAD know about the art sale. It is a celebration of student creative production.
That is one way. I think the opportunities we are able to provide, especially through career services while they are juniors, seniors and sophomores, help students start thinking about professional involvement.
Q: Who are some MCAD alumni that are doing great work locally?
A: I would say that the work Jonathan Herrera Soto is doing involving immigration issues is really powerful. I think other examples are Julie Buffalohead, who is doing art that talks about Native identity/Indigenous issues. My own background is at looking at how creativity can drive social change.
Q: At the Corcoran you built a number of creative partnerships. How might that look here?
A: The "do it yourself" movement is over, I am all about the "do it together" movement. I am more likely to engage in things where we can create strategic partnerships that I think we can start to leverage for the benefit of more than one organization.
There are two types of partnerships: traditional, where we partner with another cultural organization or research school, and nontraditional, like what happens when MCAD partners with the Department of Veterans Affairs or something like that. I think it takes some of those traditional partnerships, but then also something further afield. And I say that in part because one of the things I need to show the students at MCAD is how they can adapt in an asymmetrical world — things do not turn out neatly on profit/loss statements or balance sheets as we would like them to.
Q: You've joined MCAD at a pretty stable time. What's the next big step given that stability?
A: One key issue is diversity. How do we ensure that our student body becomes more diverse — socioeconomically, racially and culturally? How do we support and build a more diverse community of students, staff and faculty? MCAD has made remarkable strides in this arena — over 40% of our students are Pell-eligible — but there is much more we can still do.
Being a person of color, part of what I am trying to do is make up for the type of support and focus that I wish I would've felt at some of the institutions I was at [as a student]. Part of this is building a degree of diversity, but also providing opportunities for meaningful mentorship to keep those individuals engaged and supported. One of the ways you do that is by having a greater degree of engagement in the local community, because then you start to build connectivity and the ability to address some of the most pressing problems of our time. Another way is to offer learning opportunities that address the issues head on. For example, on April 7 we are starting an annual lecture series on Race & Design that is open to everyone.
Q: What have you noticed about the Twin Cities arts scene as different from D.C.'s?
A: There is a tremendous degree of caring about this art scene. This is a community that shows up and supports its artists and designers and celebrates talent. I have to tell you, I didn't leave D.C. because I got sick of eating blue crabs or walking around the National Mall. I came here because of all the people I met. People here have been incredibly generous with their time.
Q: Tell me about an art project of yours.
A: I did a smell memorial before I left Memphis, the Kuni Wada Bakery Remembrance, based on a Japanese bakery that was shut down two days after Pearl Harbor in this convulsion of xenophobia. I wanted to re-create the memory of this bakery. For me, that interstitial space regarding monuments and memorials is really interesting.
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