Kudzu college

SCAD-Atlanta carries on a school tradition of rapid growth

The national recession that began at the tail end of 2007 – and which may recently have ended, depending on whether the person you ask still has a job – has been a period of hunkering down and reduced expectations.

But not for SCAD.

The Savannah College of Art and Design, by some accounts the country's largest art school, has managed to continue its kudzu-like growth both in its namesake hometown and here in Atlanta, where it opened a satellite campus in 2005.

In 2008, at a time when financial devastation was widespread, SCAD bought the former WXIA-TV studios in Midtown, a three-story, 60,000-square-foot building that would be converted into the school's Digital Media Center. The facility opened last October, promising students hands-on experience using the latest high-tech broadcasting and recording equipment, editing suites and industry-grade sound stages.

And just last month, SCAD signed a lease for space within the office building at Pershing Point, next door to the Temple, that's expected to open in February as the school's new gallery for students in its Master of Fine Arts program.

With that move, the school has quietly notched a milestone: In less than five years, SCAD-Atlanta has already outgrown its home in the enormous former Equifax building at 1600 Peachtree St.

Says SCAD-Atlanta Vice President P.J. Johnson, who oversees the Atlanta campus: "We've exceeded our growth expectations."

According to SCAD's latest enrollment figures, more than 1,600 students take classes in 23 majors in Atlanta – representing near-exponential growth since March 2005, when the campus opened with 77 students and 12 majors. In addition to its 370,000-square-foot main building and the new Digital Media Center, the school also owns two dormitories; gallery and studio space in the Woodruff Arts Center; and Ivy Hall, the restored Peters House (once known as the Mansion restaurant), which houses the school's writing center.

With that kind of sustained boom in place, it was only a matter of time before the school – long known for buying up large chunks of Savannah's historic downtown over the years – began looking around Midtown for other properties to acquire. In fact, Johnson confirms that, a few months back, he toured the Castle, the historic, quasi-Victorian mansion overlooking 15th Street across from the main entrance to the Woodruff, with an eye toward adding it to the college's portfolio. Unfortunately, he says, the layout of the sprawling house wouldn't adapt well to classroom space.

The Castle is one of several decaying local buildings owned by Inman Park Properties, the Atlanta-based developer that had long been one of SCAD's main competitors for historic buildings that came up for sale in Savannah. When the real-estate bubble burst, the company imploded and has since lost much of its holdings to foreclosure, most recently the Clermont Hotel.

Johnson is familiar with Inman Park Properties' disintegration, and while he notes that the currently depressed state of the real-estate market offers many opportunities for SCAD's further expansion in Atlanta, he says the school hasn't targeted any new properties to buy.

But if SCAD-Atlanta follows the model of its flagship campus, future growth is a given.

The college opened in Savannah in the fall of 1979 in a restored armory building with just 71 students and eight teachers. Today, the school boasts nearly 9,000 students, an enrollment second only to Emory University among Georgia's independent colleges.

Even more so than Georgia State University in downtown Atlanta, SCAD has served as the primary force behind the revival of downtown Savannah through the restoration of vacant old buildings and by bringing foot traffic – and with it, shops and restaurants – to city streets. Each year in Savannah, the school hosts an outdoor arts festival, a popular fashion show and Georgia's flashiest film festival. A 2009 study estimated SCAD's total economic impact statewide at $385 million – again, second only to Emory.

The school is also known for sparing no expense to bring in top-tier talent, from Hollywood directors and movie stars at the Savannah Film Festival to literary luminaries at Ivy Hall. Next month, SCAD will host esteemed novelist Margaret Atwood.

Unlike GSU, however, SCAD's progress hasn't come without significant controversy.

Back in the early '90s, the school put down an all-out rebellion by a student body angered at not having a voice in college policy by purging sympathetic faculty members and board trustees, even suing novelist Pat Conroy, a former trustee, for bad-mouthing the college. Its 1992 commencement ceremonies were canceled after one of a series of pipe bombs exploded. SCAD also sued New York's prestigious School of Visual Arts, which had opened a Savannah campus, eventually forcing its competitor to shut down.

A New York Times article at the time dubbed SCAD "The Art School That Ate Savannah," and its founders, then-married Richard and Paula Rowan (now Paula Wallace, the college president), were unfavorably compared to Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker for their lavish lifestyle – reportedly including Rolls Royces and a collection of racehorses.

Within six months of opening its Atlanta campus, SCAD sparked a new round of controversy by absorbing the century-old Atlanta College of Art, taking over some of its facilities in the Woodruff. A lawsuit filed by disgruntled ACA students who felt they were being steamrolled by the school was eventually dropped.

Even today, SCAD has many fierce critics because of such hard-nosed business practices as not offering tenure to professors and charging nearly $28,000 a year for tuition alone – about $2,000 more than out-of-staters pay to attend Georgia Tech – even though it's the country's only major art college that does not have accreditation from the National Association of Schools of Art and Design.

Still, SCAD continues to grow. Later this year, the school, which has an overseas campus in the south of France, plans to open another in Hong Kong. And in 2011, it expects to open a $30 million museum complex in its hometown that's already being touted as "Savannah's Louvre."

One likely reason for this growth is the school's emphasis on preparing students for careers in fashion marketing, video-game development, historic preservation and other industries – as well as its insistence on giving students access to the newest equipment – in stark contrast to traditional fine art schools like ACA that existed mainly to nurture creativity.

As SCAD-Atlanta's Johnson says, citing Wallace's oft-repeated quotation: "We're not into producing starving artists."