Joseph Girandola, president of the Art Academy of Cincinnati since mid-summer, first came here in 2012 to join the faculty of University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAAP), after living and working in such varied and often storied locations as Los Angeles, Santa Fe, Philadelphia, Omaha. What, we asked, was it like to work in these notable cities? And how does your Cincinnati experience fit in?
Girandola has always found, in all these places, a “tight knit community of artists and designers. . .I have been fortunate to be surrounded by like-minded problem solvers my entire life,” and thoroughly enjoyed each of the cities his career has brought him to. Cincinnati joins this list as one that has “definitely transformed” over the seven years he has known it. A regular visitor to Findlay Market, he credits that storied place as helping him to understand that you need to be “present” here if you are willing to collaborate. At U.C. he began as Associate Professor of Sculpture and Director of Graduate Studies in Fine Arts, moving on to become by 2017 Full Professor and Interim Associate Dean of Graduate Studies and Research so brings a healthy stock of experience to the Academy.
Girandola, as is appropriate for someone leading an art academy, is himself an artist – which leads to the natural question: how do you balance making art and leading a school? He has a practiced answer to that question, having been balancing the making of artwork and administrative roles for a career of respectable length. Part of his success in striking a balance is that he usually has worked with others who face the same problem. Administrative meetings might begin, he says, with someone asking “How’s the studio work progressing?” Particularly in his position at the Academy he finds this situation “an essential piece of the pie.” It makes for a full life; the biggest weekend challenge for Girandola and his wife, Laura, “is how are we going to get our amazing kids to soccer games in different parts of the state!” The amazing kids are boys, one named Roman (13) and one Paolo (11) – name choices that suggest parents’ interest in Italy.
That interest was honed for Girandola in a year abroad, in Florence, for his sophomore year in college. His field now is sculpture, he went there to improve Italian language skills and in the process learned to carve stone. “I was fortunate enough to become an apprentice stone carver in a shop in Settignano that also had a studio in Pietrasanta. Carving marble in the traditional manner was a skill I wanted to perfect. Hours and hours of work only reinvigorated me in the studio. I never wanted to stop…I believe this happens to many artists when they find a material that challenges them in a way that affects their entire being. I still say I am a stone carver even though the majority of work I have made for the last 15 years has been with duct tape! I believe that the reason for me is that once you carve something in stone, you have actually enabled the process of carving to transform your state of mind…and potentially, even your soul. This has led me to understand when I am working with a variety of materials to create artwork, to allow the material to ‘speak.'”
Girandola has found that Cincinnati is a city where collaboration is the mode of accomplishing things. “Opportunities will not arrive at your door just because you are at DAAP, or now at the Art Academy. Understanding that, my life here has been shaped by wanting to get to know the city and the driving forces behinds its history and its future. It’s also led me to connect with a wide variety of mentors in the city. DAAP Dean Emeritus Robert Probst has been instrumental in this progression of collaborative spirit both in the city and beyond. Craig Vogel has helped my development as a creative partner in many projects, working with the likes of Kroger, Procter & Gamble, 3CDC and People’s Liberty. The Cincinnati Art Museum is also a brilliant and integral part of the AAC’s history. Director Cameron Kitchin is an incredible leader and I reached out to him first when offered the position here. In our first conversation we agreed to partner for BLINK 2019 to present a visionary work by Alice Weston. Within a month the celebration of the proposed work became a fitting tribute to an artist who transformed the city with her amazing vision. Alice’s mark on the city will never be forgotten as one of the most dynamic instigators of creative change in the city. The work of FotoFocus has made Cincinnati THE place to be for the world class exhibitions. Artworks and BLINK have continued this positive impact. The CAC and Weston Galleries offer the perspective of local, national, and international artists intertwining to the benefit of the growing audience. Many emerging non-profits like Wave Pool and CampSite Sculpture Park embrace the idea of Global yet Local in a city of just over 300,000! The creative engine of Cincinnati requires the ability to engage with serious problems that we face now and in the future, as our growing urban center and others around the globe continue to increase in size. The impact and ingenuity of our creative students in Fine Arts, Design, and Creative Writing is a necessity. Their ability to solve problems in this complicated puzzle will be treasured.” Clearly, these are ideas Girandola has given thought to. He summed up his thinking with “Cincinnati has always had in its DNA the willingness to create a better city by partnering with the most creative innovators through time.” The head of a school where art is taught and thought about knows something about creative innovators and can no doubt recognize them in other fields as well.
We asked what is different about heading the Art Academy from other positions he has held, and got a reply suggesting he is finding it both challenging and satisfying. “In my current role as President and CEO of the Art Academy of Cincinnati, I’m the leader of an amazing institution with an incredible team of faculty and staff that support the most diverse student population I have been a part of in my previous roles. The Art Academy’s relocation to the Over the Rhine neighborhood in the city in 2005 was a risky proposition at the time. In hindsight, it is the best decision the Academy could have made. The AAC has the largest footprint of land in OTR. Our students are required to engage with the city on a minute to minute basis. The ability to embed in our students the resilience and empathetic response to humanity will lead them to succeed and transform the world around them.
“I have partnered with the Mel Chin Studio to create the Corrina Mehiel Center for Urban Impact. Corrina was a gifted artist in the field of community engagement and she was my student in Philadelphia and in Cincinnati. Her life was taken in 2017. She taught at the Art Academy of Cincinnati after receiving her MFA from DAAP. Her work was instrumental in creating a story of the changing core of OTR and she identified often discarded fragments of the city’s infrastructure to become “her materials.” Her most memorable work was the planting of small flower gardens in the cavity of broken parking meters. Giving life to the carcass of faulty government regulations, the gardens symbolized a way for the city to give back to individuals who parked their cars to walk and engage with the fabric of the neighborhood. The center will enable the Art Academy to host one or two creatives per year who are working in the field of Social Practice to engage with our students and the Cincinnati community. These kind of initiatives are possible in this new role I am humbled to take on and I will continue to seek avenues for collaboration and partnership with all academic and creative entities in the region, nationally, and internationally. This continues to set our students apart in the ever shifting demographic of higher education in the creative fields.”
Some might think an art academy disengaged from real life; Girandola has no time for such thoughts. He knows that art is an essential of life and is in exactly the position to further that aim.