Jacqueline Chanda, now in her seventh month as the Kansas City Art Institute’s 23rd president, doesn’t put artists in a box.
“To be excellent means you must be an artist,” she is fond of saying.
It’s an axiom borrowed from marketing guru Seth Godin.
Chanda, who took a broad range of studio classes while earning her bachelor of arts at the University of California, Los Angeles, brings a confident eye to assessing work.
But she also brings a broad view of what artists can contribute to society “by the way they see the world” — and not just the works they create in the studio.
“One of the things art students really learn is how to become creative problem-solvers and how to solve problems in multiple ways,” Chanda says. “They see things differently and see different opportunities.”
Chanda has great faith in the potential of artists to change the world for the better.
One of the primary goals of the Art Institute, she says, is to teach students to think conceptually about their art. And Chanda thinks that the critical and decision-making skills involved in artmaking provide students with the tools to succeed in any field.
Although her resume boasts a long list of teaching and administrative posts, Chanda remains an artist at heart. She longs to set up a studio and is seriously looking at places for one in her house in Kansas City.
“I’ve always wanted a studio. I haven’t done that yet,” she says. “I have three unfinished canvases I’ve been working on for the last three or four years.”
In her previous post as academic dean and director of the Aix Center in Aix-en-Provence, France, Chanda spent every Saturday making clay sculptures. But painting and drawing are her first passion, and it emerged when she was 5 years old.
As a child growing up in Detroit, she always got drawing materials for her birthday and Christmas, Chanda says. In high school in Duarte, Calif., she was selected for Saturday scholarships at the California Art Institute for two years in a row.
During her undergraduate years at UCLA, she worked with Richard Diebenkorn “before he became famous.” And Diebenkorn, along with Jacob Lawrence and John Biggers, remains one of her favorite artists.
Although Chanda describes her own work as “semi-abstraction,” she says she gravitates to works of social commentary.
Renee Stout, Carrie Mae Weems and Lorna Simpson are among the contemporary artists she admires.
“I’m attracted to the content of their work,” she says. “It’s aesthetically pleasing but also has a strong social statement.”
Life, history and culture are important topics for art, Chanda says, and she thinks travel is a way for artists to deepen their understanding of all three.
“It’s important for our students to travel abroad,” she says, an opinion based on her own extensive international travels.
Since her student days, Chanda has witnessed the interplay of history, culture, religion and politics and the impact of globalism in Europe as well as Africa.
During her junior year at UCLA, Chanda attended the University of Bordeaux in France as a study-abroad student, marking the beginning of a long love affair with Gallic culture.
After graduating from UCLA in 1972, Chanda returned to France to begin work on a master’s of fine arts in painting at the National School of Art in Paris. But she found the program to be too unstructured and decided to pursue a master’s in art education at the Sorbonne.
She has fond memories of the Paris of her student days, when stores closed in the afternoons, she says, “and on Sundays, nothing was open.” She also loved it for the old buildings that spoke of eras and civilizations past and the proximity of other countries — “You could hop on a train and be in Italy in a couple of hours.”
After completing her master’s in 1977, Chanda entered the Ph.D. program in art history at the Sorbonne, which included a requirement for field research in her area of specialty, African art.
In 1979 she traveled to Zambia, where she spent the next six years teaching French, art, art appreciation and aesthetics and doing her Ph.D. research into the arts of Mwinilunga, a small village in northwest Zambia near the Angolan border.
“No one had done any work in that area,” she says.
Chanda’s study focused on a wooden statue connected with the Chokwe people and symbolizing an important mythological figure. She was also intrigued by the local tradition of knitted suits made from fiber, not unlike, she says, some of the creations of KCAI alum Nick Cave.
Many of her recollections of those days include encounters with the vestiges of European colonialism.
Whereas Zambia, formerly Northern Rhodesia, gained independence from Britain in 1964, Southern Rhodesia — now Zimbabwe — remained in the grip of Prime Minister Ian Smith until 1979. Smith’s resistance to black majority rule delayed the country’s official independence from Britain until 1980.
During her time in Africa, Chanda was fascinated by the difference in attitudes manifested by the French — which she experienced on visits to Gabon and Congo-Brazzaville — and the British, as seen in Zambia and Zimbabwe. She noticed that in countries once under British rule, there was an “infrastructure well in place,” suggesting that “the British had no intention of leaving.”
The French, on the other hand, “embraced the African culture,” Chanda says.
“I think it had a lot to do with religion,” she adds. “(French) Catholics were able to correlate similarities between African belief systems and Catholicism. In terms of art, the Catholic fathers hired carvers to carve reliefs and statues representing African-featured saints. In contrast, in Britain’s Protestant churches, the emphasis was on the word.”
In 1985, Chanda returned to the U.S. with her Zambian husband and their infant daughter and took a job with United L.A. School District. She stayed for two years, until a teaching gig at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., set her on the college teaching path she desired.
By the mid-1990s she had moved to Ohio State University, where the dean of the college of fine arts encouraged her to go into administration.
“Part of it was the desire to make things better,” Chanda says. “It really is about trying to be an agent for change, change in a positive way.”
She next took a post as chairwoman and professor of art education and art history at the University of North Texas in Denton and in 2006 became associate dean at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
Three years later, Chanda headed back to France, southern France this time, to be the academic dean and director of the Aix Center.
She found that the country had changed considerably in the 30 years she’d been gone.
“Stores stayed open, even on Sundays,” she says. “(French President Nicolas) Sarkozy pushed retailers to stay open. They even celebrated Halloween!”
Culturally, the country was embroiled in the burqa controversy, which arose when the French government prohibited female Muslim students from wearing the voluminous black garment in the classroom.
“In the classroom everyone needs to be equal and treated the same,” is how Chanda explains the thinking behind the rule.
But for her, the law provoked another insight into cultural difference.
for the French means equal under the law,” she says. “It’s not about access. In the U.S., equality means creating opportunities for access and a level playing field.”
Chanda seems pleased to be back in her home country, where she retains a Parisian sense of style and continues to be an avid cyclist, an enthusiasm dating to her student days.
Someday she’ll set up that studio, but for the moment she is focused on how to get students thinking about “what they’re capable of, what they can contribute to society by the way they see the world, and what they bring to the table.”
At present, Chanda envisions no radical changes at the school.
“What I’d like most is to take what we do well and build something from that,” she says, “to create partnerships to facilitate what we do, to broaden our scope and to engage the public more.
“You’re never stopping and saying, ‘We’ve arrived,’ ” she added. “You have to imagine what doesn’t exist.”