Georgia Tech’s Director of the Office of the Arts explains how optimism encourages innovation, and how art gives students a competitive edge.
Madison Cario cannot be pigeonholed.
She is a Marine Corps veteran, a dancer, and cofounder of the dance-theater organization SCRAP Performance Group. She studied rhetoric and communication as an undergraduate and holds a master’s degree in environmental science.
She also has more than 20 years of experience in lighting, stage, and production design.
In August 2014, she came to Tech from The Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Pennsylvania to be the director of the Office of the Arts, a position in which she relies on her diverse skills to advance the arts on campus.
As she concluded her first semester in her new role, she shared some of her observations so far.
How was your first semester?
My first semester was probably the shortest semester of my life. It went fast — really fast. It was amazing. It was full of students, faculty, staff, and artists.
I’m a tourist here, and I enjoy that.
So, as I’m walking around campus, I see everything with slightly lost, but fresh eyes. That’s something I want to maintain, as the years progress here at Georgia Tech: to remember there’s always something new to see or a new way to see the same thing.
I see art as an opportunity to interrupt business as usual. It’s that beautiful sunset that makes you stop. It engages another part of your mind.
Anytime we can encourage people to change their pathway and walk a different route, see something different, or put music where there wasn’t any — the sculptures on campus are starting that process — we’re shifting the business-as-usual model.
Describe your typical day.
I spend about eight hours every day talking with students, faculty, and staff, and listening to their stories and dreams.
Then, I usually go out at night and I see a show, or see what students are up to or what they’re making, or have dinner with artists and have more conversations about art in Atlanta and Georgia Tech.
That’s my day in a nutshell.
What have you learned about Tech students?
I have learned so much about the work and the research the students are doing here. They have melted my synapses.
There are so many majors and avenues of research here that I’m still trying to translate and understand. It’s great.
The languages they speak are similar to art language. I was speaking with an engineer about a chemical process where you layer one chemical on a material to build it up, then use another chemical to strip away a certain part, and you keep doing that until you get to a point where you are happy with whatever it is; that’s how you make a dance.
You layer pieces in and then you take other pieces out. This is how you build many sculptures. So, I’m finding comfort in many similarities.
How do you run the Office of the Arts?
I run this office with a culture of yes.
Every project and idea is very precious to its creator. My job is to say, 'Yes, let’s figure this out. I’m not sure how this is going to work, but let’s see it through.'
There’s a difference between saying yes to everything and saying yes to people. I’m saying yes to creative ideas, and that is important and empowering.
As soon as you begin with, ‘We don’t have the money to do that,’ you have killed the creativity. You should fully flesh out the idea, critique it across multiple genres, and then look for the money.
Part of our job as the Office of the Arts and as artists is to use the arts as an opportunity to understand diversity, different cultures, and different ways of interacting.
We can use art to help engage critical thinking skills. We can use art to improve students’ ability to articulate.
It doesn’t matter how brilliant you are if you can’t tell the story and do public speaking. Improvisation is really important for interviews. What if you have the best project ever and a board member asks a question that’s not on your list?
There are places where art can accentuate and make our students really competitive. All things being equal — if you’re at the top of your class or field — what is going to make you better?
What has been your experience with the Atlanta arts community?
The most surprising thing about Atlanta is that everyone I’ve met has been excited to hear about what's happening with the arts at Georgia Tech.
They have suggestions of people I should meet and things I should see. People really want to see Atlanta and Georgia Tech succeed.
There’s an understanding that Georgia Tech has an important position in Atlanta, but there's uncertainty regarding what language they should speak to communicate with Georgia Tech. Is it the language of business? The language of science? What about the communities that don’t fit into either of those fields?
I’d like to use art as a safe way to welcome people. It’s an easy access point.
How can you get more faculty who are not artists to be interested in Arts at Tech?
I think everybody has to be on board. For the person who doesn’t think there is any art in them, I would bet they have an art moment. But, if there isn’t an art moment, that’s OK, too.
Maybe we are asking people to claim a title — artist — that they’re not comfortable with.
Maybe we have too narrowly defined art. Architecture is art. Design is art. Engineering is art.
What’s next for the Office of the Arts?
We’re developing our strategic plan and how to move forward. We’re looking at ways to celebrate the amazing artistry that’s already on campus, but we’re going to try bringing art and artists to campus — as well as take Tech art and artists off campus, too.
We’re also exploring how we can advance our collective research through art and advance the research of artists.
I would like to hear what faculty and staff have to say about art. I’m curious.
Also, a personal goal for me as director of the Office of the Arts is to meet every single person on this campus, to know their names, and to say hello — by name — when I pass them. It’s a small goal, but it has a profound impact on me as an administrator.