The Affable Mr. Utah Art
A genuine work of art, Dean Robert Olpin returns to teaching.
By Mary Francey
Known to his colleagues simply as "Dean Bob," Robert S. Olpin, cheerfully devoted friend and ally of faculty and art, concludes 10 years as chief academic officer of the College of Fine Arts this spring. His unusually close rapport with the chairs of the five widely disparate departments he guides as dean is one facet of his rich and consuming personality. Olpin's affability not only shaped his administration, it revised many generally held perceptions of the role of dean.
Unique is the word that best characterizes Olpin's temperament, his administrative approach, his own research, and his ability to effectively reach out to the local community.
As he leaves the dean's office, Olpin looks forward to resuming a full-time schedule of teaching and research in art history at the U. While the past decade has demanded that he concentrate on leading the College, he managed, unlike many deans, to maintain regular contact with both classroom and community, and continued to devote considerable time to research and writing.
He frequently recalls the administrative style of his uncle, A. Ray Olpin, who was president of the U during the years immediately following the Second World War and to whom he unapologetically refers as "the best president the U ever had." ("But," he adds with characteristic good humor, "all the others—especially those still living—have been really good too.) Often characterizing his own position as "middle management," Olpin has balanced the frequently conflicting needs of department heads, who represent their faculty, and the institutional administration. There is tremendous variation and difference between the performing and visual art departments which comprise his College.
A tenacious advocate for the arts, his contributions to the College are numerous and substantial. He consistently represents the College mission as the on-campus unit responsible for offering rigorous professional training in the visual and performing arts, and for educating future scholars, historians, critics and educators of the arts. Leading five vigorous departments made up of an energetic faculty who demand administrative accountability, Olpin's admirable ability to resolve conflicts with benevolent good humor has served him well on many occasions. For example, when asked, "What is art?" he responds, "Interesting stuff. The boring stuff isn't."
Colleagues know him as approachable and accessible—always willing to devote a lunch hour to discussing an idea for a new project, production, or research direction. He is immensely proud of the professors he represents. "Our faculty are the result of national searches. It's their will we should be working to see become successful. A good chair is someone who represents faculty wishes, as opposed to imposing someone's will on them," Olpin states.
The effectiveness of his approach to identifying goals is evident by measuring his contributions to College growth. A major accomplishment is the development of the interdepartmental Film Studies Program which has attained national recognition. Closely aligned with the annual Sundance Film Festival, this program offers undergraduate and graduate preparation in film production, history, and criticism. Because of its obvious relevance to contemporary society, Film Studies is a rapidly expanding area within the College, attracting more students than space and equipment can accommodate.
The Department of Theatre's Actor Training Program earned a national reputation for preparing professional actors who, in today's competitive market, find employment with notable companies. The departments of Ballet and Modern Dance also are regarded as tops throughout the country, music at Utah is very strong, and graduates throughout the College are evidence of their high level of professional training. Olpin has made significant progress in strengthening arts education programs throughout the College, and he has formed an unprecedented collegial working relationship with the Graduate School of Education. The Fine Arts Teachers Academy, sponsored jointly by the College of Fine Arts and the Art Works for Kids Foundation, is offering its first workshop for elementary school teachers in June, 1997. Olpin is helping to begin this outreach to local school districts, and anticipates successful annual workshops and ongoing collaboration.
In his determination to avoid any appearance of favoritism, he is sometimes accused of benign neglect of his own area; nevertheless Art History recently achieved program status in what is now, officially, the Department of Art and Art History. This could not have occurred without the dean's enthusiastic support. With his help and encouragement, Art History also added an academic minor to an already viable major and noteworthy graduate curriculum.
Early in his administration, Olpin recognized the pressures on education imposed by the electronic age, and the consequent need to equip classrooms and studios with computers. He is credited with encouraging and supporting technological advancement throughout the College. Virtually non-existent in fine arts classrooms ten years ago, new technologies are now important components of all aspects of the College curriculum. The departments of Art and Music have added technologies essential to maintaining currency in their areas. Interestingly, Dean Olpin's own work habits changed with the Electronic Age. Until recently he preferred to write research notes, correspondence, and syllabi in his own distinctive and extremely legible handwriting. Since discovering the ease and speed of word processing, he has joined the community of naïve nerds, and now keeps an endless supply of eyedrops in his desk.
Nonexistent before his administration, Olpin established both the Fine Arts Alumni Council and the Fine Arts Advisory Board, the latter composed of local business and civic leaders who share interest in the arts. The board has grown steadily in numbers and strength during the past ten years. In collaboration with Heidi Makowski BS'83, Director of Development, board members work with each department on a rotating basis to meet specific needs and award an annual scholarship to one student from each of the five departments in the College. To assure continuity, Olpin has agreed to serve as next year's board chair.
Olpin taught regularly while meeting his administrative responsibilities. His Liberal Education core course is typically overenrolled with students clamoring to attend, as are his classes in 19th century American and European art. Student needs have always been, and remain, a high priority for him. He does not hesitate to work with individuals on independent study when a student has a scheduling conflict or an unexpected graduation requirement to fill. Students receive highest priority in his weekly schedule, and he is nearly always available for students who walk in with questions or problems.
Unique, too, is the direction his research interest has taken. A specialist in American art, he has concentrated on a study of regional and local artists and artistic directions. In his office, an archive of monumental proportions holds years of acquired information that serves as resource for his work. Historical and current references to artists, their products, patrons of the arts, as well as arts organizations and agencies are all immediately available, the result of years of devoted effort. This documentation of local art is an invaluable contribution to the historical record, and is recognized in the field as an important inquiry direction for contemporary art historians. Vern Swanson, director of the Springville Art Museum, comments on Olpin's acquired identity as the recognized expert on the arts of Utah and the surrounding region. "Nobody," he says, "knows more than Olpin, he is Mr. Utah art."
Olpin's research effectively connects college with community, but he is not content to stop at that. He is an unusually active participant in community events, often asked to lecture on regional topics of particular interest to local art centers and museums. He is tireless in his outreach, never refusing a request to act as curator for an emerging state or county art collection, or to lend his expertise to the process of selecting artists for public commissions. Currently chair of the Utah Arts Council, Olpin plays an important role in the support of statewide arts organizations. Bonnie Stephens, director of the state Arts Council, admires Olpin's ability to "leave his day job to serve the community with great passion and energy." She describes him as "sometimes puzzling, always entertaining, unpredictable yet dependable," and calls him a community builder. He also adds his voice to the emerging plans for a new Utah Museum of Fine Arts, celebrating Director Frank Sanguinetti's Herculean efforts which will finally result in the creation of a museum suitable for housing the state art collection while supporting the University's educational mission.
Olpin continually demonstrates his unique approach to his work and his interrelationships with colleagues by encouraging, with genuine effort and sincere interest, each of the projects, productions, and interests represented within the College. The College of Fine Arts is indebted to him for his vision, which has had such a profound effect on its identity.
Mary Francey is associate dean of the College of Fine Arts.