Paula Wallace: 2019 Interior Design Hall of Fame Special Leadership Award Inductee

Decades after opening the Savannah College of Art & Design, Paula Wallace is still as excited to talk about it as she was on the very first day. She’s not only the driving force behind SCAD, now celebrating its 40th anniversary, but also the school’s biggest and most articulate fan, chief spokesperson and international ambassador for one of the most prominent creative institutions in the U.S.—home to the number-one interior design program in the country. Officially, she has served as SCAD’s president since 2000, having previously held the positions of academic dean and provost. Unofficially, she is a celebrity in her own right.

Running a school with 15,000 students at four locations on three continents, plus a trio of teaching museums and dozens of auxiliary programs, is no easy task. How does she do it? “Well,” she answers, “I do have a lot of energy.” Along with more than her fair share of charisma, all packed into a petite frame.

She credits her love of education to her childhood piano teacher, a role model who gave 12-year-old Paula her first job in her hometown, Atlanta. “She taught the older children in the neighborhood, and I taught the younger ones,” Wallace recalls. She went on to earn a BA from Furman University and master’s and education degrees from Georgia State University, then taught public school.

The Trustees Theater marquee at the Savannah College of Art & Design in Georgia. Photography courtesy of SCAD.

After a while, Wallace began thinking about a new kind of arts-focused higher education, drawing from her own teaching experience and what she would have wanted as a student. “It was a little audacious, I guess,” she admits. To get the project under way, she sold her house and her treasured yellow Volkswagen. Nevertheless, on a teacher’s salary, she could not implement her plan alone, so her parents, May and Paul Poetter, contributed their retirement savings.

The 2018 commencement ceremony at the Savannah Civic Center. Photography courtesy of SCAD.

Savannah, Georgia’s oldest city, seemed the right place, with its gracious plan of open squares and trove of buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries. Location chosen, actually starting the school was largely a do-it-yourself project for Wallace. She learned as she went along, creating a nonprofit and bylaws, securing federal recognition and regional accreditation, recruiting trustees, and buying an 1892 armory to house classrooms. “We mailed a poster and catalog to every high school in the U.S., and people just started applying,” she says. In 1979, the students arrived, a first class of 71. The rest is a history of nonstop growth.

Since becoming president, Wallace has added locations in Lacoste, France, Atlanta, and Hong Kong, where SCAD won a competition to transform a British magistrate’s headquarters. “We like to rescue derelict buildings,” she offers. “I’m always up for a challenge.”

In-process artwork from this year’s SCAD Sidewalk Arts Festival in the city’s Forsyth Park. Photography courtesy of SCAD.

She has increased the academic scope as well. SCAD currently offers more than 100 programs across more than 40 disciplines. (Though interior design, one of the eight original majors, remains close to her heart.) SCADpro, a program Wallace came up with, invites students and faculty to collaborate with the likes of Google, Microsoft, and Coca-Cola to solve their toughest design challenges. She calls the experience a “10-week job interview” for the students—often resulting in long-term employment offers. Special events such as arts and film festivals, which she’s organized on and around SCAD campuses, have helped revitalize nearby communities in addition to getting students involved with their neighbors and garnering an impressive list of awards, both to the college and to herself. Her impact on Savannah has been called as significant as that of the city's founder, James Oglethorpe.

The 82,000-square-foot expansion of the SCAD Museum of Art by Sottile & Sottile and Lord Aeck & Sargent, in association with Dawson Architects, 2012. Photography courtesy of SCAD.

Family, starting with her parents, is the support system that makes everything possible. Her husband, Glenn Wallace, is the school’s chief operating officer. As for the families of alumni, now numbering more than 40,000, many send their children to SCAD.

Of all her activities, what is her favorite? “I like to read, write, play piano. But most of all, I like being around the students.” Though she enjoys travel, frequent visits to SCAD campuses don’t leave much time for other destinations. Would Wallace change things? Not a chance.

Environnement Chromointerférent, an installation at the museum by late Venezuelan artist Carlos Cruz-Diez, the 2017 SCAD deFINE ART honoree. Photography courtesy of Carlos Cruz-Diez, Articruz, and the Cruz-Diez Art Foundation.
A Pierre Cardin 2009 dress from “Pierre Cardin: Pursuit of the Future,” a 2018 exhibition at the SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film in Atlanta. Photography courtesy of SCAD.
Named after Paula Wallace’s parents, Poetter Hall, an 1892 former armory by architect William Gibbons Preston, was the first building the SCAD Savannah campus acquired, in 1979. Photography courtesy of SCAD.
Artworks by alumni Kent Knowles, Amy Lind, Troy Wandzel, and Greg Eltringham in Ruskin Hall, where admissions is located. Photography courtesy of SCAD.
From the exhibition “L’esprit de SCAD” at SCAD Lacoste in France, Wildcard dress by Darren Apolonio, a 2019 BFA fashion graduate from SCAD. Photography courtesy of SCAD.
SCAD Lacoste’s La Maison Basse, a 16th-century farmhouse turned classroom building. Photography courtesy of SCAD.
The main building by Arquitectonica at the SCAD Atlanta campus. Photography courtesy of SCAD.
The nearby Atlanta Beltline, where SCAD students and alumni stage performances and installations. Photography courtesy of SCAD.
An installation at SCAD Hong Kong with tassels by Trish Andersen and painting by Angela Burson, both alumni. Photography courtesy of SCAD.
SCAD Hong Kong’s digital-media building, a renovation of the historic North Kowloon Magistracy Building done with Leo A Daly. Photography courtesy of SCAD.
A 2019 concept project by graduate advertising student Vy Phan. Photography courtesy of SCAD.
The 2015 SCAD Savannah Film Festival. Photography courtesy of SCAD.
The Shed, a new multidisciplinary building on the Savannah campus by SCAD Design Group containing robotic, prototyping, computer programming, and VR-AR labs. Photography courtesy of SCAD.
“Now, Soon, Then, Tomorrow,” a 2018 exhibition by Spanish painter Guillermo Mora at the SCAD Museum of Art. Photography courtesy of SCAD.

> Read about the 2019 Hall of Fame inductees here

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