Douglas Dempster was named dean of the College of Fine Arts in December. Below he shares his vision for the future of arts at the university and what he likes to do in his spare time, which includes training for his third marathon.
1) Where are you originally from and what brought you to the university?
I grew up in the suburbs of New York City and Washington, D.C., the grandchild of ambitious, but not highly educated immigrants from Scotland. My father was the first member of my family to pursue a college education as a result of the GI Bill. I came to UT to be the senior associate dean of the College of Fine Arts, which I saw then, and still see, as promising the brightest future of university and professional arts training in the U.S.
2) What are your short- and long-term goals for the College of Fine Arts?
Over the short term, we need to be very determined about correcting several long-standing shortcomings of our support for faculty, students and programs just to get on a competitive footing with peer programs around the country. That means supporting our faculty more generously, guaranteeing more attractive financial aid to our students, building staff support in critical areas such as student recruitment, technical support and fund raising, and setting out an achievable plan for rejuvenating aging teaching facilities that are in some cases 40 or even as much as 70 years old.
Long term, I want our programs–beyond being “top-ranked” in the fine and performing arts–to be recognized as national leaders for the distinctive ways we prepare and launch the professional careers of our graduates, in the ways our graduates influence cultural trends in the nation and world, and in the ways the college acts as a driver of creative life and the “creative economy” on the Forty Acres and for the Central Texas region.
3) What is your favorite part of the job so far?
The best part of being a dean or department chair is getting to know, learn about and advance the original work, the scholarly research and creative activities of our many talented faculty, students and staff members. The dean of the College of Fine Arts, after 10-12 hours a day in the office, at meetings and at lunches with donors, spends four to five nights a week at student and faculty performances and shows as well as local and regional professional performances. What could be more fun than that! On my best days, I imagine my job to be every bit as gratifying as Lorenzo de Medici’s or Prince Leopold’sand I don’t have to wear a powdered wig!
4) What projects are you working on now that you are especially excited about?
The pragmatic dean in me is most excited about anticipating the possibilities for our programs when fully and adequately supported. But like many faculty members, I’ve spent most of my career building curricula and new programs. At bottom that’s always about creating communities of cooperative purpose, coherent artistic sensibilities, common educational cause. I get most excited when I see us realizing the interdisciplinary and interdepartmental possibilities that are so natural to a university of UT’s expanse and caliber. At this moment, we’re collaborating within our college and partnering with other colleges to create new initiatives in museum studies, digital arts and media, musical theatre, performance as public practice, music business and recording technology, cultural policy studies and arts administration, classical art and archaeology, and modern and contemporary art of Latin America. The possibilities are endlessly exciting.
5) What area of the arts do you most enjoy?
I’m what is these days called a “cultural omnivore.” I listen to many different kinds of music, and enjoy attending the Austin City Limits Festival almost as much as visiting the Elephant Room or the Houston Grand Opera. I’m especially fond of jazz and earlier forms of chamber music. My first love was the visual arts, having grown up attending the great museums of New York and Washington, D.C. I’m a recreational drawer who’d rather sketch a landscape or city scene than take a photograph. I consider theatre to be our most timely, potentially profound and dangerous of art forms because of its humane engagement with the issues of our day. One of the great pleasures of coming to UT has been the chance to learn a great deal more about dance, which I have come to appreciate as simultaneously the most physically embodied and most ephemeral of art forms because of the difficulty of canonically encoding a dance work for posterity.
6) Outside of work, what do you enjoy in your free time?
I live with my wife, a poet and health literacy researcher, and two teenage daughters who attend Austin public high schools. Most of my non-work time is spent with family. (They’ll tell you that there isn’t a lot of “non-work time.”) Music, film, literature and politics are a big part of family discussions around the dinner table. We love to back pack, canoe, or go rafting when we get the chance to get away. I decided I had better run a marathon, if ever, by my 50th birthday, which has become a serious pastimewhich is not how most would describe getting up at 5:00 a.m. for morning runs! (Anyway, it is cheaper and healthier than buying a mid-life sports car and doesn’t take as much time as golf!) I’m now training with Gilbert’s Gazelles for my third marathon and on my good days am not entirely delusional in hoping to qualify for the Boston Marathon.