This article can be found in the Fall 2017 edition of the Alumni Magazine.

October 4, 2017

Like any young, new faculty member, Rick Cartwright had a few jitters when he took a teaching job in the USF art department—and no idea he would leave a stamp of excellence on his school, his community and his profession.

After 42 years on USF’s faculty, 13 of them as the founding dean of the School of Creative Arts, Cartwright retired at the end of last semester, after a journey of improvement so steady, you could chart it with a compass. He remembered his intrepid entry into the culture he would impact so strongly.

“I had not a huge background at 23 for teaching, and then there were grad students who were older than me,” he said. “I was young to have a Master of Arts and Master of Fine Arts, and entered the job market early. I didn’t know I’d stay. I thought it was a stopping point, until I met my wife and married. Then it became a rooted, long-term Fort Wayne thing. I got involved with the community, the museum, Artlink, the schools. You’re part of the fabric then, and it’s hard to leave. And I was committed to USF, its growth and new programs in commercial art.”

That he engaged with the entire sphere in which he found himself surprises no one who knows him.

Knowing the players

Highly successful people nurture the relationships they need to reach their goals. Rick found great supporters in USF President Sister M. Elise Kriss, OSF, and late trustee Ian Rolland, who passed away this summer.

“The relationships I formed here with Sister Elise and Ian Rolland relate to trust and honesty,” he said. “Whether it was a class critique or teaching or a meeting, I tried to be honest to the questions posed to me. The goal was to create an exciting environment for students, and I said that so many times, people began to believe and know me. That was very important to Ian, and that was the ‘click’ that brought the two of us together.

“With Sister Elise, we’d tell each other frankly the pros and cons of something. She loves the arts. The trust had incredible impact, and she understood my vision of a more developed School of Creative Arts, and that we could do it through partnerships—she believed in that and in the community.”

“I hate the ‘starving artist’ phrase. I’ve never seen it happen. We struggle and it’s not easy, but when you want to create or sing or act, it gets into your blood. I wanted degrees for our students, to help find them jobs and promote their talents.”

Casting a broader net

Rick Cartwright and a group of USF faculty looking over a piece of artwork on the floor

Quickly, the resources for a creative learning environment collided with his expanding vision for students. So he set about changing that.

“USF only had art—no music, theater or dance—and those blanks bothered me, because a college education should include all of those for students in all majors. It was my dream to develop programs to let all students have those experiences. Ian was very supportive, and knew funding and facilities were an uphill battle. Every three to four months, I’d talk with Ian and he’d ask how the other arts areas were coming. I said I was still trying to figure that out.

“I had a bigger dream, and Sister Elise was one of the few who knew that I wanted to not only maintain the visual arts, but introduce other arts. We had graphic design and computers as part of the curriculum, so I wondered—how could I develop a music program? I came up with investing in and developing technology. That’s our niche, and how Music Tech was developed. We had talked about a partnership with the Fort Wayne Ballet years before implementing our dance program. That is one of the first partnerships with a community non-profit. It took strategy and pleading, but it has worked out, and can blossom.

“The same is true of the Fort Wayne Museum of Art partnership, which was based on what the program would do for the university and the museum. Both partnerships have a huge potential to provide education opportunities for students.”

Dream realized

With the combined desire and vision of such a team, it was only a matter of time until the resources were found.

“When we outgrew Bonaventure Hall, we talked about a new building, or a tech/library/art concept. Then one day we saw the Standard Oil property for sale, and said, ‘Duh, there it is, why not?’ We got into the building, and became excited. I wanted something unique, with history, and I liked the reuse and refurbish idea. I wasn’t looking for a sterile environment, but one that’s creative the minute you walk in the door. Ron Dick with Design Collaborative talked with us, and excitement for the building spread. I also relied on faculty member Maury Papier during this time. He was a role model and mentor, and still is.

“We found out the site needed environmental remediation, which was costly, but transforming the area was a creative example for art students and supported the Franciscan value of caring for the earth. Sister Elise asked me to write a grant to the Lilly Foundation, and I got $2.2 million, so we began to design and to develop a potential donor list. In a meeting with Ian, he said we could tear it down and build something else, so I explained how we wanted it as an example for art students, and he got it. The Rollands also chipped in to round out the funding, and that’s how the Standard Oil building became the School of Creative Arts.”

Requiring excellence

Any sweeping vision requires a standard, and for Cartwright, nothing but the best would do for students.

“It all rolls into my quest for excellence,” he said. “You hire faculty and staff who also believe in excellence. I was fortunate to put together a group who believed in teaching, and excellence in any area. With every decision I asked, ‘Is this good for students?’ If so, then I would champion it. I wanted 24/7 access to the school for students, because the creative spirit does not stop and start on schedule.

“I hate the ‘starving artist’ phrase. I’ve never seen it happen. We struggle and it’s not easy, but when you want to create or sing or act, it gets into your blood. I wanted degrees for our students, to help find them jobs and promote their talents.”

Lovely Brookside

Through a timely series of opportunities, the restoration of the Bass mansion as the former Brookside came into Cartwright’s bailiwick. He was thrilled.

“In 1993, I got a Lilly Fellowship and a year to study decorative arts all over the country, seeing homes, collections and projects being dreamed up on both coasts and in between,” he said. “I fell in love with things like restoring interiors and design. I was back in the classroom when Brookside came into play. I told Sister Elise I wanted to help. When I met the top-notch architects and designers involved, it was like a dream come true to open up that sabbatical information and implement it. The university had no one inside with the experience and time, so it fell into my lap and became a second sabbatical 10 years later. It was a wonderful experience, and a gift of time and energy to the institution, students, faculty, staff and community.”

Downtown momentum

He’s pleased with the progress downtown. “Music Tech is launched, and has a nationally recognized facility for growing and developing. I also think the auditorium has tremendous potential because it’s a magnet for performing arts. If I had five more years, that’s where I would put my energy.”

Unbroken circle

His relationships with USF faculty, staff and students are timeless and inseverable. “I’d like to continue to advise the Music Technology board, and will help with the fall play. New SOCA Dean Colleen Huddleson and I will talk about projects. I’m very interested in continuing Jesters,” Rick says about the inspirational performing group founded in 1978 which is composed of individuals with mild to severe developmental or physical disabilities. “It has been a love and I’m very proud of its growth, as founder Hal Gunderson would be.”

Beginning again

“I’m starting over like when I began at USF, and can’t imagine what I will do yet. It’s another beginning. I won’t stay home and sit around. I will find an arts and education path.”

Hold onto your hats, folks. And your ideas and creative spirit. Only time will tell where Rick’s reload will lead.