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Quick Take: Nancy Uscher on Creative Inspiration

New College of Fine Arts dean says the creative work of faculty members can inspire students and help UNLV find its way into the Top Tier.

Arts & Culture  |  Feb 8, 2017  |  By Jennifer Vaughan
Nancy J. Uscher

Nancy J. Uscher, dean of UNLV's College of Fine Arts (Josh Hawkins/UNLV Creative Services)

Dean Nancy J. Uscher joined the UNLV College of Fine Arts after serving as president of Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, one of the many leadership roles she has held in academia. New to Las Vegas and UNLV, she shares her perceptions of the university and community — beginning with her belief there has never been a more exciting time for artists as many fascinating new careers open up in a rapidly changing world.

The philosophy of this renowned concert violist is rooted in the student experience — ensuring students are exposed to the newest thinking and most important skills in the arts, and can actually invent their own careers and artistic lives — with strong mentorship from outstanding faculty. The integration of research and practice in one’s discipline, the ability to navigate within broad and interdisciplinary frameworks, the mastery of excellent communication skills, and the encouragement of deep curiosity about life mark the distinguishing characteristics of Uscher's vision for artistic education at UNLV.

The term "creative activity" has a specific meaning in academia. Can you explain what that is for a general audience?

Creative activity refers to a range of artistic and scholarly endeavors — in the visual and performing arts, in interdisciplinary contexts, in architectural practice. In the arts, the rich meaning of this term often includes the integration of research and practice.

Can you share examples of top-notch creative activity from the college?

There are many rich creative activities of students, faculty, and guest artists and scholars going on in the College of Fine Arts at UNLV constantly. Each of our seven great academic units as well as our cultural entities make a serious and appreciated contribution to the entire university community. Examples are the international partnership our dance department has with a distinguished Korean institution, the musical ensembles and recitals from the School of Music, the Nevada Conservatory Theatre season, films, art exhibitions, architectural achievements such as the Solar Decathlon, the first Mayor's Symposium and the stellar work of architectural students, the unique contribution of the entertainment, engineering & design program, and the way Performing Arts Center serves the entire UNLV community and region.

What stands out to me personally is the range, diversity, and quality of what is produced in our college. I couldn't be prouder!

How does it fit into UNLV's Top Tier efforts?

The College of Fine Arts adds a critical dimension to the Top Tier goals of the university. The work being done in the college is illuminated by its originality, boldness, and innovation — all of which contribute to a university's excellence. Research in the arts is a fundamental part of the work of creative artists and architects.

How does a professor's creative activity enhance student learning? 

Our faculty are a diverse group of scholars, arts practitioners, creators of new knowledge, and original thinkers. Their creative activity serves as a great inspiration to college students. Many professors are working artists — and have both the disciplinary expertise and the talent to teach what they actively continue to produce in their professions. 

What does creative activity mean to our larger community?

Creative activity in the College of Fine Arts provides an opportunity to create a bridge and powerful common ground — through plays, concerts, productions, lectures, exhibitions — between university and community.

You joined UNLV as dean after serving as president of an arts college. How do the experiences compare? 

I am so fortunate to have served a range of institutions in various leadership positions. In important ways, being president of a small visual and performing arts college (Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle) and being dean of fine arts in a research university are quite similar. Both offer many opportunities to solve challenges in creative ways. Serving in these positions has been — and continues to be — a privilege. Having the accountability inherent in these positions means that I have helped students and faculty dream for the future and work toward meeting their life goals. What could be more thrilling than that?

What was the most surprising thing you've encountered since coming here? Any misconceptions overturned?

The most satisfying aspects of the work have been outstanding collaboration, kindness among the people I meet, and the energy that is created in the university by the encouragement to think big and audaciously. I love that! 

None of it is surprising — except that there was great integrity in what I was told as a candidate for the position — that there was openness to the new, and there is. No corrected misconceptions, but I have learned that not only is there outstanding entertainment on the Strip — there is a strong, fertile, burgeoning culture in Las Vegas and the entire region to complement the performance art of the large entertainment centers. The community has a great passion for the arts and it is a fantastic time to be in Las Vegas.

What's the biggest challenge facing the college right now? 

I would rather look at challenges as opportunities and there are many. The college has serious aspirations and next semester we will embark upon a comprehensive strategic planning process to deeply ponder the questions about what we stand for as a college community and where we will be five years from now. We will think big and allow ourselves to strive for very ambitious goals. This will cover new ways of thinking about programs, culminating experiences and degrees, delivery of education, working with other colleges and institutions, analyzing trends in our disciplines and how the findings will impact our students' futures, our interface with community — all with the acknowledgment that art is a powerfully fundamental part of the human experience — which leads us to reflect on the inherent responsibilities we have as a thought community of artists to step up and make a difference in peoples' lives.