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Banking on KC - Ruki Neuhold-Ravikumar of the Kansas City Art Institute

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Kelly Scanlon:

Welcome to Banking on KC. I'm your host, Kelly Scanlon. With us on this episode is Ruki Neuhold-Ravikumar, the new Nerman Family President at the Kansas City Art Institute. Ruki is the institute's 25th president. Welcome, Ruki.

Ruki Neuhold-Ravikumar:

Thanks, Kelly. Good morning.

Kelly Scanlon:

Welcome to Kansas City. You've been at the helm of KCAI now for just a few months. As you've taken the reins what has excited you about the past several weeks so far?

Ruki Neuhold-Ravikumar:

I have met so many amazing people here and I think I'm just really excited about the community here. It's such a lively and energetic, creative community that I'm most excited to work with.

Kelly Scanlon:

And something that I have found very interesting about KCAI is that 100% of the faculty are practicing artists, or designers, or scholars themselves. And you are an award-winning graphic designer who has advanced from teaching graphic design. You were a professor to being the Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Design at the University of Central Oklahoma. So what I'm curious about is what influenced your decision to become a graphic designer and when did you know that was what you wanted to do?

Ruki Neuhold-Ravikumar:

It was not a very straightforward path. My mother is an artist and my father is a naval architect. So I have two very creative parents. I was very good at science, I enjoyed physics as a student. I'm good at math, but I also love to draw. And I found that the adults in my life often pulled me in two very different directions. And I was often encouraged to pick a very serious field for my career and pursue art as a hobby.

And no one ever introduced me to design. And so I found design through the most complicated path. And that's what motivates me now as an educator and then as an adult, is to make that pathway more obvious to the next generation of creative professionals, to help them get there faster, to help just the nation gain more exposure to design.

It's all around us. We touch it, we feel it. It's in our environment, but we don't talk much about it. But I always took things apart. I approached problems in very unique ways. I got to tell the Kansas City Chamber members a story recently, and I'll tell it to you again. But I was really young and I broke my spring bed jumping up and down and it made a horrific sound, so I knew I was going to get into trouble. And I took a sock ball and placed it under the broken spring. And when my dad discovered it, he called me in and asked me what it was, and I said that I put a sock where it was hitting the ground and now it doesn't make a sound anymore. I expected a scolding, but he did not, he just shook his head and he told me that I was standing on a very thin line between being a genius and a moron.

And at that point I didn't know what it was, but it tells you that I've always looked at problems in a very different way because I solved for the problem of sound and I didn't necessarily was bothered by the broken spring. And so I've always told people that if you see the problem as a nail, then you're going to go out and seek a hammer. So I think that's the fascinating part about design is that I found it through one of the most complicated and interesting journeys and I want people to talk about it more.

And that's what I think KCAI is here for. We want people to come to us and it's a landmark school. It's been around here since 1885 with some incredible people who've been a part of this community like Walt Disney and April Greiman and Nick Cave who found their voices here as artists and designers. I just want young people to learn more about it. It's all around us.

Kelly Scanlon:

And what a great advocate that the students and the budding artists here at the youth, as you mentioned, have here in you when you say that you want to help make that path more obvious to them. So often people who want to go into the arts or into the humanities are told, "No, you really need to pursue that serious degree." And then they spend their whole lives fighting that artistic instinct that still resides inside of themselves.

Ruki Neuhold-Ravikumar:

True. I have a degree in art and I have a degree in design and I really feel like I can do anything with those degrees and that education that I've received with them. I feel that I'm a flexible thinker. I look at the world in very different ways. I am able to problem solve. I don't fear change. And that's part of what my education has done for me. People look at the outcomes of a creative education, but what they really need to do is look at the process. At KCAI, we help students really accept feedback. We help them analyze and have conversations about their ideas.

We help them observe and to take in the world in new and different ways. To be more thoughtful, to do research and to be creative all the time is very difficult. For the average person you have to do really extraordinary things like go for a long run or take a long shower to be creative. So think about if you have to do that as your job all the time, every day, that takes some dedication and practice and training. And that's what this school does. It gives you the strategies, the tools. And there's a committed staff here of faculty who are practicing artists and designers and scholars, like you said, of people who set you up for success, to do that.

Kelly Scanlon:

You've spent five years as a Director of Education for Cooper Hewitt's Smith Smithsonian Museum of Design in New York, and you are also the Associate Provost of Education and Access and the Acting Under Secretary for Education at the Smithsonian. Most recently you were the Acting Director of Cooper Hewitt. So what attracted you to the Kansas City Art Institute?

Ruki Neuhold-Ravikumar:

The students here, I had the privilege of meeting some students here during the interview process and they had some extraordinary dreams. And I think for the first time in a long time, the immigrant in me felt like this is exactly where I need to be. It reminded me of the bold dreams that you have as a kid when you're a kid and someone asked you, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" You really aim for the moon. And you talk about, "I want to be an astronaut." You don't think about how you're going to get there, but you aim for the greatest, grandest thing you can be.

And the older we get, we start to really put more constraints around those dreams. And when I met those students, they had bold dreams for themselves, for their communities. And they had it after meeting the faculty and working on their career pathways here, they wanted to do better for the world around them. They wanted to be creative problem solvers. And just hearing that vision that they had for the world inspired me. Nationally, everyone is questioning the value of higher education and everyone is questioning the value of an education in the arts. And I think this community has the capacity to take it all apart and put it back together in a way no one has ever seen before. And I would like to be a part of that and that's why I'm here.

Kelly Scanlon:

So with all that said, what is your vision and your priority as the new president?

Ruki Neuhold-Ravikumar:

I want to be part of that community to support them in re-imagining the future of education, the future of art education, the future of art and design education. Not only for our local community, but for the nation, for the world, set an example. KCAI has always modeled for the nation. It has set precedents for a long time and it can continue to do so. The school has been around for a very, very long time. It's a respected landmark institution and I think it's a good time for it to step up when there's a national challenge in place. And I would like to be here to support this incredible community when it steps up to do that.

Kelly Scanlon:

Ruki, as you noted, you're an immigrant from India, a designer, an educator, a mentor, and a leader. How will those experiences shape your work? How will it help you to carry out the vision that you just described at the Kansas City Art Institute?

Ruki Neuhold-Ravikumar:

Kelly, we all draw from different parts of our life and professional experiences to be the best versions of ourselves. And I think to take on this big challenge and bold vision, I will need to draw from different parts of my life and professional experience. And this is such a beautiful community of creative professionals here, that they have embraced me just for who I am and that's why I feel I'm exactly where I need to be. But they're also, I think, have created a space for me to tap into my experiences, not just as a professional, but as a person as well.

And that will allow us to, I think, tackle the solution from really a unique and innovative standpoint. That we will not look at things from a traditional way. We don't need to look at how to solve problems just from a traditional higher educational standpoint. We could look at it, take it and look at it from a 360 view. Innovation comes from putting things together in ways that we've never done before. And that comes from this community looking, bringing their entire selves to work. And that's exciting here is that here we have people who will draw from being parents, from being immigrants, from being long time creative professionals from all over the world. They each have unique voices. And that's what is going to help us rethink, reimagine, and come up with a bold collective vision.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yes. The sum of all those different perspectives will be a lot stronger than each one of them individually, to borrow from an old adage.

Ruki Neuhold-Ravikumar:

And that will be uniquely KCAI, and that's what, I think, also uniquely Kansas City.

Kelly Scanlon:

Your appointment as president is a change for you. It's a change for KCAI, it's a change for the students and for the community. And as we all know, change can be challenging, you said a little bit earlier that people sometimes fear change. So what is your approach to change, Ruki?

Ruki Neuhold-Ravikumar:

People fear change, I don't. Because as an immigrant, I feel that it has only done good things for me. The thing about change is, I think people fear more the loss of what used to be, more than the change itself. At least that's my take on change and I'm sticking with it. But I had a really transformative moment early in the pandemic, some people baked a lot of sourdough and some people stepped out of their homes and took to things like bird watching. I was one of those people. And I had the unique experience of watching a hummingbird build her nest. And it was fascinating because she is so tiny and she's so fast. But when you watch her build one, it's the size of your palm. And she weaves it together with little scraps of leaves and spider silk. And when I saw it, she barely fits into it herself. And I thought, "Wow, she grossly miscalculated because how is she going to fit her babies in this nest?"

Kelly Scanlon:

Right.

Ruki Neuhold-Ravikumar:

But the more I started to look into it and watch her, I started to research Hummingbird nests and I learned that she builds them with change in mind because they're built to expand. And that was just so profound to build with change in mind. Can you imagine that, if we all just thought that way? Because I think when we build, sometimes we build with a sense of completion that it is perfect and it's precious and we never want it changed. And the idea of then changing it is what causes us that fear.

And so that's where I think I want people to look around them. And as artists, we are trained to do that, to look at the world around us and be inspired by the every day. And that little humming bird really inspired me to approach leadership, to approach thinking about my role, about life and to build with change in mind.

Kelly Scanlon:

What a refreshing approach to change that is. Overall, how can Kansas City's embrace of the artistic community lead to additional community growth, economic development, and importantly for more opportunity for individual artists?

Ruki Neuhold-Ravikumar:

Why I was attracted to Kansas City is because it's always had a rich and connected creative community. It's something that I noticed when I lived in Oklahoma City. I would reach out to the creative community here often for help. And here the communities don't exist in silos. Various professional groups actually connect to each other, that is actually unique to Kansas City. And the creative class here has always been on the rise.

But I think it's important for us to continue to expose the next generation of young people to the power of creative thinking that everyone is capable of creativity, but it takes training and practice to become a creative professional. That it takes that dedication and time and that education, how to train your brain to engage in creative practice every single day. And to start to value what your creative professional does in the community.

Kelly Scanlon:

Give me some examples of the creative professional in the community.

Ruki Neuhold-Ravikumar:

What creative professionals do naturally is things like collaborate. They're able to look at problems in different ways. They don't often accept the problem for the way it was defined. My spring bed is a great example of what I did as a 10 year old. But even at the Smithsonian during the pandemic, when our museums closed, and one of the questions that I was able to ask as the undersecretary was a lot of people expected us to deliver content virtually. And as a Smithsonian... And people wanted us to also then solve the problem for lack of internet access.

But we were not an internet company. So it was then redefining what the problem was. So then I asked the question as a creative professional, "What if we distributed content with no technology? "And that resulted in the Smithsonian creating content in old school, printed format publications and creating a network with public libraries, and Boys and Girls Club Chapters and distributing them and actually bridging the digital divide that existed in the country. And that really took us asking the question in a completely different way. That's what a creative professional can do, locally.

So if companies here are stuck, if they are not able to move along in their creative problem solving, if they find themselves not being able to innovate, they really need to look at, are they missing a creative professional on their team and to look at who they're partnering with. And I think that's where really elevating the creative community here can be helpful to bring Kansas City economy up overall.

Kelly Scanlon:

You talked earlier about the KCAI becoming a model nationally. What other ways do you see the Art Institute and the creative community in Kansas City raising the profile, not just of Kansas City nationally, but having standards in place that other institutions and just other communities around the country want to emulate?

Ruki Neuhold-Ravikumar:

I think it goes back to that acceptance of change and demonstrating that we do not fear change. I believe in that human capacity for change and it really rests on the human capacity to learn. Because the more you learn, the less you fear and the less you fear, the more you're willing to change and adapt. And that's when you see that in a city, in a community, you see people willing to embrace new ideas because they don't fear them. And I see that in this city, when people are willing to collaborate, it's because they don't fear the other person's ideas, they respect each other as creative professionals, they respect each other's expertise and they don't have that sense of fear.

And there's a breakdown of silos. So I think that's when a community rises together is when there's less fear in that community of what that competition will do. I think competition is good because it brings us all up together and overall, I think that collective rise will show, and that's what I think Kansas City can do. People have often talked about Kansas City as a well kept secret, and I don't think we need to be. And then people say that about KCAI as well, but when they come here, I always say, "Why are we a secret?"

We should be accessible nationwide because this is an incredible community and the next generation of creative professionals should absolutely be seeking out an education here because it will set them up for life.

Kelly Scanlon:

Ruki, it's going to be very exciting to watch your vision unfold over the next several years. Thank you so much for coming to Kansas City to share your talents and your energy with us. We appreciate you joining us on this episode of Banking on KC.

Ruki Neuhold-Ravikumar:

Kelly, thank you so much. This was such a lovely conversation and I look forward to a wonderful journey here in Kansas City.

Joe Close:

This is Joe Close, president of Country Club Bank. Thank you to Ruki Neuhold-Ravikumar for being our guest on this episode of Banking on KC. At a time when many people question the value of an education in the arts, Ruki sees an opportunity for the Kansas City Art Institute, an opportunity to rethink what an art education is and can be. And then she says, "To put it back together again in a way no one has ever seen before." She wants to be a part of re imagining the future, not just of an art and design education, but for an education in general. She sees Kansas City as creating a model for the nation and the world to follow.

With the diverse and collaborative community that exists in Kansas City, she believes we have the ability to accomplish that goal if we choose to step up and do it. Thanks for tuning in this week, we're banking on you Kansas City, Country Club Bank, member FDIC.

 

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