The New Guy
As he steers the UNLV art department toward an inclusive, tolerant, community-engaged future, new chairman Marcus Civin is ready to make some changes
“Not my vision,” Marcus Civin corrects. “ Our vision.” Coming toward the end of an hourlong conversation with the very new chairman of UNLV’s art department, that deft modulation in credit-taking — emphasizing the faculty and students’ collective authorship of the department’s future rather than his own — has proven typical. Despite his fizzy, offhand demeanor, Civin is careful to frame his most crucial statements, particularly in regard to the above-mentioned vision, in terms of diversity, inclusivity, tolerance (and zero-tolerance), and a sensitivity to histories and narratives left out of the mainstream. He won’t even be ageist about a building — when I tease him about decrepit old Grant Hall, it merely puts him in mind of the art careers that began there. Those are the values that appear likely to govern the changes he hopes to facilitate, though at this early stage he’s short on specifics. So, no new-sheriff-in-town swagger for him.
Civin arrived in Las Vegas this summer — “I like to move to hot places in the hottest month,” he quips — from the Maryland Institute College of Art, where, he recounts, he’d risen over eight years from part-time instructor to associate dean of graduate studies. “I don’t know anything about Las Vegas,” he says brightly. “I’m absolutely learning, and I’m absolutely new.”
Your first clue that Civin’s appointment comes with an attitude of change: He’s a performance artist — not the sort of discipline from which UNLV art chairs are routinely plucked. Also, he says stuff like this: “It’s a bit of an ivory tower. And I am so inspired and fueled by smashing that.”
Meanwhile, he says, he’s looking forward to fundraising for a new building, refashioning the curriculum, teaching a performance art class that he hopes will result in a weekly public gathering, and engaging with the evolving needs of contemporary art students. Selected highlights from a sprawling conversation:
ON FIRST IMPRESSIONS
I’ve only been in Las Vegas since July 1, and I’ve already been moved to tears by artists and artwork here, and I expect much more.
When I stepped on campus — I’d read that the campus is 70 percent people of color. I can’t tell you how good that feels.
I’ve never lived in New York. But I’m much more interested in what happens in places like Baltimore, and Las Vegas, and Phoenix. I think (art critic) Dave Hickey was right, that this is America. What I’ve seen here in the arts community is exemplary.
When we talk about “high art” or “establishment,” we have to be careful how we define that, because that’s shifting, and we want it to shift. If we accept that power structure, if we sort of other that power structure and don’t see ourselves as authors in it, then we disempower ourselves. I’ve encouraged students and faculty members to see the art world as just another group of people. And I think they want to hear from us in Las Vegas.
I get the sense that a lot of people like me have had a colonial mentality about this place and come through here on their way to somewhere else. So I do sorta see people looking at me like (squints). I feel like a white man in a history of white men who have done this place wrong.
ON THE ART DEPARTMENT ENGAGING THE COMMUNITY
One thing I’m instituting is Wednesday Walks through our facilities, and I welcome community members and alumni to join us. I’m inviting faculty, our fire marshals, and we’ll walk the facilities every Wednesday, and we’ll take our clipboards, and we’ll take our phones for pictures. And we can do the work of addressing problems: touch-up paint, storage. It’s vital we respect the spaces we’re in; it’s a way to show respect to each other and to ourselves.
When I took my first tour of the building, I couldn’t sleep that night. Couldn’t sleep. There was trash on the floor, and when I asked the instructors who were around, they said, “Well, no one takes out the trash, so I don’t put it in the trash can.”
As we’re planning the new space, we think it can be four floors, and I’m hoping that the first floor can be for the community. So that entry space is a space where we all come together. So, I’m asking people: In that space, what’s going to bring people together?
ON CHANGING THE CULTURE
People aren’t talking to each other, and people aren’t listening. I said this in my interview; I got it right away.
The people who come to me with positivity, and optimism, and big smiles on their faces, I’m giving those people more responsibility. And the people who come to me and relate these stories that go back to the Middle Ages, and tell me all the things you can’t do, I’m less interested.
An art department should be a joyful place.
There’s an ear on campus, on the side of a building; I think it was someone’s art project, and it just stayed there. And now it’s part of the building. It symbolizes listening. … I want to hear from people about what their experiences in the art department have been. I think there are people who felt like they couldn’t speak their experience. I want to hear from those people.
Culture doesn’t change overnight. But I think there are some things we can address now. If we want the arts program to look like America, to reflect our democracy, to embrace and engage with the cultures and histories of this region, it’s a today kind of thing.
An art department is never going to be perfect. What we court when we hire faculty, and what we court when we recruit students, is a certain kind of refusal of authority. The best artists I’ve known are sometimes incredibly hard to be in a room with because they are so much themselves and so fierce and single-minded. So I think a great art department will always have a certain productive anarchy and sometimes feel more like a Halloween party or a drag show than a Latin department.
I don’t have all the answers. No one person does. In my experience, things change with lots of people rowing the boat. And maybe people who haven’t been listening can start listening.
ON CHANGING THE CONTENT
I’ve started a curriculum committee. I don’t think the curriculum in the art department has been revised in recent memory. I like it in some ways — it’s basic in the way a T-shirt and a good pair of jeans is basic. It’s comfortable and clear.
So I asked some of my most radical faculty to join me in a curriculum committee. I told them we’re not going to take anything for granted. We’re going to think about, How can our curriculum reflect Las Vegas? How can our curriculum engage with community and bring community in?
ON WHETHER AN ART DEPARTMENT SHOULD REFLECT OR IGNORE POLITICS AND SOCIAL CHANGE
Thirty million-thousand-hundred percent reflect it. I’ve learned this from my students — this generation absolutely wants art and design to be a space of justice, a space of equality, a space of zero tolerance for bigotry and harassment. I see it as my duty to be an ally to that.
Las Vegas is a place where not only is capitalism on the surface, sexism is on the surface, labor inequity is on the surface; we are a cultural crossroads like no other. So why would we pretend we’re in New York and teach exclusively New York artists and pretend we’re not in Las Vegas?
There are folks who pretend that art is like Latin, the dead language. Not so.
One thing I’ve learned is that you don’t get a job when you leave school. You get a job because your school is introducing you to the people you need to know on week one. Week one.
Students want to hear from people who look like them. They want to hear what it took to be the person they want to be from someone who struggled with what they struggle with. We have to think about what it means to have the No. 1 most diverse student body in the nation — what should that faculty look like? What should the expertise of the faculty be, so we can propel those students into the world and the careers they want and prepare them for the fights they’re going to have to fight?
You’ll be able to see the Strip from our new building. Where misogyny has reigned supreme. One of the things that’s really interesting is that the young women, young men, and folks who are gender nonbinary who are here — they want to make work about sex and sexuality. But they want to know how to make it in a way that isn’t a peepshow, that isn’t a burlesque, that’s informed by peep shows and burlesque, but is something else. And they’re asking of their teachers, Help me say this in a way that’s safe for me, respectful of my family and traditions, relevant to the world at large. They’re putting their trust in us. This isn’t a private school, this isn’t somebody’s home studio; this is the state of Nevada’s public art program. Fundamental to our mission and purpose is to address the history, culture, and content that these young people bring with them.
ON HOW HE WILL KNOW HE’S SUCCEEDED
When I retire! (Laughs)