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PowerPlayer: Providence’s Deborah Obalil

Monday, September 17, 2012


This week’s PowerPlayer is Deborah Obalil, the Executive Director of the Association of Independent Colleges of Art & Design. Ms. Obalil was kind enough to chat with GoLocalProv about the work her organization is doing in Rhode Island and across the country.

1) What do you see as the priorities for your organization over the next 1-2 years?

All of higher education is facing significant challenges, and specialized schools of art and design are no different. These schools must figure out a new way to deliver high value educational experiences while bringing costs down and keeping advanced art and design education accessible to a diverse student body. AICAD will assist its members in doing this through leading multiple, collaborative efforts to experiment with new modes of working.

Additionally, I see AICAD taking a leadership role in advocacy for K-12 art and design education. We cannot continue on the path of removing art and design opportunities from our public schools and expect our students to be successful in a 21st century economy that demands critical thinking, spatial awareness, collaborative muscle and problem solving – all skills gained through art and design education.

2) Your organization just moved to Providence. Do you consider this a significant move?

I do see AICAD's move to Providence as significant. We have established an office here, I have begun hiring and already increased the staff by 50% with more hires likely to follow within the year. We operate an off-campus residency program in Brooklyn, NY for our member schools, so being in Providence affords the headquarters the ability to be more connected to that program on a regular basis. Selfishly, the organization's move here means that I can continue to personally contribute to the greater Providence community that I have come to love over the last 10 years of living here, making it an even stronger hub for art, design and innovation.

3) Take us through a day in your life.

Well, no day is like the one before, which keeps it interesting. That said, if I'm not traveling, my day starts being woken up by my 4 year-old son who is an early riser. I haven't needed an alarm clock at home since he was born. I get him set for the day at preschool, my husband out the door to work, the dog fed and set for the day in the yard and myself to the office.

Mornings are spent catching up on the day's news - local and national, art & design and higher education – responding to email and connecting with my staff on their current projects and challenges. If lunch isn't at my desk it's a meeting at one of Providence's fine restaurants. The afternoon is often a series of conference calls with board committees, affinity groups within our membership and others to keep moving forward the activities of the network addressing the key challenges facing art and design higher education today. I leave the office by 5 pm every day to ensure my staff members know its okay to leave and have a personal life.

If it's Wednesday, I'll stop at the Hope Street Farmer's Market to get fresh fish and/or produce. After dinner with my family I go work out, because without physical activity I quickly lose energy and focus. Currently my work out of choice is Zumba – as a former dancer it's a blast! Though I also do weight training, yoga and Pilates. After that it's home again to catch up on reading, watch a little "guilty pleasure" TV and then in bed to get rested and ready to start all over again the next day.

4) What role do art/design schools have in their respective communities?

AICAD schools play a number of different roles in their communities – which range from New York and Los Angeles on one end of the spectrum to Sarasota, FL and Portland, ME on the other, and everything in between (like Providence). They are often drivers of the local economy, employing significant numbers of citizens and utilizing local vendors. A good number are at the center of supporting entrepreneurship in their communities, from operating creative business incubators to participating in government-organized economic development councils and initiatives. A growing number are becoming research partners with large corporations to provide the design and creative expertise needed to discover new solutions and develop new products. And since for the vast majority of schools, their students come from within 200 miles of their campus, they are at the center of educating the community's future innovators, creators and creative citizens.

5) Tell us something nobody knows about you.

A lot of people are surprised to learn that I'm a pastor's daughter and still attend church nearly every Sunday morning. I believe you can be cultured, highly educated, progressive and have faith.

Quick Hitters

Role Model: My parents – they've lived their lives with conviction and dedicated their work to making the world a better place for others first and foremost. And they've always supported me, and my siblings, on whatever path we chose to follow.

Favorite Restaurant: Love so many in RI, but if pressed to name only one would be Persimmon in Bristol.

Best Beach: I'm about as fair skinned as it gets, so not a huge beach-goer, but have always loved Goosewing Beach in Little Compton.

Best Book You've Read in the Last Year: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Advice for the Next Deborah Obalil: Knowing what you don't know and aren't good at is just as important (if not more) than being confident in what you do know and are expert at doing. There is power in owning your incompetencies and surrounding yourself with others who complement your skills, experiences and perspectives with different ones.


Dan McGowan can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @danmcgowan.


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