SCAD Turns 40
Karen Moltenbrey
November 27, 2019

SCAD Turns 40

Four decades ago, a young educator had a vision, and a big one at that!

“My dream, 40 years ago, was to create SCAD,” said Paula Wallace, president and founder of the Savannah College of Art and Design. “Our university – with its vast intellect, vibrant energy, and global impact – has far surpassed my dream.”

Wallace started her career as a teacher in the Atlanta public school system before co-founding SCAD. In 1978, Wallace created a new kind of university with a mission to prepare students for creative careers. Wallace, along with Richard Rowan (school president from inception through 2000) and her parents, May and Paul Poetter, wanted to provide college degree programs that were not previously offered in southeast Georgia, but would be available through the creation of a specialized professional art college. The curriculum would have two goals: excellent arts education and effective career preparation for students. 

Founding such a school required far more than just vision and passion: A lot of physical labor was needed to kick-start this dream as well. During the spring of the following year, SCAD purchased and renovated the Savannah Volunteer Guard Armory, which would serve as the first classroom and administrative building. When the school opened that first year, it offered eight degree programs. Seventy-one students were enrolled. 

Turn the clock forward and those numbers pale in comparison to today’s figures. SCAD now has approximately 15,000 students and more than 100 degree programs. According to the school, over 40,000 students have graduated from the university. Moreover, SCAD has expanded its presence throughout Savannah, embarking on many building restoration projects – even the original armory building remains in use by SCAD today, renamed Poetter Hall in honor of the two founders who supported their daughter’s vision. 

Over the years, SCAD has significantly increased its footprint in Savannah, owning 68 buildings in this historic city. Most are repurposed, rehabilitated buildings with a storied history. Inside you will find some very interesting furnishings and décor. A passionate and talented decorator, Wallace – in addition to her responsibilities associated with running the university – contributes to the interior design of SCAD’s buildings. She collaborates closely with SCAD Design Group, a team of talented designers and professionals led by her husband, Glenn Wallace. In addition, SCAD’s reach extends farther outside of Savannah, with a location in Atlanta, as well as in Lacoste, France, and Hong Kong. And, its reputation has grown as well, as this private, nonprofit, accredited institution continually finds itself ranked in the top slots for those seeking a career in art/design and related fields.   

In late April, SCAD officially celebrated its anniversary with a range of festivities during what the school called SCAD40 WKND, where students past and present, as well as their families, locals, and others, could gather and join in on the fun. 

Sidewalk Arts Festival

For many years now, SCAD students have shown off their creative skills during the SCAD Sidewalk Arts Festival in Forsyth Park in Savannah, where SCAD students, alumni, and prospective students claim a square of sidewalk in the park and create amazing designs using chalk. In fact, the festival draws tens of thousands of visitors each year who take in the chalk masterpieces. 

The first SCAD Sidewalk Arts Festival took place in 1981 – it’s nearly as old as the university itself. Initiated by Wallace, it was the first of SCAD’s “signature” events, which now include the SCAD Savannah Film Festival, SCAD deFINE ART, SCAD GamingFest, SCADstyle, and more. 

Wallace conceived of the idea as a way to engage Savannah’s community with the university. As she wrote in her memoir, The Bee and the Acorn, “It [brought] the city to our students, and our students to the city.” The Sidewalk Arts Festival is now the largest outdoor arts event in Savannah.

During the annual festival, SCAD students, alumni, and high school students create colorful chalk masterpieces and compete for coveted prizes. The artists represent many areas of study offered at SCAD and produce a diverse spectrum of chalk art inspired by distinct styles, backgrounds, interests, cultures, and disciplines. Participants have three hours to complete their chalk creation. 

This year more than 1,000 people participated, creating approximately 800 squares, as some artists paired up with friends. The festival, without question, is a SCAD Family & Alumni Weekend tradition and an opportunity for the entire SCAD Savannah campus to come together. While all the creations were impressive, those squares celebrating SCAD’s 40th anniversary were particular standouts.

“If you want to know why everyone loves SCAD, come see for yourself at the SCAD Sidewalk Arts Festival,” said Wallace. “This springtime celebration – one of our oldest traditions – draws the community together with every generation of the SCAD family. Students of the past, present, and future convene for a joyful day of playful expression, laughter, and chalk-stained hands as fresh today as the first time we brightened the sidewalks of Bull Street. The Sidewalk Arts Festival truly represents the best of SCAD.”


In recognition for Wallace’s mark on the community, Savannah Mayor Eddie DeLoach presented Wallace, a dedicated preservationist, with the key to the city during the celebration, praising her and the school for changing the face of Savannah and higher education.

In fact, the educator’s dream and vision is detailed in SCADstory, an immersive, 360-degree, 4D film created by former Disney Imagineers to bring the school’s history to life. More than 30 SCAD students, alumni, and faculty helped create the experience, which guides visitors through the early years of SCAD as it evolved into one of the most comprehensive art and design universities in the world. In addition, the film details how the school and Wallace helped reshape the Savannah landscape.

SCADstory tells a universal tale of the dreamer in all of us. It carries guests on an unexpected journey through SCAD history, across four decades of beauty, design, and invention. Told with the magic and wonder of 25 SCAD disciplines – from animation to themed entertainment design – SCADstory is a unique journey. To tell the story, the school partnered with experiential design and production agency BRC Imagination Arts, where the 25 creative disciplines came together to reinvent storytelling and bring the SCAD dream to life. 

SCADstory is located in the historic Poetter Hall, which dates back to 1892 when it opened as the Savannah Volunteer Guard Armory. The 36,248-square-foot building contained a drill hall, ballroom, large company rooms, and a guard club. The ballroom on the second floor served as the school’s first library and had a unique floor mural that depicted scenes of books and bookcases. In addition to serving as home to SCADstory, the building contains shopSCAD and the May Poetter Gallery. It is located in the heart of downtown Savannah, and the building was SCAD’s first flagship locale and historical preservation success, which is why the university chose to have the SCADstory experience here.

It is by no accident that the setup of SCADstory is done in a Disney-esque style. SCAD created the first themed entertainment degree program in North America, and current students in the program worked with BRC Imagination Arts (many of the leadership are past Disney Imagineers) during the initial design and ideation phases. This degree, paired with SCAD’s top-ranked painting, user experience design, animation, graphic design, and other disciplines – which are all represented throughout the experience – made the SCADstory creativity and magic come to life.

All the film segments from SCADstory were from SCAD footage and newly edited for the SCADstory experience. The animation was created by BRC, and the voice of the animated President Wallace was SCAD alumna Hannah Chilana (MFA performing arts, 2017). 

The room where the show is held contains a plethora of objects created by SCAD students, alumni, and faculty. Will Penny (MFA painting, 2013; BFA painting, 2008) contributed a holographic fire for the fireplace in one of the exhibits, in collaboration with alumnus Michael Porten (MFA painting, 2012; BFA illustration, 2004). Works by alumni Shannon Snow (BFA illustration, 2011), Trish Andersen (BFA fibers, 2005), Daae Kim (MFA motion media design), and Will Penny decorate the windows that face Bull Street. Portraits in the lobby include two of President Wallace by SCAD alumnus J. Louis (BFA industrial design, 2015) and painting professor and alumnus Greg Eltringham (MFA painting, 1990). Portraits of May and Paul Poetter by David Marcet (MFA painting, 2005), alumnus Gerardo Rios, and foundation studies professor emeritus Hugh Gale, and a portrait of the building’s architect, William Gibbons Preston, by David Marcet (MFA painting, 2005) also grace the walls. 

These are just a few of the contributions throughout the experience. Other objects come from all four of SCAD’s global locations as well as treasured finds by President Wallace and Glenn Wallace on their travels to Lacoste, Hong Kong, Atlanta, and elsewhere. The original sign welcoming students to SCAD has also been returned to Poetter Hall lobby and is on view when visitors walk into the SCADstory experience.

Admission to the experience is free, though there is a $5 suggested donation, with proceeds going toward student scholarships.

Indeed, there has been tremendous growth at SCAD over the years since its inception. However, the passion of the school administration, particularly Wallace, and its students is as prevalent today as it was 40 years ago.