The walls of Associate Dean for the Arts Susan Cahan’s small apartment on Dwight Street — home to Cahan; her partner, Jürgen Bank; and her dog, Jimi — are covered with paintings, photographs and multimedia prints acquired over the past 20 years. A geometric painting with colorful horizontals and diagonals by contemporary artist Mark Grotjahn is tucked into a corner next to a small window. Joel Otterson’s “Bat in Space” — an enigmatic statue made of weights, baseball bats and an African statue bought from a street vendor — sits in the living room.
Grotjahn and Otterson are just two of the artists with whom Cahan has cultivated a relationship in her 20-year career in the arts. In positions ranging from internships to curatorships at museums such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Cahan said, she has made it a priority to support emerging artists. And though Cahan said she has spent the last 10 weeks adjusting to the Yale community and understanding exactly what her job entails, she said she is planning to work closely with young Yalie artists in the coming months.
Cahan, who assumed the post as the first Associate Dean for the Arts on Aug. 24, said she, along with Yale College Dean Mary Miller, is still trying to figure out her priorities for the office.
“Whoever drafted the job description had a clear idea of what was needed, but when I first read it, I didn’t really know what anything meant,” Cahan said. “The job description was like the skeleton, and I’ve been adding the flesh over the past two months.”
Cahan is in charge of developing academic and extracurricular programs in the arts, facilitating communication among different groups on campus and providing a vision for the future of undergraduate arts at Yale. Her job includes overseeing undergraduate activities in visual art, architecture, film studies, music, dance, creative writing, digital arts and theater studies.
“[The arts dean] was needed to manage the very complex array of extracurricular and curricular arts at Yale,” Miller said, naming “issues of space and the allocation of resources” among the responsibilities of the new dean.
Though Cahan has spoken in the past two months to at least 60 individuals on campus — including the deans of the professional schools, members of the provost’s office, directors of undergraduate studies, faculty members, student leaders, college masters and representatives of the Yale University Art Gallery and Yale Center for British Art — she said she is still developing her plans. Right now, Cahan said, she is not yet ready to reveal what her priorities are. And though she said she eventually hopes to build consensus around a strong philosophy for arts education at Yale, she has yet to establish exactly what that philosophy may be.
“What are the dreams and aspirations the people in all these different groups have?” Cahan asked. “I’m really working to create personal relationships and establish rapport with the key participants and decision-makers in the arts at Yale.”
She added that she has been working directly with the Yale Symphony Orchestra, the college bands, the Yale Glee Club and the Office of Undergraduate Productions to facilitate a relationship between the administration and the student groups.. Cahan said she is also currently assessing the arts facilities on campus and working with University Planning to make sure the new residential colleges have facilities to accommodate new arts priorities.
The desire to follow the development of young people interested in the arts, and her ability to do it well, is one the main assets Cahan will bring to Yale, three of her former colleagues said.
Louis Lankford, who worked with Cahan at the University of Missouri in St. Louis, described Cahan as “very student-oriented” in her teaching style.
“Susan would always take under her wing students who may be for one reason or another struggling,” Lankford said. “She would work one-on-one with them to help them succeed. She helped several students from dropping out or changing majors because she was so supportive.”
Echoed Ruth Bohan, chair of the art history department at UMSL, “She’s very good with students in creating dialogue and bringing out the best in them, in spurring them on.”
Cahan spent 13 years curating and teaching outside the East Coast — where she spent most of her life — and decided last year that she wanted to move back. She began to keep an eye open for job opportunities.
“I saw a listing at Yale and thought it would be a good fit,” she said. “It was an opportunity to combine the managerial and administrative skills I had developed in museum work with my academic background.”
Cahan attended Tufts University for her undergraduate degree and double majored in art history and English. After graduation, she said, she pursued her dream job and applied to museum positions pertaining to contemporary art, photography and arts education. After several curatorial positions, Cahan completed her dissertation in 2003 at the City University of New York and was ready for a change.
“Once I got my PhD, I didn’t want to do museum work anymore,” Cahan said, adding “I thought I would try education instead.”
Cahan took a position at UMSL where she taught classes, did outreach programs and created a spring break study trip for art and art history students.
While she is still getting her bearings, Cahan said she is excited to be a part of the “stimulating but busy” Yale environment.
“I love going to work every day … and sometimes nights and weekends,” she said.