First Impressions are Everything

Every year, hundreds of admissions representatives from universities and colleges travel from across the country to meet with prospective students at Poly. And while scouts sit in the bleachers to see our athletes compete, there isn’t a corollary for art-focused students. But this year, the completion of the Poly Arts Center brought a new kind of visitor to our Dyker Heights campus, representatives from Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD).

Representatives from Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) visit Poly, shown with Laura Coppola.

In recent years, our arts division has garnered increasing popularity among students and attention from our community. Led by professional artists, our programming has flourished from its distinguished foundation in modern, state-of-the art spaces. Students have thrived and have earned prestigious scholastic awards for their work, contributing to the growth of Poly’s reputation in arts education. 

Head of Arts Michael S. Robinson returned to Poly in 2018 to spearhead an arts curriculum that extends with continuity from Nursery to Grade 12. Under his leadership, Poly has ushered in a new era of the arts at Poly, including compelling curriculum options, inspiring studios, and inviting gallery spaces to showcase student work. New York City is one of the art capitals of the world and Poly has leveraged that by establishing partnerships with world class organizations and cultural institutions like the Brooklyn Museum, Dance Theatre of Harlem, MoMA, and more. We have also hosted artists-in-residences on campus, theater workshops, visiting professional dancers, visual artists, filmmakers, and more. Through this multilayered approach, students learn about the creative process, build curatorial skills, and interact with professional artists.

As any artist will tell you, rooms that inspire creativity matter. While the formal opening of the Poly Arts Center (PAC) this year has already transformed the landscape of our campus with its bright, welcoming spaces for students to thrive and showcase their work, improvements continue. As early as the next academic year, our digital photography department will expand, providing students with a darkroom photo lab.

Poly Arts Center from outside
Poly Arts center gallery interior

As arts is fundamental to the educational experience at Poly, when students enter Upper School in Grade 9, arts class selection isn’t about choosing an elective. Students at this stage choose an arts pathway which allows their study to be directed by their genuine interest and choice. Launched in 2021, our Excellence in the Arts program is tailored to be a more immersive experience in the arts. With personalized attention for Upper School students who may be interested in pursuing arts in college and beyond, it is designed to further hone skills and includes mentorship and support for students developing their portfolios of work.

While the famous line in the movie Field of Dreams is often misquoted (“he” in the actual quote, not “they”), the same might be said of Poly’s arts program. On February 28, 2024, Poly welcomed SCAD’s Dean of Academic Services Dale Clifford and Director of Admission Recruitment, Laura Gregg. There are commonalities between the student-artists at Poly and the artists that SCAD welcomes into its program. Their visit provided a fresh perspective on what makes the arts program at Poly so unique and gave students a thrilling chance to sit down for lunch with SCAD representatives and learn how their passion for a particular art discipline could become a career. 

Dale Clifford, who has been teaching in higher education since 1989, was impressed by the expansive space in Poly’s large art studios, the wide range and detailed nature of student artwork from photography to drawing, and the quality of the student work he saw on display in the Poly Arts Center (PAC). He talked about the emotional impact of displaying student work in a gallery instead of the traditional classroom exclusively: “[when] students start to see their work in a professional setting, they appreciate it at a very different level…. which influences their ability to articulate what they make and how they make it.” 

When academic and arts spaces converge, they can provide the community with an opportunity to ignite curiosity – such as when a student in an English class happens to peer through their classroom window to see dancers rehearsing across the way in the studio. It allows for a moment of awe that could bloom into a new passion, or simply elevates their artistic appreciation. When our visitors were here, they observed students working on the wheel in a wheel throwing ceramics class. 

The word is getting around. Much like the excitement around sports championships, the tangible investments in arts curriculum, spaces, and performances at Poly sends the message of how important and dynamic arts at Poly is. “[Art] is an important part of our world and culture. It helps to define who we are. It helps it to communicate our differences and celebrate that those differences are really our strengths. [The Poly Arts Center] showcases the individuals that make up this great community…. It’s empowering,” Clifford said. 

First impressions can be impactful. “My first feeling was visceral.” Gregg shared her thoughts as she toured the newly opened PAC. “I felt this calm come over me. From the ceiling height, the outdoor space, to the lighting and the gallery, I never felt uncomfortable. Sometimes galleries are stark but the sense of calm in the PAC allows you to focus on the work. You can stand in front of something, look at it for a while, and there’s enough space for you to go to the next thing, and then just see from the pottery to the fibers and photography that there is a flow you can physically feel.” 

When Clifford and Gregg walked into the Poly Arts Center, they expressed their genuine excitement as they took in its gallery walls, display cases, and projector screens, all showcasing students’ visual artwork. The displays, they noted, bring such great visibility and vitality to the art that students create. The community gets energized by creatively curated spaces that are filled with intricate and beautiful art made by their peers. Visitors appreciate the subtle power of a well-designed space bursting with diverse creations in a variety of mediums.

Similarly, SCAD uses every square inch of their non-traditional educational spaces and facilities to inspire their students and in doing so, their students feel that SCAD is a place of their own. 

Poly builds a solid early foundation for students who are potentially seeking a professional path in the arts and is a springboard for their next creative chapter. In turn, SCAD promotes artistic entrepreneurship and opportunities to build aspiration in students. Artist statements are required by many art residencies or to market a business in the creative industry. As part of their admissions process, SCAD seeks passionate students who show tenacity and a commitment to their art. One of the goals of their program is for students to understand early on if creating art is their passion, that there is a viable, lucrative career waiting. 

Having a strong arts program is about reaching to make dreams come true. State-of-the-art machinery and technology, offered at Poly and SCAD, promote discovery, Gregg shared. From her own experiences, she said that exploration is limited when students are siloed in their majors or areas of study. As at Poly, students have the opportunity to take classes in a variety of artistic disciplines. 

Other parallels between Poly and SCAD came to light while touring our campus. Both schools inspire connections between their spaces and the communities who occupy them. They encourage artistic leadership and empower students to envision themselves as professional artists or artistic entrepreneurs. 

When new programs and facilities open, it lends greater attention to the student artist. “Creativity is being honored. That’s really obvious here [at Poly], that the creativity is being honored and celebrated–celebrated in your shows, in the gallery,” said Gregg “That’s what we do, we celebrate, and then we take you to another level.”

Watch a slideshow of scenes from the new Poly Arts Center