New CADA dean’s goal to make UIC ‘front of mind’ for the arts and design world

Rebecca Rugg, Dean of the College of Architecture, Design, and the Arts at UIC.
Rebecca Rugg, dean of the College of Architecture, Design, and the Arts at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Photo by Anne Ryan.

Rebecca Rugg brings her experience as a leader in contemporary American theater to the University of Illinois at Chicago as the recently appointed dean of the College of Architecture, Design, and the Arts. Before her appointment this summer, she served as director of the Conservatory of Theatre Arts at Purchase College, State University of New York. Her career is rooted in nonprofit theater, including The Public Theater in New York as well as Chicago’s Steppenwolf and Redmoon Theater companies, where she helped create interdisciplinary artistic connections and partnerships with the community.

Rugg earned her doctorate in dramaturgy and dramatic criticism from the Yale School of Drama, where she also received her Master of Fine Arts degree and has been a visiting member of the faculty since 2005. In addition, Rugg has taught at several Chicago universities, including DePaul, Northwestern and the University of Chicago. Rugg sat down recently to discuss her vision for the College of Architecture, Design, and the Arts, or CADA.

What is your goal as the new dean and what would you like to accomplish at CADA?

I’m here to empower our faculty, support our students, and advocate for the arts and design and CADA. I want to remove barriers so our faculty can continue producing excellent, cutting-edge work. I believe we should help supply inspiration to a body of students who are often first generation and from modest means who have made the courageous, and possibly difficult, decision to study the arts. I want to take advantage of every opportunity to collaborate with engineers, social workers, law students and the other disciplines we find at a research university. At the same time, and for all these reasons, I want to elevate CADA’s visibility in Chicago and nationally. From that will follow other successes, including momentum toward the priorities of our IGNITE Campaign, and visibility for our proposed stunning, state-of-the-art performing arts building, designed by OMA with architecture alumna Jackie Koo’s firm, KOO. I hope it will be a beacon to encourage young people from nearby neighborhoods to become artists and an interchange where many disciplines will converge. 

Share a little bit about your background and how it might influence and guide your new position as Dean of CADA?

I come from the nonprofit theater, so I have a particular orientation towards working for the arts as a matter of public good. That’s also UIC’s orientation; working for the public good. We are a Carnegie I research institution (a designation for institutions taking part in the highest level of research) dedicated to access and diversity with a track record of excellence in which the arts play a vital role. Our chancellor sees the arts as integral to the university’s mission, and I am committed to equity of access to arts training.

I started my career at New York’s Public Theater, which was founded by Joe Papp to serve the people of the city, and I was lucky to work there for George C. Wolfe, who was my mentor. His goal was for public theater audiences to look like the inside of a New York City subway car — a super diverse, all-inclusive community. The UIC campus looks that way also, which I see as UIC living up to its access mission.

I moved to Chicago and was lucky enough to work at the Steppenwolf Theater Company for Martha Lavey, an extraordinary artistic director and citizen of Chicago’s artistic community. After that, I was able to work at the Redmoon Theater Company, which was an incredible spectacle theater company. Working in and around theater taught me the cultural landscape of Chicago, and I grew to love and appreciate it. Chicago is an amazing city in which to come of age as a young person — particularly to see, explore and create in the arts, architecture and design, which is part of why I’m so thrilled to be advocating for the arts here as part of UIC today.

How do you see UIC’s and CADA’s role in the greater Arts, Design and Architectural world in Chicago and the area?

I think CADA is showing us the future of the arts professions, and people should be looking to us for that reason. The demographics of the students we serve and who’ve graduated from here authentically represent all voices in our country and the future of the arts. However, while we sit at the center of the nation, I don’t think we’re central in the mind of the arts community. It’s part of my vision to make CADA more ‘front of mind.’ I am thrilled to advocate for our students and faculty and to broadcast the message of what is happening here. Hitting the streets to ask alumni, friends, and partners to listen to, advocate for and support our work fills me with pride. Exceptional things are happening here: faculty productions are incredible, research is groundbreaking, scholarships are transformational, students are doing amazing work. So communicating about this and letting people know what’s happening here is an exciting first step.

How do you get the greater community to support UIC and CADA’s endeavors?

Anyone who cares about the future of artistic disciplines should be looking at what is happening in public, higher education. CADA is at the epicenter of what’s happening — lots of which is good in public higher education, but also where there are some really tough issues — especially funding excellent arts training. This nexus CADA occupies is crucial for people who care about public education and the arts. A diversity of voices is key to keep all of our disciplines relevant, vibrant and vital.

Also, at UIC we are not only in the business of higher education, but we’re also in the business of supplying inspiration to a body of students who are hungry for it, and for whom society may not have provided it. I’m particularly proud that 39% of UIC’s 2019 entering class comes from Chicago Public Schools.

Why is art important?

The question! Art is part of the human inheritance. It should not be imagined as a luxury. It’s shortsighted to assume the only disciplines a first-generation student or one with less material advantage can study are those that are entirely practical. All kinds of students have all kinds of gifts, and CADA is dedicated to providing equity of access in training to the disciplines we offer.

Also, we live in a time when we’re overwhelmed with data and the importance of facts, of “facticity,” is eroding. Creative interpretation can transform a set of data into a story people care about. A daily deluge of numbers may be less impactful than a graphic interface that CADA’s school creates to explain what those numbers mean in your life. Design is being recognized as a way to hotwire innovation, and bigger than that, meaning. The arts are an interpretive medium for some of what’s happening in STEM, (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) —which is why the acronym is so much more powerful when it’s thought of as including the arts — as STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics).

What are some of the exciting projects in the works at CADA?

We have remarkable faculty doing impressive work across the College! One current project is among our most important: Architecture faculty Paul Andersen and Paul Preissner were chosen to curate the US Pavilion Exhibition at the 2020 Venice Architecture Biennale for their project “American Framing,” which will explore “the conditions and consequences of American wood-framed construction.” Venice is the oldest and most prestigious of the world’s architecture biennials. UIC’s selection as the commissioner of the exhibition is important to note, as it’s rare for a public university to be the sole selection and is an extraordinary achievement.

What is one thing most people might not know about you?

I have a funny entree into the world of the arts. I grew up in an ethnic community in California and was a champion Scottish Highland dancer. It’s an amazing and surprisingly competitive ethnic dance form, and it’s also very, very rich with history. All the dances are historically very specific and many have to do with the Jacobite rebellion. I think that’s where I got my interest in the arts and the history of the arts, from doing this embodied practice while I was growing up.  

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