Trustees who supported the Rowans refused to meet on the besieged campus; they moved the meeting to Atlanta, four hours away. It was a short trip for students who'd spent a semester feuding with the Rowans-they piled into their cars and headed north to make a case for the Rowans' ouster. The night before the meeting, a group of about twenty-five of the Rowans' critics convened with several board members at a Days Inn outside of Atlanta to make their case for change. The trustees listened attentively, asked tough questions, and by the time the gathering let out, after midnight, seemed sympathetic, if not entirely persuaded. "All of a sudden this was the saving grace," Lansaw said. The Rowans were in trouble.

The next day, the trustees assembled in the Atlanta headquarters of KPMG Peat Marwick, the accounting firm, under heavy security. The meeting began with an unsettling confrontation. The day before, a trustee named William Lancaster had faxed a letter to the Rowans, threatening to resign if the board didn't become more than "a rubber-stamp committee." The Rowans wrote back, accepting his resignation. Certain it was a misunderstanding, Lancaster showed up at the meeting, only to be barred by security and disgracefully turned away by, as he later put it, a "warren of gendarmes." The move was seen as particularly ruthless because Lancaster had been the Rowans' minister.

The board chair, a fierce Rowan advocate named Hugh Dorsey III, began the meeting by chastising Joyce Maynard for her "disloyalty" to the couple. Then he called the first order of business: the removal from the board of Maynard and the other dissident trustees. The deciding vote was cast by Frank McGuire, a former basketball coach at the University of South Carolina, who was lying in a hospital bed, laid up after a stroke. His wife voted for him by telephone-in favor of removing Maynard. It was one of Coach McGuire's last public acts; he died shortly afterward.

Maynard was outraged by the almost surreal proceeding. She stormed out of the meeting, went directly to the airport, and flew home to New Hampshire. The students and professors were still waiting anxiously back at the Days Inn. "I sat in the hotel all day thinking if it went wrong it would be over fast," said Jim Rogers, a departed SCAD professor. "It went wrong, and boy was it over fast."

Paula Rowan had no sympathy for the "takeover artists," as she called them. They were using "unscrupulous means," she later said, to "seize control of the institution," ultimately "creating a frenzied environment which nurtured student bombers and stimulated erratic acts." In the end, she said, her anger subsided into a ruminative calm. "We were so exhausted and drained from everything we'd gone through that spring. The overriding feeling we felt was sadness."

After the board meeting, Julie Lansaw said that she and the other student leaders felt "crushed, helpless." The Rowans had suspended the student leaders, purged the dissident faculty, and had now purged the dissident trustees as well. What hope was there? "We sort of thought, well, maybe some other art college will come to Savannah," Lansaw said.


Batman Varnedoe, together with Jim Rogers, had the same idea. They figured there were enough disgruntled faculty and students at SCAD to form their own school. Rather than start from scratch, they decided to court an established college to open a branch in Savannah. They called a number of colleges to propose the scenario and drafted a letter that promised prospective schools a ready-made faculty and student body if they came to town. Under the heading CONFIDENTIAL INFORMATION, the letter stressed that SCAD's "painting faculty has voted unanimously to come over to the new school. They believe they can bring all 250 of their students."

Two small Georgia colleges were interested in the idea, and in late June, Varnedoe and Rogers made a road trip to pitch the plan. They rented a white Lincoln Town Car for the ride because, as Rogers said, "We didn't think we'd make a favorable impression in the Batvan."

Their experience at one small Christian college proved typical of the enthusiasm of the schools. "They said, 'You don't use nude models, do you?'" Rogers recalled, "and we said yeah, and they said, 'You're not gonna have any Jewish professors, are you?' and we said yeah. Then they said, 'What about gay students?' and I thought, 'We have gay professors!'"

By the time he and Rogers returned to Savannah, Varnedoe was ready to give up on the whole project. Surfside Six, his floating restaurant, was continuing to drain him financially. His business advisor was urging him to sell the thing for scrap. And he didn't have any more energy to give to the academic project. "I've lost interest," he confessed to Rogers. Things looked bleak, when two miracles occurred. First, David Rhodes, president of New York's prestigious School of Visual Arts, returned one of Rogers's phone calls and proposed to visit Savannah. And then, during an unusually low tide, Surfside Six dropped onto some submerged pilings, piercing its hull. The floating restaurant sank, entitling Varnedoe to the $275,000 insurance policy. "I was truly blessed," Varnedoe said. The craft was recovered, chopped into pieces, and then burned. Now, he said, "It's in the ozone."

Before hearing from Rogers, David Rhodes was no more likely to open a campus in Savannah, Georgia, than on the moon. The School of Visual Arts is a New York institution with a sophisticated cosmopolitan image. Founded in 1949 by David's father, Silas Rhodes, SVA is known for producing hip urban artists like Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf. The New York campus, now on East 23rd Street, has grown to 2,700 students. Unlike SCAD, SVA is a for-profit corporation, owned by the Rhodes family. In 1978, David Rhodes, then thirty-one, took over the business when his father stepped down from the presidency to assume the role of board chair and wise elder counselor. It was the son's turn to make his mark. The younger Rhodes, a former philosophy student who colleagues say is quiet, deliberate, and exceedingly optimistic, held the helm steady for a decade. But then he began to look into an expansion of SVA, and for ways to provide an intimate, personalized atmosphere, which was absent from the cramped and hectic New York campus. An affiliated campus in a more quiet locale, he thought, might be the remedy. In 1991 and 1992 David Rhodes considered opening a campus in San Antonio, New York's Westchester County, or Tampa. Varnedoe and Rogers provided an intriguing new possibility.

Unaware of the strange events that preceded him, David Rhodes arrived in Savannah on August 14, 1992, a rainy afternoon. Savannahians, desperate to loosen the Rowans's hold on their town, eagerly embraced the SVA president. Varnedoe organized a reception for Rhodes at a local country club, and Esther Shaver, owner of a popular downtown bookstore, hosted a luncheon in his honor at her stately Greek Revival home on Madison Square. Varnedoe and Julie Lansaw showed up at the luncheon, along with a few current SCAD professors, who "slinked in through the side doors and left through different doors at different times," one recalled, for fear of being seen by their employers. A circumspect man, Rhodes didn't say much as he heard their stories of the previous year in Savannah. But somehow he wasn't intimidated by the city's dark goings-on. He vowed to return. Observing his subsequent visits, a surprised SCAD professor theorized that Rhodes had been "visually seduced" by the city. Rhodes hired Varnedoe as a "community liaison" and, with his guidance, he bought three buildings downtown-just blocks from SCAD. On May 24, 1993, Varnedoe set up a press conference at which Rhodes announced his decision to open an SVA campus in Savannah. To Paula Rowan, the news was "a total surprise."

Previous --- Sinister Designs --- Next

Copyright © 1997 Lingua Franca,Inc. All rights reserved.