Scenes from an Interview
Scenes from an Interview: Dr. Larry Thompson
by Gus Mollasis
The Lost Art of Listening
He can’t draw a straight line to save his life. Art is not something that comes easy to him; yet, strangely, seems to fit him perfectly, and is something that this Ohioan values more than most. If one were to commission a drawing of his life, it could be one part Picasso and one part Pollack, with a little bit of Chagall thrown in. Not many straight lines there, for sure! Perhaps it’s poetic that Larry Thompson, a math savant who studied law, always found himself gravitating toward the arts. With a stint at the impressive Flint Cultural Center in Michigan, and playing a major role at the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, he’s always elegantly fought for ways to see his vision realized. With Jagger-like passion a la “Jumping Jack Flash,” he’s found ways to help get things built, even if it seemed at times like some around him were smashing guitars a la Pete Townsend, failing to listen and merely pushing their opinions.
How did he make it all happen and help raise the money as CEO for the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame? Well, that’s easy. He’s a good listener. And that’s music to the ears of anyone who has ever worked with him. Blessed with an ability to listen not only to those playing tunes he likes (such as a Lennon-McCartney ballad), but most importantly to songs sung in board and meeting rooms where personalities often clash more than Jagger and Richards. Wherever he’s been, he’s always been able to orchestrate a positive change and move a project forward because he was a part of it. As president of the Ringling College of Art and Design since 1999, he’s helped take the institution to another level, while seeking to build its reputation as a prominent film school. He hopes to take Ringling College to the top of the list, so when people think of art and design, Ringling College is top of mind.
He’s excited about where he’s come from, where he is now, and where he, the town and the school are going. His long and winding road has led him to this place and time, and he is excited about the future. No, it’s not been a straight line, or a life that one could easily draw on a map, or captured in a painting, and that’s just part of the reason I couldn’t wait to sit down with Dr. Larry Thompson and talk a little art, a little film and listen to some scenes from an interview of his life.
Where were you born, and what was your favorite thing to do as a kid?
Dayton, Ohio. My favorite thing to do as kid was band. I played trombone, and in high school I was in the concert, marching and jazz bands. When we finished jazz band we did gigs. I was like Robert Preston in The Music Man.
What is the greatest thing your parents taught you?
The value of education. It was instilled very early on in me. It’s interesting, but it’s almost like [education is] in the DNA because here I am president of a college. My late brother was a doctor and taught at the University of Minnesota Medical School, my oldest son is teaching in the graduate program at Nova Southeastern University, and my daughter is at Swarthmore College doing development and annual giving work. My youngest son is in St. Petersburg working for a nonprofit helping to teach foster children leadership skills. So education is in the DNA.
Tell me about your higher education.
I call myself a guidance counselor’s nightmare. You could never, ever plan this career path. One of the things that I try to help teach our students is no matter what you might plan for, you need to know how marketable and transferable your skills are. I majored in math as an undergrad, but I didn’t like it much. I thought I would become an engineer; one summer I worked at General Motors. Then I thought I would become an actuary in insurance (figuring out life expectancy of potential clients). I did that one summer and I thought was going to die. (Laughs) No one today can ever picture me being an actuary. After graduating from college, I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do. I went to California, where I got a master’s degree in educational administration and counseling, and when I returned to Ohio, I was director of financial aid for a small liberal arts college. I decided that if I’m going to remain in higher education, then I’m going to have to get a doctorate of some sort. I was always intrigued with legal issues, so I applied to law school and was admitted to Ohio State University; after graduating, I joined a very large firm in Columbus that happened to represent Ohio State. Instead of dealing with numbers, I was making logical arguments with words. With my background, I did a lot of work for that client, who worked with higher education clients.
After about five years, a new president was hired – one who was used to having a lawyer on his staff. He told me to take six months off and then come back and work in a position helping to reorganize the department and basically serve as general counsel while doing a lot of management troubleshooting. I oversaw the athletic department, public TV and radio, which got me into the management part. From Ohio State I was recruited to put together the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.
Tell me about this experience and all the many hats you wore in helping to develop the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame?
I wore many hats. Basically it (the Hall) didn’t exist. The whole story was that Cleveland won the right to house the physical Hall of Fame over such competitors as San Francisco, Memphis, Detroit and New Orleans. Cleveland went after it with a vengeance and they got it. It literally became like the “dog that caught the car.” Now what the hell do we do? They first director they hired was fairly young and didn’t know a lot about fundraising. One of the key reasons Cleveland was chosen by the New York group was that Cleveland would pay for it. This director raised about $500,000, which was nothing at that time, since it was supposed to be a $50 million project. The New York record industry guys were going to pull out of the deal, so the real power base in Cleveland flew to New York to beg forgiveness and ask for another chance. When they shut it down to start over again, a headhunter sought me out.
What was the toughest and most rewarding parts of your job at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
The toughest part of that job was the governance. When I came in, there were two nonprofit boards, the Rock and Roll Hall Fame Foundation (which had already started inducting artists), made up of the record companies, head of Rolling Stone Magazine, etc. — they were the ones who selected Cleveland as the site — the second was a Cleveland nonprofit called American Contemporary Music, which was the group with all the Fortune 500 CEOs from Cleveland and so forth, who in essence got Cleveland selected. When I came in, there was this atmosphere of total distrust. They wouldn’t even meet together. This is where the legal background comes in: what I ended up doing was creating another nonprofit, the Hall of Fame and Museum, that would be the governing body for this project. We had 10 people from the New York group and 10 people from the Cleveland group and we finally got them together to meet, but the cultures were so, so different. You had these salt-of-the-earth, Midwestern CEOs, including the governor of the state and the mayor, and then you had these record industry heads.
How often do you go back, and when you do, how much pride do you feel at seeing your vision realized?
I was just there a couple years ago and I hadn’t been back in about five years. I have to tell you that I was just in awe. Wow. It has withstood the test of time. It opened in 1995 and here it was 2015. The thing that really hit me the most was that I could foresee how this could become a major institution, and quite frankly the symbol of Cleveland. And nobody else seemed to get it. The other part was that the Cleveland people wanted it for economic development purposes and tourism. The record industry people wanted it to show their mothers that they did something with their lives. The New York guys feared that it was going to become some “amusement-parky thing” – sort of schlocky. The Cleveland people were afraid that it was going to become a mausoleum. I kept saying that it could be an entertaining place with substance. And that’s what it’s become. They struggled getting that.
If you could choose five inductees in the Hall of Fame, who would you choose?
First of all, there is only one metric required, and that is you had to have a record released 25 years ago in order to be inducted in the Hall. The rest of the criteria is pretty subjective. So my five would be The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, James Brown, The Who and Elvis Presley. I love Motown as well. Did you notice I didn’t name Elvis first? Which is interesting. That’s really how rock n’ roll started – out of Rhythm and Blues, Jazz and even Country. The thing about Elvis is that he took rhythm and blues music and made it acceptable for white people. Elvis is the one who made it popular among the masses.
When you left the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame you were working at the Flint Cultural Center, a place that surprised you…
I got a call from another headhunter about an opportunity in Flint. I told them no thanks; I’ve seen the movie (Roger and Me, Michael Moore). They called me about three or four times and said, “Just come and take a look.” So I went to the Flint Cultural Center, and when I arrived there, I was absolutely stunned. I had this image from the movie about this worn-down rust belt town, but instead, it was this cultural center that had a campus with nine cultural institutions on it that emulated a mini Lincoln Center. It had a real good art museum; an institute of music that had a major symphony; a 3,000-student school of performing arts; a 2,000-seat performing arts venue larger than the Van Wezel; a history museum and a planetarium; and a producing youth theater. I couldn’t believe it. This was created during the heyday of General Motors and now it was in deep trouble. I decided it was something that I would really enjoy doing. It had some similarity to being a college president, but it was dealing with the arts. What happened was they were creating a new nonprofit that was going to manage all these entities and have them work together – some of whom were very independent, some of whom dealt with challenging governances. It was my charge to help them raise money, market together and try to bring the center back to life.
How did you find your way to Sarasota and Ringling College?
I was in Flint and I was interested in getting back into higher education, because that’s my passion. I let it be known to a couple of headhunters that I would be open to the possibility, and lo and behold, I got a call a couple years later from the man who was doing the search for Ringling. I remember thinking that I never would have thought of an art and design college. I’m not an artist. I can’t draw a stick figure. I’m really bad. I put my name in anyway. I think that they were trying to get an “out of the box” candidate. The other people were heads of art schools or departments. I ended up being among the final five candidates. As I understand it, from someone who was on the search committee, I was out. And then someone pushed and said, “I want to see this rock n’ roll guy.” Before I came back for the next interview, I went around campus just to talk with people and see what it was like. I have to admit that I had a bias against Florida, thinking people were running to early bird dinners, and that it had no culture, and would be all Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. I didn’t know anything about Sarasota. So I checked out the school system, called my wife and said, “I have no clue where I am, but this isn’t the Florida that we heard about.” It was a totally different place. It’s not what I expected.
Where was it then, where is it now and where would you like to take Ringling College?
When I arrived in July of 1999, the school had about 850 students, and it was a really, really good art school. It always had great instruction, but at that time it was not recognized nationally. The facilities were run down and needed a lot of maintenance. It was very solid financially. My predecessor had put the institution on the line of being a higher education institution, taking it from being a three-year certificate program to making it a four-year college with a curriculum. My part was coming in and trying to take this to another level. It was unlike many of the other things I had done, which was like “turnaround stuff.” This was something that was not in trouble. It was more of taking it from where it was – a very good school – and making it soar by moving it to the next level.
That’s basically what started to happen. Now, we have about 1,400 students and 12 very innovative majors. Our primary competition now is RISD (Rhode Island School of Design); Parsons, Pratt and the Art Institute of Chicago, which are recognized as top art and design institutions. That’s how I know we are now among the top tier. It has enhanced us and we have become very well-known in the community. When I came here, I would come and talk to people about the Ringling School and they didn’t even know where it was. They thought it was with the Ringling Museum. Now it’s a little different. A lot of people know about this college now. And they’re very supportive of it. That moves me to the next level—not being satisfied by just being in the top tier. Our goal is to become the preeminent art and design college in the world, and we are on a very fast track to get there. It is amazing to see. Eighteen years is a lot of time, but in higher education that’s nothing, because higher education tends to move at a glacial pace. So, going from a good art school to among the very top is absolutely amazing. The other part, when I say preeminent, what I’m talking about is not so much in the ranking of our school. Being number one is not something I’m totally looking for. Sure, it’s a great thing to have, but it’s more about being first in mind; when people think of art and design, whether it be artists and designers, media, students, parents, the general public or employers – this is the place to think of.
How close are you to being there?
I can feel it. Really feel it. It’s right there. Things like what just happened today, when you see a pair of Ringling graduates create a real buzz with their film In a Heartbeat, an animated short that lit up the Internet with millions of views.
Thus far, what is your proudest accomplishment regarding Ringling College?
Helping take it from that level of being a very good school to being on the cusp of being first in mind when you think of an art and design school. To get to those next levels it takes money, and that’s a big part of my job as the president of this institution. We don’t have wealthy alumni to raise money from as most colleges do. We will have, but we don’t have them now. We have a wealthy philanthropic community. So that’s why my strategy was to make Ringling really become a part of this community, really integrated within the community. I want to have people who are affiliated with us view Ringling as their second alma mater. That’s only one component. You still have to recruit the top faculty and for us, because we are the most advanced technological art college in the world, we have to make large investments in technology.
What issues keep you up at night?
Two things, and they’re related. The larger piece is that we are small at 1,400 students. That’s not a large institution. But we are seen as very large, because of our footprint in the community, and now, nationally. People don’t realize that we don’t have all the infrastructure capacity that it seems like we have. It’s always a challenge to meet those expectations. We do it, and we do it well. But it’s difficult and it is great problem to have.
People are expecting things and you don’t want to let them down. And that gets to the way how higher education is funded. Because in the long term it is not a sustainable model. Tuition is too expensive – way too expensive. And there is not really a way to curve that without investments from somewhere else. It’s true of all private colleges. That is the biggest issue, because I see how much our students and their parents struggle. A lot of people think there are a lot of rich kids here. Not at all. It’s mainly middle class.
What feeling do you get when you see a Ringling student recognized by either nabbing a great job in the industry, receiving an award or have their film go viral?
I have nothing to do with it, per se, but I feel like a proud parent. Incredible pride.
How do you keep the students here making films and art once they graduate?
Part of being a citizen of the community is that we have this incredible talent here at the college, and at least 80-85% of them don’t stay. That is a huge loss to Sarasota and Florida. If someone has the choice of going to Pixar or a small company in Sarasota, then they’re going to go to Pixar. But not everybody can go to Pixar. There are a lot of different potential opportunities. They just don’t exist very much here in Sarasota. So we’re trying to help create that through ourselves and by having others find out about Sarasota and the school so they hopefully move their headquarters here. We work very closely with EDC and the Chamber. For our film program, we bring professional filmmakers, producers, directors and actors here to Sarasota. They get a chance to work with our students and see the caliber of our work, and hopefully that will bring more and more productions to Sarasota. It’s like anything else. It takes a lot of time and effort when you haven’t had a good base to begin with. We could become a real digital media capital. Absolutely. It’s there because of this talent pool. It’s almost so close you can touch it, but it’s a little further away. We have some great start-up companies, but it’s going to take a while before they are going to able to hire a lot of our people. When employers talk to me, and they don’t need to BS me, they just say our students are the best. That’s why we have over 100 companies who come here to recruit our students.
You’re a visionary. You saw the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame when others did not. What does Ringling College look like in 20 years?
It really will be the preeminent art and design college. It will still be on the cutting edge of what’s happening in art and design. That’s one of the things that distinguish us from other art and design institutions. It will probably never be huge; in fact, I’m not positive that it ought to be huge. But it’s probably going to be 2,000 to 2,500 students. It will have graduate programs and be regarded as the preeminent art and design college.
Can Ringling be part of a viable film mecca in Sarasota?
Absolutely. And we are helping to create it. There is no doubt in my mind. What we ended up doing was creating a different model in helping to educate filmmakers. This whole concept of the studio lab in partnership with Semkhor Productions is all about bringing these filmmakers here, and our students working hand-in-hand with them as part of their education, so they are getting this real-world experience working with real filmmakers while also getting the other things that you would get in a normal academic film program.
Tell us about the Ringling sound stage that’s about to be completed.
It’s very exciting to drive down MLK right now because we have the new visual arts center, the new library and the new soundstage/post-production complex within the last year. It’s exciting to see those physical structures, but also I would say it’s not about the buildings, it’s what happens in the buildings. They are a great physical manifestation of what’s happening, but that’s all they are. It’s what’s going on inside that’s the real manifestation of the change.
If they made a film about your life, name the title and who you would want playing you?
(Pause) (Laughs) Oh, my God. That’s a tough one.
Is it Animal House?
No. But I was in a fraternity – like Animal House. (Laughs) It wasn’t quite that bad. But it was close. I’m having trouble with this one.
You’ve taken places to other levels, managing many personalities and you are a great listener.
I do like The Listener. And Tom Hanks is someone who I think operates like me. He’s more down to earth, open and honest. And empathic.
Is there a mantra that you live by?
There is something that I strongly believe in and use at speaking engagements – “Creativity is the fuel of the future” – because it’s needed in every business and in every operation. Everything. And we do not value creativity enough.
Many years from now, when the credits have rolled on your life, how do you hope students and others remember you?
I want to be remembered as an educator who transformed lives. This job is really about educating people about our college and our students. Teaching has always been a part of me, so I see my role as constantly being an educator.
Finish the following sentences:
A great learning institution should always…
Keep the students in mind first.
I hope that when a Ringling student graduates they will…
Not only be a fabulous artist and designer, but also a fabulous citizen.
A great student will always…
Rise to the top.
A great teacher will always…
Rise to the top. A great teacher will have done so much for generations after generations. That’s the great thing about being an educator. You are transforming individuals who will then transform individuals.
My best quality is my ability to…
See all sides of an issue and envision what could be.
Something I need to work on is…
My three desert island films are…
Animal House. I can watch that forever. The other one is Mr. Holland’s Opus, and the third one would be Avatar.
I couldn’t draw a picture to save my life, but I appreciate art because…
I wonder and I am in awe of the creativity and people being able to constantly come up with new ideas and thoughts and put that into something tangible.