Linfield College President Miles Davis

The power to move people

Miles Davis, Linfield College’s new president, champions the arts as both a means to living well and to forging relationships, but warns of a dark side

A recent change in leadership at Linfield College is significant not only for the 160-year-old liberal arts institution, but also for the community at large. It is not hyperbole to say that the private college plays a major — even an essential — role in local cultural life beyond the resources it offers its 1,980 students.

McMinnville residents may check materials out of the Nicholson Library. Authors from around the region give readings that are free and open to the public. There’s an art gallery, and both the theater and music departments mount classy productions (plays are often accompanied by panel discussions) and concerts. Linfield music professor Anton Belov launched, on his own, an ambitious, opera-centric event last summer that drew musicians from all over the world. Meanwhile, Linfield faculty members publish work that reaches far beyond the campus, one recent example of which I wrote about here.

In July, Miles Davis became Linfield’s 20th president and the first African-American to fill the role. Davis, 59, comes from Shenandoah University in Winchester, Va., where he headed the university’s Harry F. Byrd, Jr. School of Business. Don’t let that “business” part throw you. In fact, you may want to tread lightly inquiring about that aspect of his life, if you’re implying an unbridgeable chasm gapes between professional (or vocational) education and liberal arts education. Davis says that’s a false dichotomy, and when I sat down with him recently to discuss arts and culture, he explained why. He also elaborated on the issue on LinkedIn, where he occasionally posts short essays.

Linfield College President Miles Davis says the best art “pulls you in. It transports you. It takes you to a different place.” Photo courtesy: Linfield College

Davis welcomed me into his spacious office and even before I was seated, he was firing off questions about my education, work history, and artistic interests. I mentioned that I’d done many shows at Gallery Players of Oregon, which he was familiar with because a couple of Linfield administrators also are long-time Gallery actors.

We launched into a lively conversation that went a full hour. The transcript below has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell me about yourself. What’s your favorite art form?

Davis: My favorite — and some people will debate whether this is fine art or not — but I like photography. I love imagery, I love the visual display of things, I love taking something that is ordinary and capturing it. Even now, I love looking out this window, looking at the framing of that tree, and the moss on that tree. That is a perfectly framed photo for me. And the ability to play with light. I started in the prehistoric age where you had development paper. Now, what you can do with digital imagery is incredible, but I like unfiltered stuff.

Where did that interest come from?

I was a photography student, even back in middle school. I was finally able to purchase my dream camera about 15 years ago, a Nikon. I like action photography, I like travel photography. I don’t do still or portraits except for imagery. It’ll be an image that will capture me. I actually won a Kodak photography award. I hate posed things, but I happened to be at a rally where Joe Biden was speaking, and he had his granddaughter with him, and I had my camera. He had leaned over in what I believe was an unscripted moment, and put his arm his granddaughter, and just the look of love and adoration on his face for her, I captured it. Kodak was having a photo competition, and I submitted it, and I won.

It was a true Kodak moment!

It was! And that’s what they wanted. They didn’t want posed, they wanted unscripted moments. That must have been 2007.

I’ve read that you were raised in Philadelphia, and that your parents made sure that you had a lot of exposure to the arts. Tell me about that.

It’s really interesting, for a poor inner-city black kid to be taken to art museums. Philadelphia has one of the great art museums, quite frankly what I think is one of the greatest art museums in the world. To be exposed to that. They exposed me to opera. This is the time of Motown sound, so you heard that stuff, but my parents wanted to make sure I was exposed to far more. So I got a chance to see ballets and symphonies, because they wanted me to have a vision of myself that was bigger than the world in which I found myself.

All of that has come to bear later in my life. I went horseback riding, I played tennis, I was on the fencing team! They exposed me to a world that was greater and bigger. They didn’t have money.

I had a chance to spend time in Cuba. I was in Havana in January 2012 studying the transition, as Raúl Castro came in and was looking at the expansion of entrepreneurship and their equivalent of deregulation of their economy. I talked to people, and I speak Spanish, so I asked them about these changes. They said there are three things that government should always do, that the government should provide support for: One is health care, the second is education, and the third is the arts. I think about that, because I went to the Philadelphia art museum for free.

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