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Q & A with Hilary Robinson

Dr. Hilary Robinson is the Stanley and Marcia Gumberg Dean of the College of Fine Arts at Carnegie Mellon. A creative force in the community in the short time she has been here (2005), she serves on the boards of The Andy Warhol Museum, The Mattress Factory, Quantum Theatre, Silver Eye and the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council. Prior to moving to Pittsburgh, she was head of the School of Art and Design at the University of Ulster in Belfast.   

If you could change one thing about Pittsburgh, what would it be?

Its political leadership and infrastructure.
How would you sculpt the path to change?
Pittsburgh is effectively a one-party city, and that is not healthy. If I could vote here (and I am not a US citizen, so I cannot) I would vote democrat; but even so, there is no real place for structured opposition and free debate. That is not good: politics end up being more about personality than policy. Designing a healthy, participatory, informed political process would be a huge challenge, but would be worth it.
What are you most curious about these days?
All my life I have been entangled with artists and with education, and in my adult life, with the education of artists. That means that I have always been involved with anticipating and helping create the future. More than ever, we do not know what the art-forms of ten or twenty years time will look like: they are developing faster than at any time since the renaissance. And that is thrilling.
Where do you see breakthrough ideas emerging and what will it take to make them stick?
They will emerge from the world of the imagination and creativity (whether politicians, artists, educators or business people) and it will take thinking differently to make them stick. The two are in tandem. By the time a baby born today is leaving school, it is likely that China and India will be the major economic powers, not America – and they may be the major global cultural influences, too. Water is likely to be as important an issue as oil is today. We will need to be able to think differently about ourselves and others, and to think differently about the differences between us, too.
How do you like to solve big problems?
In my professional life? Get the most brilliant people in a room, together or one on one, and listen to what they have to say. Then make a decision, and test it out. Then repeat. It's a process.
If you had a million dollars to give to Pittsburgh, what would you do with it?
I'd get young artists, designers, and performers on the bottom rung of the housing ladder. Go to a neighborhood troubled by absentee landlords, and put in place a mechanism to get home ownership into the hands of young, creative, entrepreneurial people – with the one proviso that by the time they sell the houses on, they have to have brought them up to code. It gets eyes on the streets; it helps the neighborhood; and it gets young people literally investing in the city.
What is your motto?
I don't consciously have a motto; but I do have a dog tag I wear a lot which says "carpe diem"; seize the day. A couple of months after I started wearing it, I got a letter telling me that the job I'm now doing was vacant. I'd not thought about moving to America at all until that moment.
What's the best thing anyone ever said about you?

About a year ago, the wife of a colleague said, 'There's a great sense of calm about you, it's something that gives me great comfort and confidence' and in similar vein, on Sunday night someone said to me that there was a sense of serenity in my home. If people sense that about me, and about the environments I make, it is wonderful. I don't recognize it about myself, but similar things have been said to me a few times so I believe it, and am immensely grateful for that quality.
What public figure do you most admire?
It's hard to name one person. The people I most admire are those who are committed to improving something. They might be in many ways ordinary people, but they have a vision for their family or their community or their field of activity that drives them to be extraordinary. Their 'public' may be a small handful of people, but that's ok. Their impact can be profound for the people they touch.
What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
The ability to forget something five minutes after I've told myself to remember it. If I'm lucky, it gets remembered a week later.

What is your greatest extravagance?
Over the last year: buying art. What a privilege.

 What do you value most in your friends?

That we accept each other for what we are, which means that we really are there for each other. I am part of a little tribe of four fast friends. They are my family away from home, and as with all families there is a big, fluid, extended circle of others too.

When and where were you happiest?
Probably in my first year here, in Pittsburgh. I've had a lot of happiness and always assume that happiness will be part of life.

Where would you like to live?
Where I live now. It would be fabulous to have a place in Italy….one of the Sienese hill-towns. And maybe a cottage in Ireland….and a tiny row house in my home town, Oxford…. I'm lucky enough to have a share in a tiny apartment in Manhattan; but I love my loft in Lawrenceville.
What is your greatest regret?
I regret things that I've not done, not things that I have done. Certainly, I've made mistakes and felt mortified about them, and learned from them; but that is different from regretting. There are things I've had a chance to do or to achieve and chosen to not do them. Those are the things I regret.

Which talent would you most like to have?
The ability to persist with mediocre talents to make something of them. For example, my schoolgirl French, my restaurant-level Italian, my beginner's level guitar and my enthusiastic but now non-existent Irish fiddle-playing.

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