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Art Center College of Design names its first African American board chairman

February 25, 2010 |  2:00 pm

Robert Davidson Art Center College of Design announced Thursday that Robert C. Davidson Jr. has been elected chairman of its board of trustees -- the first African American to take that top leadership role at the Pasadena institution.

Davidson, 64, succeeds John Puerner, the former Los Angeles Times publisher who had chaired the board since 2007 and is now leaving it after having served three three-year terms, the maximum under current bylaws.

Davidson, a board member since 2004, chaired the search committee that last year recruited the school's new president, Lorne M. Buchman, from San Francisco, where his career in academic administration had included a five-year tenure during the 1990s as president of California College of Arts and Crafts (now known as California College of the Arts).

Buchman began his job five months ago, capping a turbulent chapter at Art Center, a school founded in 1930 that has about 1,500 students and a reputation for educating prominent figures in automotive design and other art and design fields.

The tumult had begun in May 2008, when the sudden resignation of the school's leading academic official sparked student protests over rising tuition fees and what many students and alumni perceived as then-president Richard Koshalek's lack of connection with students and misplaced emphasis on expanding Art Center's two campuses while seeking to raise its profile by sponsoring design conferences at home and abroad.

Koshalek, now president of the Smithsonian Institution's Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, resigned after the board responded by denying him a contract extension and suspending a longstanding expansion campaign that he'd been hired in 1999 to carry out. It was to have included a $50-million design research center by architect Frank Gehry.

While Davidson is not an artist himself, he made his way in the world by manufacturing and selling commodities vital to the art and design world: paints and other coatings. He founded the L.A.-based Surface Protection Industries in 1978 and retired as its chief executive in 2007, having built it into one of the top-grossing businesses in California owned by an African American. According to a 1994 Times report, Davidson's company then employed about 200 people and had annual sales of $46 million.

He has experienced at least one of the art world's pitfalls: In 1998, Davidson sued a Los Angeles art dealer and an art authenticator, seeking $185,000 while alleging that a painting by collage artist Romare Beraden he'd bought for $80,000 in 1984 had turned out to be a worthless fake.

Davidson, born in Tennessee and now living in Pasadena, graduated from Morehouse College in Atlanta and earned a master's in business administration from the University of Chicago. He and his wife, Faye, have three sons.

He sits on several other corporate and nonprofit boards, including Morehouse College, where he is vice chairman; Cedars-Sinai Medical Center; Jacobs Engineering Group; and Broadway Federal Bank. Forbes magazine's website reported that Davidson's compensation as a Jacobs Engineering director totaled $255,000 last year and $324,000 in 2008.

-- Mike Boehm


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Photo: Robert C. Davidson Jr. Credit: copyright David Perry.