Artist and historian Rachel Schreiber is the new head of the celebrated Parsons School of Design. As she rethinks its role, she finds solace in the New York Public Library.
One thing that irks Rachel Schreiber is when design degrees are dismissed as fluffy. “We believe in the transformative power of design education,” she says in New York Public Library’s Rose Main Reading Room. The beaux arts space contains ceiling frescoes, vintage bronze chandeliers and countless stacked tomes.
The newly installed executive dean of Parsons School of Design is contemplating her recent return to New York after more than a decade on the west coast of the US. “I heard somebody say that the first thing a lot of people look for when they move is a gym,” says Schreiber. “For me it’s a library.” She jokes that she wishes that she had “something architecturally or historically relevant” to say about New York Public Library, which dates back to 1911. Instead she focuses on its democracy. The institution reflects, she says, one of the city’s key qualities: you could find yourself next to someone seeking a quiet spot to read or a writer researching a book.
Schreiber’s new role includes everything from overseeing the curriculum to organising fundraising efforts. She wears many hats: artist, teacher, administrator and intellectual. As she is often working on papers or book projects, access to a research library is handy. She describes the opportunity to visit and let her mind roam as “luxurious”.
Though Schreiber has a background in arts and design, she also holds a phd in US history and is working on a biography of Elaine Black Yoneda, a Californian labour activist. “I’m an artist and a historian but I’m not an art historian,” she says. Her interest is piqued when the disciplines overlap, one of the principal draws of her job: Parsons’ “interdisciplinary approach” struck her as the perfect fusion of her interests.
Schreiber is brimming with ideas for her new position. She believes that the curriculum and approach to aesthetics has a western bias, even though students hail from around the globe. Then there are issues of access: how can Parsons reach more people? There are scholarships but Schreiber argues that more lateral thinking is required: could the school do more online courses? Could it work with high schools to develop their design curriculums? “What we teach is going to be an integral part of solving the world’s biggest problems,” she says. Finding the answers might mean less time to sneak off to the Rose Main Reading Room.
1987 Studies graphic design at Rhode Island School of Design
1999 Teaches at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore
2007 Moves to California College of the Arts
2009 Earns PhD in US history
2013 Joins San Francisco Art Institute
2019 Moves to The New School’s Parsons School of Design