Movers & Shakers: Academic Steve Immerman
Photo credit: Lauren Poussard
For Steve Immerman, the arts are everywhere.
“Everything that you encounter on a daily basis has been designed by somebody,” says Immerman, 62, who has helmed Montserrat College of Art since 2009. “Every TV show that you watch, every commercial, every ad. It is pervasive in everything that we do. Oftentimes, I ask folks to go home and look at everything in their refrigerator, and think about why they bought it, and look at the amount of art that’s involved in the packaging and design of even a ketchup bottle.”
If art is following Immerman home from the grocery store, it’s little surprise that he brings a bit of it wherever he goes, too—helping to forge connections between the creative class and the broader region. A student exhibition documenting the history of the decommissioned Salem Harbor Power Plant, for example, was the result of conversations Immerman had as a vice chair of the North Shore Chamber of Commerce. As co-president of Beverly Main Streets, he helped lead the push for official recognition of the downtown Beverly Arts District. Under his watch, Montserrat has taken a lead role in the Creative Economy Association of the North Shore, which helps businesses with a creative bent to access capital, talent, space, and business expertise.
Immerman also sits on the boards of the Salem Athenaeum, the Essex National Heritage Commission, and the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design. Recently, he was named to the Massachusetts Cultural Council, which advocates for arts and culture in the state and runs a large grant program.
“I think every college and university has a responsibility to contribute to the vitality of the region that hosts it,” Immerman says, explaining the long list of extracurriculars on his resume. At the same time, he notes, the college’s relationships with area businesses help create a pipeline for students to access internships, some of which later turn into full-time jobs.
Immerman came to Montserrat at the height of the Great Recession, at a time when many parents of prospective college students may have been whispering in their children’s ears about the perks of “safe” fields with lots of jobs—nursing or maybe engineering. And yet Immerman helped boost enrollment at the small private college from less than 300 students in 2008 to almost 400 today (enrollment from the last school year to this one is flat, a situation that Immerman says many colleges in the competitive Northeast “would love”).
It’s not a hard sell to convince 17- and 18-year-olds that they can make a living by following their passion for the arts, Immerman says. “There’s so much work. There’s a ton of work. The starving artist myth is truly a myth. All the national studies prove that. The majority of people who graduate with art degrees spend their careers in art. And the students who arrive here can’t imagine doing anything else.”
Immerman, who spent 30 years in a variety of roles at MIT, relishes the opportunity to get to know the college’s students in a way that wasn’t possible at the Cambridge research giant. “I was looking for a place where I could again know a lot of the students by first name,” he says. “It is one of the more gratifying parts of this kind of work, because you see the immediate results of the support and instruction and individual attention that we’re able to supply. That’s the magic of Montserrat.”
When he watched a video of commencement a couple of years ago, Immerman was “floored” by the number of students who hugged him as they walked across the stage. “Where else does that happen, where you know the person on a first name basis, and you can recognize their artwork anytime you see it?” he says. “You know what they hoped to achieve, and you helped them find their way into an adult life where they can have a fulfilling and contributing role in the world. It is the most gratifying thing you can imagine.” Immerman ticks off the varied career paths of Montserrat alumni. Many are art teachers. One is a designer for the apparel and footwear company Puma. One works for a company that designs and builds pipe organs. One is a magazine editor. Another is a chocolatier.
“It’s as varied as there are opportunities,” says Immerman. “Most folks misinterpret what artists do. The problem-solving methodology that artists employ is not appreciably different from that which engineers employ. It’s just a different vocabulary.”