Joseph S. Lewis III likes to say that great art comes from living, not from living in Manhattan. And the dean of UC Irvine’s Claire Trevor School of the Arts should know: He was a key player in the New York art scene in the 1980s and has since worked in big cities and small college towns across the country.
“Art is where you find it,” he says. “I don’t subscribe to the belief that it happens in only one kind of place.” Lewis embraced this idea as his career took him from Hell’s Kitchen in New York City to the halls of academia, exposing him to artists and students from all walks of life.
Lewis – whose background includes acting, song writing, performance art, photography and fine arts – brings this diversity of experience to his new job at UCI, where he aims to strengthen outreach efforts and raise the school’s profile in artistic and philanthropic circles.
“Sometimes it feels like we’re better known 500 miles from here than we are in our own backyard,” he says. “I hope to reintroduce the school to the community, establish new friendships and, most importantly, attract resources.”
A native of Midtown Manhattan, Lewis earned a bachelor’s degree in art at New York’s Hamilton College. As an undergrad, he joined a 21-piece band called the Uhuru Players that combined community outreach and performance art in gigs at Air Force bases and juvenile detention centers.
After college, Lewis helped create Fashion Moda, an alternative arts space in the South Bronx that displayed work by up-and-coming artists of that time, including Keith Haring. But the New York art scene was changing, he says: “I lost so many of my friends to AIDS and drug addiction.”
His career took a turn toward academia when he decided to pursue a master’s in fine arts at the Maryland Institute College of Art, positioning Lewis for his role as an arts administrator and educator. His first major challenge, as project manager for the Jackie Robinson Foundation, was overseeing the national exhibit marking the 40th anniversary of the baseball legend’s initial major-league game.
Lewis went on to become chair of the art department at California State University, Northridge; director of public art projects for Los Angeles’ Department of Cultural Affairs; and dean of the School of Art & Design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City.
He came to UCI in March after five years as head of Alfred University’s School of Art & Design in western New York.
“My position as dean of the Claire Trevor School of the Arts gives me the opportunity to use all my experience in one place,” says Lewis, who manages programs in dance, studio art, drama and music. “I’ve never had that chance before, and I find it very exciting.”
He lives in University Hills with his wife and 6-year-old son, Joey, whose art decorates Lewis’ office in the Mesa Arts Building. A 1994 public art piece by Lewis himself, “Twelve Principles,” adorns the Metro Blue Line’s Pacific Coast Highway station in Long Beach. It comprises a dozen discs symbolizing such values as “family” and “hope.”
“My interest in art is based on bringing different kinds of people together,” he says.
Lewis is also an advocate for artists through his membership on the board of California Lawyers for the Arts. The group provides legal aid to those seeking to protect their intellectual property and offers arts programs for high school students in San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Says CLA Executive Director Alma Robinson: “Joe has such a wide network of contacts in the artistic and philanthropic communities, which he has always been willing to share with our organization. His advice and assistance has helped us position ourselves for funding and other resources throughout the years.”
And Lewis intends to do the same for UCI.
“This is an exciting time to be dean of the Claire Trevor School of the Arts,” he says. “I look forward to building relationships in the community and working with faculty, staff and alumni to build upon the school’s record of innovation and excellence.”