Ken Lum has just finished writing his first screenplay.
It’s called “The Cook,” and the story, set in the 1870s, centers around a hauling and livery company that transports mining equipment and Chinese laborers from Astoria, Oregon, to the gold fields of Pierce, Idaho. Lum, who is professor and chair of fine arts at the University of Pennsylvania Stuart Weitzman School of Design, says the story was partly inspired by an art and planning seminar he used to teach at Penn, called The Chinese Body and Spatial Consumption in Chinatown, which was so popular with students that he had to turn them away dozens at a time. This fall, Lum, who has exhibited painting, sculpture, and photography work around the world, is also publishing two books—a collection of previous writings and a book focused on Monument Lab, the public art and history project he leads along with Fine Arts Lecturer Paul Farber. And he has just been appointed as the Marilyn Jordan Taylor Presidential Professor, a new endowed professorship supported by two current members and one former member of the Weitzman School’s Board of Overseers.
Since becoming Chair of Fine Arts, Lum says, he’s tried to align the department with the strengths of the University and of the School, and to help students develop a broad definition of artistic practice.
“Contemporary art isn’t just something that should be limited to the gallery system or the so-called art world, with a propensity toward commerce,” Lum says. “It’s about the production of signification and finding one’s place in the world, and it’s about the kind of theory of one’s life — one’s siting within the world.”
The Penn Presidential Term Professorships are part of an effort to diversify the University faculty by attracting and retaining renowned scholars and practitioners in endowed positions. The Marilyn Jordan Taylor Presidential Professorship, named for the professor of architecture and urban design and former dean, is one of two presidential professorships created at the Weitzman School during the School’s Lead by Design Campaign with the goal of diversifying the faculty by attracting and retaining scholars and practitioners in endowed positions. Lum was recently appointed to the position by Dean Fritz Steiner.
Bill Witte (C’73, GCP’85), Matthew Nord (W’01), and Barbara van Beuren, (MArch’87) say they were inspired to support the professorship out of respect for Taylor’s legacy as a dean who promoted interdisciplinary education and practice.
“It was a way of helping to create an opportunity that would hopefully have long-term value to the School of Design and also acknowledge [Taylor’s] contributions toward that,” says Witte, (C’73, MCP’75), the chairman and CEO of the real estate firm Related California. “Most of the metrics which are used to evaluate the school, whether it’s ranking or fundraising, have improved almost on a year-over-year basis, and that’s part of her legacy.”
The motivation to support the professorship was partly personal and partly professional, Witte says, because Taylor’s emphasis on interdisciplinary education has helped to produce a more capable generation of real estate and development practitioners. Weitzman alumna and former overseer Barbara van Beuren (MArch’87), the managing director for acquisitions, design and marketing at the New York-based luxury residential development firm Anbau, says it was exciting to work with Taylor because she brought a new level of expertise, as well as connection to practice and the policy world, to the role of dean.
“One of our premises of our business has always been that good design sells,” van Beuren says. “Good design is really important, so of course, design education therefore is really important. It’s a way of thinking that is very relevant to the world today, as it’s much more three-dimensional and much more graphic, and I think it leads one to make good, reasoned decisions in a creative and iterative way.”
Overseer Matthew Nord (W’01), a senior partner at Apollo Global Management in New York, says his support was intended to honor Taylor’s work as dean as well as follow through on conversations that the Board of Overseers had been having for a number of years about the need for new facilities, faculty and fellowships. He also says he’s heard from friends whose children have had Ken Lum as a professor about how meaningful his work is.
“My hope is that the university continues to shine a spotlight on the school, because I think there’s so many amazing things that are going on,” Nord says. “I think Amy Gutmann has been really supportive. I think the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy is tremendous. I think Stuart Weitzman has been tremendous. I think the gala that we held in New York City last year [presenting the Kanter Tritsch Prize in Energy and Architectural Innovation] was tremendous. The School of Design is doing its part and, I think the University is doing its part too to help promote the school, and I think that’s important.”
Lum says he was “surprised and honored” to be appointed to a professorship bearing Taylor’s name.
“She continues to be a very important thinker in the world of design,” Lum says. “Her field is quite comprehensive, because it overlaps with civic networks. I think she’s a really good model in the sense that her interests touch on such a broad range of highly relevant areas.”