It started out like any of his other courses, but Royce Smith's idea to take his class to the Havana Biennial Art Exhibition in May 2012 culminated in a major honor this summer.
Smith, an associate professor of Modern and Contemporary Art History at Wichita State University and newly appointed director of the School of Art and Design, became the first professor from the United States to be invited by the Cuban Ministry of Culture to teach at its national art school, Instituto Superior de Artes (ISA).
As a visiting professor of Contemporary Art History and Criticism, Smith's passion for art has become a bridge between neighboring nations and an inspiration for students at ISA in Havana and at Wichita State.
"Just philosophically speaking," Smith said, "the idea of who and what constitute 'America' is extremely important to me. When casually speaking about cultures, origins and identities, many people in the United States tend to think of 'America' as something that's ours, but America umbrellas a range of different people, places and ideas."
That concern is what put Cuba in Smith's mind.
"If we have a culture that's located less than 100 miles off of the U.S. coast and a rich history of interconnectedness between the mainland and the Caribbean, how can our art and design students serve as cultural ambassadors and try to better understand our underlying similarities and differences?" Smith said.
There was a lot of interest when Smith initially brought up the idea of taking a class to Cuba, a controversial destination with a strong culture of supporting the arts. In the past, Smith's classes have traveled to Istanbul, Sao Paulo, Sydney and Venice, but the Cuba class was the first time he had to offer two sections and make two trips with students.
The venue for that exhibition was the ISA, the Cuban national art school, and the faculty there encouraged dialog between their students and the visitors from WSU.
Smith started talking with ISA administrators about what it would be like to have more normalized relations with one another, which started a conversation about his coming back to work with Cuban students at the university. After what seemed like a very long wait, the Cuban government gave its blessing for Smith to teach at the university.
Smith said that the knowledge that two geographic neighbors could develop such different cultures was an important component of the venture.
"It is something that students can't appreciate until they visit and have the opportunity to engage and interact. Getting my students to be part of the dialog is what motivated me to go down there in the first place."
It was no small task.
"There was a lot of red tape," Smith said, "but it turned out to be one of the most rewarding experiences I've ever had."
'The fire inside'
Smith described students in Cuba as being incredibly resourceful.
"Even though they have modest means to realize projects and create works, their passion and creativity serve as the platforms to turn ideas and dreams into actions and interventions."
That was something that inspired not only Smith, but his students.
"We often complain about what the art world doesn't have or what it's being denied," he said, "but down there, material and economic denial is actual, profound and part of the fabric of everyday life; it's not just perceived. I think that's the most important lesson my students took away from the experience, that if you have the fire inside to work in the arts, then you have to make it happen regardless of the circumstances that loom in front of you."
In addition to his teaching and new administrative duties as director of the School of Art and Design, Smith has also been appointed the first curator of an official biennial art exhibition in Asuncion, Paraguay, an official cultural activity that will launch in 2016 and include a range of artworks from the Americas, including some by Wichita State's studio arts faculty.
He will coordinate another student trip to Cuba along with WSU Distinguished Professor of Photography Larry Schwarm next March.
Other trips forming a part of Smith's fall 2014 courses will include the biennales of Gwangju and Busan in South Korea, the Shanghai Biennale in China, and the Yokohama Triennial in Japan.