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ISU dean Jean Miller retires, advancing fine arts complex after multiple delays

A woman with shoulder-length blonde hair is standing outdoors in front of a tree with green foliage. She is wearing a blue blazer over a red top and is smiling at the camera. The background is a sunlit grassy area with light shadows.
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Jean Miller
Wonsook Kim College of Fine Arts dean Jean Miller retires June 30 after nine years at Illinois State University.

Jean Miller's remarkable tenure as dean of the Wonsook Kim College of Fine Arts concludes this month. Miller retires after nine years at the helm of Illinois State University’s fine arts programs, governing four academic schools plus the Illinois Shakespeare Festival, University Galleries and the Big Red Marching Machine.

Miller’s background is in painting; she taught visual art for a decade following studies at St. Cloud State University and California College. As an administrator, she established a track record for fundraising, project management and program development.

“I loved being at the table, sharing ideas and coming up with strategies,” Miller said. “I gravitated toward leadership, became chair of an art department, and followed the breadcrumbs.”

Among Miller's key accomplishments at ISU was landing a $12 million donation from visual artist and ISU alumna Wonsook Kim and her husband, Thomas Clement, in 2019 — a gift that came with naming rights for both the college and School of Art.

“She did talk about being a little nervous about that,” Miller said. “Having her name out there in the public all the time — she wondered if that was a wise thing to do. We were thrilled to have that because it gave the college an identity. It’s on every banner, it’s on our University Galleries and plaques throughout the campus. I say Wonsook Kim so many times a day. I never take it for granted.”

School of Creative Technologies

Another of Miller’s major accomplishments was establishing the School of Creative Technologies earlier this year, providing academic pathways for students interested in audio and music production, video game design and interdisciplinary technologies such as graphic design and virtual reality.

Interdisciplinary study combining technology and the arts stem back to 1999, spearheaded by professor emeritus David Williams, who retired in 2006.

Creative Technologies has always been evolving,” Miller said. “But student interest really pushed us forward as we recognized what they were coming to fine arts for.”

Similarly, the newly renamed School of Theatre, Dance and Film is nearly one-third film students, further demonstrating students’ interest in technology-driven programs. Bucking the trend, Miller said those enrollments have not simply shifted from more conventional arts majors like music performance and studio arts to more technology-driven programs. Numbers are up all around.

“Our music enrollments with trumpet, tuba, oboe and bassoon—which really surprised me—are all full,” she said. “We’re having to hire more faculty to teach a second studio in each of those areas. If you think about those more traditional arts, they’ve been around for centuries, and they aren’t going away.”

Fine arts complex delayed — again

A much-needed update to ISU’s fine arts facilities is one project that evaded Miller during her tenure. After yet another delay, bids for a new fine arts complex will go out this fall, with groundbreaking anticipated for spring 2025.

In 2020, Gov. JB Pritzker was the third governor to visit ISU’s campus attempting to move the project forward after its approval in 2009. Expected costs have ballooned to nearly $70 million since Pritzker released more than $50 million of state funds for the project, which was, until recently, expected to break ground this summer.

“We have planned every piece of it, down to the sockets on the wall,” Miller said. “I’m excited about it. It will change the whole culture as well as the look of the campus.”

In the meantime, ISU's fine arts programs have made do with money allocated to deferred maintenance in 2019 by former Gov. Bruce Rauner, after spending $6 million of university funding on plumbing and other critical issues.

The ongoing delays have forced some programs to get creative. Film students venture to Rantoul for access to a sound stage, for example, as they await a dedicated space for film production courses. And Miller fostered a partnership with Eastland Mall, moving studio arts graduate students’ studios and classrooms to an empty wing once housing Bergner’s department store. She counts that partnership, and ones with Illinois Symphonyand Central Illinois Regional Airport, where the college operates an art gallery, as some of her proudest accomplishments.

In retirement, Miller plans to return to her studio and paint more. And she’ll be back for the ribbon-cutting to the project she brought to the line, but not over it, before her departure.

“I’m a little disappointed by the timing,” she said. “But I also feel like I did the really interesting part of it. I’m a planner. I’ve loved my part and I’m excited to hand it off to the next administration.”

Scott Irelan, associate dean at Western Michigan University with a background in theater arts, succeeds Jean Miller following her departure on June 30.

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.