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Profile in Leadership: James Frazier comes ‘home’ in new role as dean of FSU’s College of Fine Arts

Two-time Florida State alumnus James Frazier has returned to his alma mater to serve as dean of the College of Fine Arts. (FSU Photography Services/Bruce Palmer)
Two-time Florida State alumnus James Frazier has returned to his alma mater to serve as dean of the College of Fine Arts. (FSU Photography Services/Bruce Palmer)

More than 30 years ago, an undergraduate at Florida State University named James Frazier was running errands to and from the dean’s office of the College of Fine Arts, then the School of Visual Arts and Dance, as a work-study student. Today, Frazier occupies that same office, but as dean of the College of Fine Arts at FSU.

Frazier began learning the ins and outs of arts administration as a work-study student and graduate assistant, while earning his bachelor’s degree in marketing (1991) and a Master of Fine Arts in Dance (1994). Later, he served as the dance department’s publicity coordinator and as a visiting professor before returning to FSU after a 19-year hiatus.

“There’s something about this place that feels like home, and I’ve been blown away by how many people across campus know me,” Frazier said. “Being back here, at home, is surreal.”

While studying marketing at FSU in 1989, dance immediately captivated Frazier’s attention. Although he was a marketing major, he attended dance performances regularly, both at FSU and at Florida A&M University.

Inspired by a performance at FAMU, he returned to FSU, walking around Montgomery Hall (then called Montgomery Gym), where he knew dance was taught. By chance, he ran into a graduate student who happened to have been in the production he’d seen. This student invited Frazier to audit his beginning non-major jazz class that spring.

The following summer, Frazier took three more dance classes — non-major jazz, intermediate jazz and a beginning ballet class — before eventually deciding to audition for the dance department.

The first portion of the audition, ballet, was taught entirely in French and without demonstrations, Frazier recalled. At some point, he found himself standing in the center of the floor while people jumped around him in grandiose gestures. Frazier contemplated leaving until Gwynne Ashton, a professor of dance at the time, leaned down and whispered to him, “You did fine, dear.” Ashton’s recognition of his potential motivated Frazier to finish the audition and eventually earn acceptance into the department.

“Nobody was telling a little black boy from central Florida that he should think about dancing, so I never considered it as even possible,” Frazier said. “But when I found dance, my whole trajectory became really clear to me, and I’m not exaggerating.”

Frazier is still grateful for the opportunity.

“It wasn’t going to be easy and, in fact, in some ways I knew that’s how I wanted to do it,” he said. “I came into dance and it was hard, and I was a long way from it. It was going to take a lot of work and a lot of effort, and I still wanted to do it. They opened a door for me, and that was everything.”

In his role as dean, Frazier intends to bring the multidisciplinary college together by nurturing a sense of community between the diverse disciplines. (FSU Photography Services/Bruce Palmer)

Frazier stepped through the door, found his passion and with it, a successful career as an artist. He’s performed and toured with the Kokuma Dance Theatre Company of England and the Dallas Black Dance Theatre, and he was a founding member of the Edgeworks Dance Theatre in Washington, D.C.

His choreography has been presented at numerous universities, as well as The Kennedy Center, The National Museum and the Carter Barron Amphitheater. He is a past recipient of the Virginia Commission for the Arts Choreographic Fellowship, and he was commissioned to create a new ballet for the Richmond Ballet Company in 2009.

One of Frazier’s most influential mentors is Nancy Smith Fichter, a former chair of FSU’s Department of Dance, after whom the current School of Dance’s theatre is named. A critical mentor in his life, Fichter and Frazier remain in contact, and he continued to seek her guidance even after he was chairing a department himself.

“When I was a student at FSU and started in the dance department, my life became really clear for me,” Frazier said. “I knew exactly what I wanted to do, and that plan took me through doctoral study, to being a faculty member, all the way up to being a department chair. I did not and could not predict that I would be back at FSU in the role of dean.”

“When I was a student at FSU and started in the dance department, my life became really clear for me.”  — Dean James Frazier

Prior to his homecoming, Frazier spent 18 years at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), where he was associate dean for graduate studies and faculty affairs for the VCU School of Arts and chair of the department of dance and choreography.

During his time at VCU, Frazier served as the interim dean for the VCU School of Arts during the 2016-2017 academic year, overseeing almost 3,000 students, 170 teaching and research faculty, 200 adjunct faculty members, 33 staff members and a campus in Doha, Qatar.

While FSU is familiar territory for Frazier, there’s still a lot for the new dean to learn.

“Every day there’s new content, new folks and lots of details to learn about the college,” Frazier said. “I come from the dance program. In some ways I know it intimately, but much has changed over the years. As for the other programs, I’m getting my first deep look at them and assimilating as much as I can as quickly as I can.”

The arts have been a cornerstone of FSU for decades. The College of Fine Arts offers some of the most diverse and renowned programs at any public university, including a top 10 School of Dance, a School of Theatre ranked No. 7 by Princeton Review and a Department of Interior Architecture and Design that boasts a 98 percent job placement rate within six months of graduation.

Frazier views his appointment as dean as an opportunity to give back to the institution that has given him so much.

“I think that any work as an administrator at an institution is also about service, so this is not just about what I get, this is about me serving the students, the faculty and the institution,” Frazier said. “My No. 1 role is as an advocate on behalf of the students and the faculty in the college.”

Frazier also acknowledged the important role that the arts play in society.

“Art is not just a thing that gives us joy, though it does. It also makes us think in deep and profound ways,” Frazier said. “It’s everywhere, even in the things we don’t think about. When we have conversations about the importance of the arts versus the STEM fields, it’s like, is water more important than air? It’s all absolutely important.”

In his role as dean, Frazier intends to bring the multidisciplinary college together by nurturing a sense of community between the diverse disciplines. Like most students, Frazier was grounded in his chosen discipline of dance and didn’t interact much with the rest of the college. He wants to better support student and faculty colleagues’ engagement across various disciplines.

“For the College of Fine Arts (CFA), my goal is international excellence and increased visibility by promoting the achievements of the students and faculty,” Frazier said. “I want to help them to do the excellent work that they’ve been doing and allow them the opportunities to build upon that. I would like for more people to know what it is that we do.”

Frazier also wants to focus on bolstering the college’s schools and departments, shoring up administrative infrastructures and building new programming — academic and auxiliary — to make sure the college exists in full strength well into the future.

And, he said, improving the college’s facilities is among what he jokingly calls his “life’s work.”

As his life and career have come full circle, Frazier believes the skill that has benefitted him the most is the ability to be present.

“Be fully present for anything that you are doing,” Frazier said. “Every one of your experiences matters, even if it seems like a detour, because if you’re attentive you’ll learn something along the way. You might just find your calling.”

For more information about the College of Fine Arts, visit cfa.fsu.edu.