When Robert C. Davidson Jr. sold his business and retired as CEO from one of the largest African American-owned manufacturing companies in California more than a decade ago, he set out with a new purpose: to encourage and inspire young people, especially the underprivileged, through educational opportunities.
Though he didn’t know it at the time, that interest would set Davidson on a path to become the longest-serving board chair — and first black man in the role — at the internationally renowned ArtCenter College of Design, which he joined in 2004 while his son attended graduate school there. Soon after leading the committee that found a new president — Lorne Buchman — for the school in 2009, Davidson was elected the board of trustees’ chairman, overseeing the college’s unprecedented growth. That included a record-breaking capital campaign of $124 million, a facilities master plan and expansion at the school’s south campus, new state-of-the-art learning spaces and the launch of educational programs.
He also helped Buchman put the college on a course to increasing its revenue streams and growing an endowment to offer financial aid, aimed at ultimately diversifying the student body, faculty and board.
“We worked hard to do that, we increased diversity throughout the entire institution, from the board all the way down through the student body. We grew resources dedicated to going out into communities to attract people of color,” said Davidson, who recently stepped down as chairman to become chair emeritus. “Convincing students of color that art and design is something they should be pursuing is important … It just isn’t something that is formidably known or readily accessible in those communities, so we have doubled down on those efforts.”
In what some might deem a preview of his efforts at ArtCenter, Davidson earned early success in doubling down on diversifying America’s business model. In the 1970s, he cofounded and served as vice president of the Urban National Corp., a private venture capital company that was established to increase mainstream industry investment in minority-controlled businesses. That organization ultimately raised $10 million in capital from many Fortune 500 companies.
Asked about his success over the years, Davidson shrugged off accolades, saying only, “Never in my fondest imagination, had you asked me all those years ago what I was going to do with my life, would I have thought I’d have the privilege of doing so many things and having so many opportunities. The stars just aligned,” he said. “With God as my co-pilot and my wife as my navigator, we did it all. I’ve been very blessed.”
Growing up in the Jim Crow era of the 1950s in Memphis, Tennessee, Davidson became a civil rights activist as a young man, helping integrate white-only schools there. His parents were also considered visionaries: His mother opened a restaurant for black patrons in 1944 after seeing that African American soldiers had nowhere to eat in public, and Davidson grew up under foot, washing dishes, waiting on tables, hustling “in every way you have to” when running a restaurant, he recalled. His father opened the first and only black-owned bank, Tri State Bank (in which Davidson still owns his father’s shares), after growing tired of waiting to deposit money at the back door of white-owned institutions and of seeing blacks not being allowed to take out loans or mortgages at similar entities.
“They both were entrepreneurs,” noted Davidson, adding that it took him some time to follow the same path. Maybe it’s one of the reasons he can identify with students struggling for direction, he reasons: At first he enrolled as a premed student and “floundered,” graduating from Morehouse College with a Bachelor of Arts degree. But when he entered the University of Chicago School of Business, where he earned a full-ride scholarship, “I remember it was like it all began to click, the pieces just fell into place,” he said.
Eventually, new opportunities led him to California, where he met his wife in 1974, and “I knew I was home.”
Now retired, Davidson serves on multiple charity and professional boards, but still keeps his efforts close to the vest, noted his longtime friend Larry Edson.
“He’s an extremely philanthropic guy … He’s one of those that I would characterize as being at the top of the food chain when it comes to time, efforts and money that he dedicates,” Edson chuckled, adding that Davidson keeps it “modest and low key” and still takes time to help mentor young men. “I have the utmost respect for Bob; whenever he is called upon, he will be there. And you would never know how accomplished he is — he never talks about that, it’s just how he is.”
When he is deep in thought, Davidson will often incline his head slightly to his fingertips, “as if channeling directly into his brain,” recounted ArtCenter’s Buchman, who said he has considered Davidson an invaluable partner over the years.
“Working with Bob has been one of the greatest professional partnerships of my life. He’s a wonderful collaborator and an insightful, experienced and skillful leader. We’ve grown very close this past decade, and I cherish his friendship,” said Buchman, emphasizing that Davidson leads with his principles. “Bob is thoughtful, passionate and principled. His work as chair was always driven by his desire to serve the mission of the college. He is committed to great art and design education and is guided always by deep and abiding human values.”
Although Davidson was never schooled in the arts, he and his wife, Faye, have become formidable collectors of 19th and 20th century works, especially by African American artists. Faye Davidson is active in many art education programs in Pasadena, including the Art Alliance.
“My philosophy on art is this: Art chronicles history … it exemplifies the history we are living, and that is why it’s important to have all kinds of art by all [races] and ethnicities; it’s why it is so important to create more opportunities for new, young artists to come along,” Robert Davidson said.
That also channels into his passions at ArtCenter, where he believes kids can change the world. “This is not just figurative art we are talking about, it’s design, it’s problem solving for the world … Kids here are taking a problem they see facing society and creating solutions through design and engineering; we’re talking medical devices and portable water solutions, it’s incredible,” he said, excitedly detailing some of the most recent creations to come out of ArtCenter. “I’m extremely proud of the ArtCenter. Did you know 50% of all the cars on the road in the world are designed by an ArtCenter graduate? Every Apple Store is designed by an ArtCenter graduate? Every Samsung product? … These are the kinds of people ArtCenter is producing.”
To align with the varied, world-class products ArtCenter students have created, Davidson worked to expand the board of trustees from just nine members to 29 and to add women and men of different races and ethnicities, from all over the world: “We have to be representative of our students, who are creating products in the international sphere.”
Speaking to the backdrop of national protests supporting Black Lives Matter and calls for more racial equality and social justice, Davidson said for his part, it’s been riveting to see a new generation care so much and put those issues at the forefront of discussion again.
“I believe this is a watershed moment in the history of the United States. Although we were having the same conversation [in the 1960s and 1970s], the difference is that the conversation now is much broader. I’m very encouraged that it’s led by young people who are saying enough is enough, and it’s led by people of all races.”
While he and Buchman have publicly stated they are redoubling efforts to increase equity and opportunity to study at ArtCenter, Davidson lamented that he wasn’t able to do more when it came to diversifying the student body during his tenure as board chair. But it’s something he expects to see as chair emeritus, he added.
“We’ve made good progress, but we are not where we want to be. I want more students of color, more faculty of color … It’s not from a lack of effort, but it clearly takes time. But I am hopeful; diversity is at the very forefront of all [Buchman] and ArtCenter strategic plans.”