February 9, 2018

The Getty Center's "Savant of Media"

By Phenia Hovsepyan

Kevin McGowan graduated among the first cohort of the Media Arts+Practice division at  the USC School of Cinematic Arts in May 2017. A life-long Trojan fan from Palos Verdes, McGowan always aspired to attending SCA. However, the MA+P program was a surprise. He remembers getting a phone call after applying telling him he was being considered for a division that did not exist yet, and subsequently being hand-selected as one of the first twenty students to begin the program: “On day one, me and nineteen other people who were accepted came to class, and we didn’t know what was going on.” But the professors, he adds, “kind of knew” and together they were part of the inception of something new and exciting.

The fact that MA+P has no set boundaries was part of the appeal for McGowan. As he points out, “I enjoyed it being new. Other schools I had applied to had a mold that everyone had to fit, whereas this was a complete blank slate. I came into it with no expectations, and made it my own.” McGowan was able to work closely with his professors and peers to not only design his own curriculum, but that of future MA+P classes. That first year McGowan enjoyed being one of only twenty  students in the programs, and as MA+P grew, the personal attention continued. “I always felt like everyone was there for me whenever I needed them,” McGowan says.

Media Arts+Practice was created out of necessity, founded on the understanding that these days, creators need to understand how to apply new technologies in an ever-changing media landscape. The division attracts students who have an interest in cinema, digital art and design, as well the renegade spirit needed to discover new modes of storytelling. As Holly Willis, the director of the MA+P division, puts it, “We are looking for people who mix critical and social thinking with their work. Who have a spark of curiosity, adventure, and are really looking to make a difference in the world.”

MA+P’s uniqueness is also one of its challenges, for it cannot be easily defined or categorized. “The program draws on so many things that are different from traditional cinema making, such as English, communication, rhetoric, art, design, and technology. It is deeply cinematic, but cinematic for the 21st Century,” Willis says. She recalls that McGowan was among the most technologically inclined of all her students that first year, involving himself in interesting projects and mastering computational components. Writing code made other people “want to cry,” jokes Willis, but she says McGowan excelled in finding innovative ways to create and engage people with technology. He later took on a web development minor, furthering his know-how. Students and faculty were impressed with McGowan’s thesis project, Tangible HTML, in which he condensed the fundamentals of writing code to make it understandable for children.  

Like many parents, McGowan’s mother was concerned about his finding meaningful work after graduation. Her maternal anxiety was warranted, because unlike other divisions at SCA, there was no established alumni base or career examples specific to MA+P. McGowan and his classmates were paving the path for all those who would come after, in a time when artistic expression and technological development were becoming intrinsically linked. “The hardest thing about MA+P was that it was a major for a job that didn’t exist yet,” McGowan recalls. Consequently, helping to design your own curriculum in school translated to designing your own job. As McGowan has observed, “Every year more and more companies are realizing they need someone who can do anything with media. They need a savant of media, and that is what MA+P taught us to be.”

Thankfully his mother did not have to worry for long; McGowan was able to take his wide range of technological and artist skills to the Getty Center, where he now works as a digital strategist. “Anything having to do with a screen or a computer here, I touch,” McGowan explains. Surrounded by breathtaking views of Los Angeles and priceless works of art, McGowan is aware he has an “absolutely fantastic first job!” From video editing, to web design for special exhibits, to creating interactive applications, to reimagining audio tours, McGowan is quickly becoming the media savant of the Getty. He is able to expand on his own job title, constantly finding that he has the training to complete projects that would otherwise need to be outsourced. Add in the extra perks of having access to the museum before and after it opens to the public, and McGowan has found himself at the beginning of an exciting career: “I didn’t plan on being in the art world, but I am having a blast!”

Looking back at his time at USC, what stands out most to McGowan is how the School of Cinematic Arts taught him to look at storytelling. “Storytelling was at the heart of everything we did. Knowing how to break down a story into a three-part structure is something I use every day,” he explains. McGowan is currently working on designing videos for interactive kiosks at the Getty, and being able to visualize the entire user experience is proving to be as crucial an aspect of the job as technical programing.

Having graduated less than a year ago, Kevin McGowan is among the first alumni of the MA+P program that current and future students can look up to. His potential in the world of art and media is expansive, and may take him to museums all over the world. As for his mother, McGowan says she is very happy that her son is working at the Getty. “She keeps saying she is going to come visit with all of her friends for lunch, but hasn’t embarrassed me yet.”