Building a Documentary Center

CDS director Tom Rankin reflects the growth of center's mission over his 15 years as director

Tom Rankin, right, discusses documentary art with actor/director Robert Redford when Redford visited Duke to receive the Nicholas School's LEAF Award.  Photo by Chris Hildreth
Tom Rankin, right, discusses documentary art with actor/director Robert Redford when Redford visited Duke to receive the Nicholas School's LEAF Award. Photo by Chris Hildreth

In the world of documentary arts, Duke University and Durham have clout these days.

The Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, a program of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke, has made downtown Durham the place to be for documentary film every April for the past 15 years.

A new graduate degree program, the Master of Fine Arts in Experimental and Documentary Arts, has the distinction of being the university's first MFA program, enrolling 15 students a year.

At Duke's David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library, the Archive of Documentary Arts is an important collection of contemporary documentary film, complementing the library's impressive holdings in other images, from daguerreotypes to contemporary digital prints.

At the nexus of these and other things documentary is the Center for Documentary Studies. Founded in 1989 at Duke University as the country's first academic institution devoted to the pursuit of the documentary form, it has been led since 1998 by Tom Rankin.  At the end of his third five-year term on June 30, 2013, Rankin will turn to full-time teaching and directorship of the MFA program at Duke.

In his years at CDS, Rankin has used documentary arts to bridge the university and off-campus communities. That mission has resulted in the growth of undergraduate and continuing education course offerings alongside numerous public arts endeavors, ranging from DoubleTake Magazine to the Behind the Veil oral history project, documenting the lives of African Americans in 22 Southern communities during the era of segregation.

"From the earliest days of its founding, the center has had an undeniably relevant and distinctive mission," Rankin said. "Bill Chafe, Bob Coles, Alex Harris, and Iris Tillman Hill wove a rich vision into the center from the very start, and that was part of the attraction of coming to CDS in the first place.

"What I imagined when I came was the chance to grow our programs fully into that mission by deepening our commitment to teaching and presenting the documentary arts. While I never really had a template or model, I used as my compass a kind of common sense that I hold to: that even the most academic of ideas and products always have relevance in the larger world, in the backyards and public spaces of community life. And that, in short, is an abiding principle of all good documentary work."

During Rankin's tenure as director, CDS has become an internationally recognized documentary arts institution annually offering 35-40 undergraduate courses and more than 70 continuing education classes and workshops leading to certificates in both programs. Integral to these educational experiences are the center's exhibitions, books, awards, radio programming, multimedia production, fieldwork projects, and the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, which started as the DoubleTake Documentary Film Festival in the basement of CDS the first year Rankin arrived at Duke.

"Since then, and after a name change, Full Frame has become one of the most significant documentary film gatherings anywhere, while also becoming integral to the arts scene in Durham, to students and others at Duke, and to the cultural economy of the area," Rankin said.

That blend of scholarly work, the accessibility of film, and the engaging public presentation of compelling stories is at the root of the power of the documentary form, he said.

"For me, all documentary work is local, that is, you can only do it in person, in place, and Durham is central to our work," Rankin said. "If we can't be effective in collaborating with the community through documentary work in Durham, then we likely will be challenged in other places. And, I've always believed that what we do in Durham day to day can have great impact far beyond."

Rankin arrived at CDS with a $2.4 million grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts for a national photography and audio project called Indivisible: Stories of American Community, which produced a traveling museum exhibition, touring free-postcard installation, book with CD, and multimedia website. This was followed by the Jazz Loft Project, which included a radio series, website and blog, book, and traveling exhibition.

The CDS book publishing program -- including photographic monographs, the biennial CDS/Honickman First Book Prize in Photography volume and a new series in Documentary Arts and Culture that Rankin and Iris Tillman Hill edit in collaboration with UNC Press -- has published numerous important documentary artists. CDS exhibitions, in four galleries on site and at other venues across the country, expose new audiences to the documentary arts. CDS radio programs are centerpieces on National Public Radio, including an upcoming series on democracy in action funded by the MacArthur Foundation. The continuing education program attracts students from across the country with its certificate courses and summer institutes.

"When we hired Tom, we wanted someone with a distinctive vision in the documentary field who could take a young university-based center and fulfill its mission of becoming a recognized leader in teaching, producing, and presenting documentary work," said history professor William Chafe, a co-founder of CDS and chair of the CDS Board of Directors. "Tom has far exceeded our expectations. I can't imagine anyone else who could have stepped in and accomplished what he has during this time."

"Tom's decision to transition to new duties at the university occurs at a natural time in the evolution of the Center for Documentary Studies, which thanks to his efforts is a great asset to Duke and in the larger public realm," said Provost Peter Lange. "We are grateful for his excellent work, and very fortunate to be able to keep his talents and expertise at Duke."

A national search for a new director is under way. The search committee, chaired by Professor William Chafe, is accepting applications until September 1, 2012.

Rankin, a professor of the practice of art and documentary studies in the Department of Art, Art History & Visual Studies at Duke, will continue to teach and to direct the MFA program after June 30, 2013. A widely exhibited photographer, writer and editor, and award-winning folklorist who chaired the American Folklife Center's board at the Library of Congress for six years, Rankin will also devote more time to developing his own documentary projects.

Photo below: Rankin speaks at the opening reception for the MFA/EDA Carpentry shop. Photo by Joel Mora.

Tom Rankin