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Toppel Center Director Transforms Lives through Art

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    By Steve Pierre
    Special to UM News

    Christian Garcia is inspired daily by gaping void works at the Toppel Career Center.

    Christian Garcia knew Gapingvoid’s works would help the Toppel Career Center achieve its mission of inspiring students and visitors alike.

    Fire. The Internet. Selfies.

    Changes in culture have defined human lives throughout the ages. At the Toppel Career Center on the University of Miami’s Coral Gables campus, change has been top-of-mind for as long as Christian Garcia, associate dean and executive director of the center, can remember.

    “I love the word culture. It’s something we’ve been focusing on for many years at Toppel,” said Garcia. “We’re in a permanent state of reinvention.” For Garcia and his colleagues, part of that reinvention came in the winter of 2014 as the career center was poised to move into its new building and new location on Ponce de Leon Boulevard.

    State-of-the-art furniture, large bright spaces, and multiple rooms welcomed the staff into their new home, but there was something missing. “I knew we needed to bring this building to life somehow,” he said. Upon returning from the holiday break, a former colleague presented him with a special gift: a Gapingvoid book featuring images of various art pieces touching on entrepreneurship.

    “I remember flipping through [the book] and falling in love not only with the illustrations, but with the messages conveyed through them,” Garcia recalls. “They were very tongue in cheek and modern, and in the back of my mind, here I was, in this building that had nothing on the walls, knowing that we needed to bring this building to life somehow.”

    At the end of the book, Garcia knew it had fallen into his hands for a reason. “I saw that they [Gapingvoid] were based in Miami Beach, and the first thing I did was give them a call to ask if they would consider a full-scale installation of their art at an institution of higher education,” Garcia explained. Soon after the call, Jason Korman, co-founder and CEO, Hugh MacLeod, co-founder and creative director, and their team were at the Toppel Career Center.

    Gapingvoid provides creative services based on the drawings and sensibilities of MacLeod, who in this case, was more than excited at the prospect of helping Garcia achieve his goal of creating a dynamic space for visitors. Over the month leading up to the building’s dedication ceremony, the Gapingvoid team observed the staff and their interactions with students, alumni, and partner companies. As Gapingvoid roamed the hallways of Toppel, they began picking out messaging that would be included for certain areas of the building based on the area’s purpose.

    “One of the things I thought was interesting from the beginning was how they actually wanted to partner with us to create personalized pieces for our spaces, rather than have us select from their existing pieces,” said Garcia. “We believed in what they did, but they also wanted to learn about us and understand our vision and what we do.”

    That partnership led to continuous dialogue resulting in 80 unique pieces of art curated specifically for the center.

    “I knew that we had a huge responsibility to add a sense of inspiration for our students and visitors,” Garcia said. “There were so many options we could have gone with, but Gapingvoid inspired us with their elements of motivation through art.”

    With no expectations set in stone about what the building should look like, Garcia and his team were able to capitalize on the opportunity to inspire not only visitors to the center, but themselves as well, by transforming their workspace.

    “The art is inspiring and motivating because it is so unique and eccentric. It makes a simple task like walking down the hall more fun and engaging,” said Samantha Haimes, associate director of career readiness and staff member at Toppel since 2012.

    Haimes attributes Gapingvoid’s pieces to a visually and mentally stimulating setting for herself and her colleagues. “I constantly find myself noticing pieces that I haven’t given much attention to in the past or haven’t thought about the same way, which makes my everyday work environment more exciting.”

    The staff has even found themselves infusing the pieces into their presentations with students, employers, and alumni.

    One of Haimes’ favorites, “Inspire, Be Inspired,” motivates her to help students follow their passions, while others continuously inspire her. This has resulted in a positive experience for students, especially those who have an opportunity to work with the staff at Toppel.

    “The artwork conveys the message that you can do anything you put your mind to, and creates an inspiring environment that is supported by the Toppel team,” said Amelia Abe, a junior marketing major and student employee at the center.

    “When it comes down to it, we’re spending more time in our workspace than we do at home. We spend a lot of time making sure our home looks a certain way, so why not expand that to our workspace?” Garcia explained. “As beautiful as your home or office may be, even a small change such as adding artwork can go a long way.”

    He also believes that knowing the purpose of your work, your environment, and your primary audience is critical when considering this type of transformation. In this case, Garcia felt that what Gapingvoid had to offer in terms of innovative art was just right. “Gapingvoid inspired us with their personalized pieces that are motivational, thought-provoking, and contemporary.”

    More than a year later, and with the collection now at a total of 85 pieces, the artwork continues to serve as a daily reminder for the Toppel team of their goals day in and day out. “We really believe in working hard and being passionate about what we do. We have fun, but we take our work seriously,” said Garcia.

    The walls immerse visitors in the true purpose of the center and explain more than any presentation or flyer could ever do. “Sometimes you have to take a chance on transforming your workspace. With one change you can truly make a positive impact on cultural transformation.”

    DIRECCT Talk focuses on the ways faculty and staff exemplify the DIRECCT values—diversity, integrity, respect, excellence, compassion, creativity, and teamwork—that drive UM’s culture.

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