CalArts: The Transition Years

CalArts: The Transition Years

The California Institute of the Arts had a beginning that is sort of famous for the students and faculty of the school. Not every new college goes through what CalArts went through. Then it transitioned into what it is today.

Let’s take a look.

CalArts was the dream of Walt Disney, feel free to watch The CalArts Story. I swear that the narrator sounds like Sebastian Cabot. In it we see the dream was to place the school in downtown Los Angeles. In the video is laid out the mission statement for CalArts: professional working faculty, not academia; all of the arts under one roof; emphasis on inter-disciplinary work; experimental as well as traditional work. I looked up the mission statement today on the web site and none of that stuff is there anymore; yet, I swear it was there before.

One thing to always remember about CalArts is that no one is where they belong. The building was not finished, there was no money for the Theater wing (Walt was dead by this time). So, the scene shop for the Theater School is in the performance space for the Dance School; the Dance School performs in the space for the Music School with great acoustics and underneath the floor is a space for an elevator orchestra pit; the Music School performs in a film viewing room for the Film School, note the control booth with the metal fire shutters and it used to have a toilet (mandatory for projectionists at that time); the Art School offices are where the library was supposed to be; the Library got moved under the Modular Theater which was supposed to be storage and the Film School is scattered everywhere. The first step into CalArts has always been out of step with the design and dream of Walt Disney.

I’m sure the Art School has always wanted its studios back. This dance studio has beautiful windows facing north for a perfect environment to paint or draw.

CalArts MFA Dance student Wen-Chu Yang's Thesis Dance rehearsal.

The campus opened in 1970. It really was an experiment. The Alumni Association considers someone an alum if they were on campus for two years whether they got a diploma or not. A lot of people showed up to see what was happening, to participate, to get what they needed and then moved on.

Here are some dancers maybe? From 1973.


Everyone wants to stop in the Main Gallery to listen to the great Benny Goodman.


CalArts is a great location for movies and television. It is large building with wide hallways. It is private property so Location Scouts love the idea of no parking permits. There are dressing rooms all over the place. It was common to pull up onto campus in the morning and see the star trailers and a big truck with a generator on it; if you wanted to watch the shoot, then just follow the cables!

Shows like Murder She Wrote and Air Wolf were shot there, I remember the helicopters on the lawn. One of the first feature films shot on campus was Woody Allen’s Sleeper, the first indoor scene is in the Modular Theater. The last feature was The Wizard, the final scene was also shot in the Mod.

It was cool. I believe that in 1989, the actor’s union changed their rules on how far they had to drive to get to a location. That shut out CalArts from shoots for television and movies.

My first semester at CalArts I thought, “this is the place for me”. My mentor was concerned that I worked on eleven projects outside of my student assignments during my first semester. At Thanksgiving I asked, “where is everyone going?” it was my attitude that holiday breaks give more time to work on things without classes getting in the way.

The school was open 24/7/365 and busy around the clock. The big thing was (from the mission statement) interdisciplinary shows; everywhere. Shows in the Main Gallery, the many theaters, hallways, in the parking lot, soccer field: seriously, everywhere all of the time. The weekends were the around the clock busy times of student work.

I was on the Interdisciplinary Committee, doling out dollars and advice. The goal was to spend all of the budget and then ask for more. Shows don’t cost much, you need a space and some lights and maybe sound — all easily found on campus. I wish I could describe how lively the campus was; I’d get out of a theater performance at 10pm and the night was just starting, something was sure to be happening in the Main Gallery.

Here is a snap of the Main Gallery in 1979. How many different things are going on at once?


The vast majority of Notable CalArts Alumni are all from the first twenty years when it was still a big experiment. Tim Burton, Don Cheadle, John Lasseter and all those Pixar guys, Ed Harris and many more (CalArts Art owned NYC in the 70’s), I think this makes the case that the experiment was successful.

Of course, there was the down side. There was no money, Fitzpatrick spent the endowment twice. You could smoke and drink anywhere (in classes, cafeteria, theater) and simply smash your butts out on the floor. The school was filthy. Art students made their own studios with theater flats and lived in them, the mice were well fed. Vans in the parking lot had extension cords running to the dorms. It was dangerous. Yes, under-age drinking, drugs and the like but zero violence.

I’d be curious, if I could look at budgets, at how much the Music School has paid for music stands. I tell ya, I’ve seen stands at the Luckman, LACE, the Electric Lodge, the library; all over Los Angeles! Each year they buy stands and they toddle off to dorm rooms, apartments and performance spaces. Golly, they must consider them a consumable!

So, how did it transition to today? I guess the decision was made to keep the school going. In the early years, faculty contracts were for two years with no guarantee that the school would be open that next year.

Steven Lavine was hired as president. The thought was that he’d be a fund raiser more than actively leading the artistic direction of the school. He raised the tuition by ten percent each of his first three years. Soon it would no longer be a school to come check out but instead an expensive private art college.

He also tried to replace all of the deans with very quiet people.

He offered the deans a quid pro quo; if they would raise their enrollment, then he could give money for faculty to teach the new students. The deans fought and fought and fought to have full-time faculty (except for the Music School which obviously has to hire single instrument specialists for the wide range of students in the various programs).

It was a disaster. The Art and Music school took the offer. Registration Day the next semester saw the permanent sacrifice of the upper gallery of the Main Gallery to hastily throw up some art studios. There was no place to put the new music students and no place to practice. Drummers drummed in protest, believe me; it was loud but I supported them.

The Northridge Earthquake in 1994 was a big thing. I think that it may have been my best semester at CalArts. Everyone who was there really wanted to be there. Every work was such a hassle to complete that the effort itself was admired as much as the work itself. Fantastic.

However, when we all came back to the new clean fresh campus, we had a generation of students who had not learned from those before. The wild non-stop interdisciplinary student-driven shows stopped. It was over.

I guess that I have to say something about RedCat. I’ll keep my distaste to a minimum. It could have been a nice theater with comfy seats and a movie screen. It could have been a small proscenium stage with a main curtain — imagine that no performing student at CalArts has learned how to use a curtain. Instead it is another experimental flexible space with hard steel edges, steel infused with the bitterness of thousands who have traveled through there and tried to make it a theater. The price tag was outrageous and a stupid pandering to egos.

Today, CalArts offers an expensive liberal arts education. The only part of the original mission statement left is that all of the students under one roof. Inter-disciplinary has been redefined for convenience and mostly done under the safe guidance of a faculty project.

CalArts is a good school. The honesty of art-making is a through-line that has run through the place since day one and that is unique. Sadly, a liar can go far before being exposed as a fraud. The Board of Trustees has always been great; why Steven Lavine separated them from the campus will always be a mystery.

And the campus is awesome. Walt is frozen in the basement.



Note the CalArts Signature: the bite out of the Mickey ear!

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