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CalArts names Ravi Rajan president, the first Asian American to be named to the post

Ravi S. Rajan, the dean of the School of the Arts at Purchase College, State University of New York, was named president of the California Institute of the Arts on Tuesday following a unanimous board vote.

Rajan, a musician, teacher and administrator who has also worked in computer animation, will be CalArts’ fourth president — and its first Asian American head.

Rajan says he is excited to take the helm at a school that has long harbored a confluence of ideas and an institutional ethos of experimentation.

“That’s what’s hugely exciting about this opportunity,” he said via telephone on Tuesday. “And at this moment, it’s more important than ever. Our immediate politics, our understanding of our differences — we’ve gone to a different place. It’s at this open moment where we are going to define a new set of rules, and I think culture-makers need to be there defining the rules.”

Rajan has worked at SUNY Purchase College for 16 years and was named dean of the School of the Arts in 2012. In that role, he launched a $100-million capital renovation of the art and design facilities and helped strengthen the college’s philanthropic efforts. He also spearheaded the creation of a master’s degree titled Entrepreneurship in the Arts, intended to help students learn how to launch their own arts organizations.

“People confuse it and they think it’s a business thing, but it’s not,” he says. “It’s this desire to create new small entities in the arts. ... There is this hegemonic thing that is happening with the big concert hall and the big museum and they take a lot of attention and money. But the cultural sector is not going to diversify unless we put some attention on the small, unique gesture.”

Rajan, the son of Indian immigrants, was born in Seattle and raised in Norman, Okla. — an experience that convinced him of the vital point of connection the arts can play in bringing together people of vastly different experiences.

“Having a home culture be so different from the outside culture, the arts played an important role for me,” he says. “I studied photography and music as a kid — important places for us to share who we are.”

Rajan is a graduate of the University of Oklahoma, where he studied education, and Yale University, where he earned a degree in music. A trumpet player, he has performed in musical ensembles of all sizes, including theater productions on and off Broadway. The connection to theater is one he maintains: Rajan is a member of the Tony Awards Nominating Committee.

He has also worked in the various technological aspects of installation design for mixed-media projects with artists, directors and choreographers — most recently with documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras in her solo exhibition “Astro Noise” at New York’s Whitney Museum, which combined elements of moving image and installation.

The announcement of Rajan’s appointment came after a lengthy international search, during which the board at CalArts evaluated more than 500 candidates.

“Ravi shows the fiery passion for the arts that was at the core of CalArts founding,” board chairman Tim Disney said in a statement on Tuesday. “His commitment to excellence and exploration and innovation will help continue CalArts’ rich legacy and unbounded future.”

Rajan says that his work at Purchase College has prepared him for the demands of CalArts.

“Purchase was born in a similar moment — in that 1970s turning point, those visionary moments,” he says. “The faculty is all practicing artists. And you take kids, and you help them render their ideas into new work.”

Rajan will take over from longtime president Steven Lavine, who announced his retirement in 2015. Lavine, who has run the school for almost three decades, helped transform CalArts into an internationally renowned center for art and ideas.

“I’m not even thinking about filling his shoes,” says Rajan. “I don’t think anyone can replace Steven Lavine.”

Rajan begins his tenure in June. He has never lived in California, but says he is looking forward to it.

“The sunshine, the tacos, the culture,” he says. “And this energy of being able to create something new.”

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