The Big Picture Improves at Otis/Parsons Art School

Times Staff Writer

Dawn Teitelbaum didn't have to wait long to hit the big time in her corner of the world.

A year and a half after graduating from the Otis Art Institute of Parsons School of Design, the 22-year-old has her poster for "No Man's Land," a critically acclaimed new release starring Charlie Sheen, playing across the country right along with the movie.

For Teitelbaum, a 1986 graduate of the school, this is a "major" break, an exciting beginning to a career in graphic design and illustration. It also is indicative that the Los Angeles school, after surviving a near-death experience in the late 1970s, has discovered a formula for academic health and longevity.

From a school that struggled along with fewer than a hundred students 10 years ago, Otis/Parsons apparently has gone beyond regeneration and now is a heavyweight contender among the country's fine arts schools. It now graduates 100 to 125 students a year out of an enrollment of 750 full-time students--plus about 20 graduate students and 800 continuing education students.

Expansion Planned

Moreover, the college, which lures students from around the country and the world to the glitter of Los Angeles, has become something of a hit with this city's image makers. Artists, architects, fashion designers and society mavens have become teachers, patrons, supporters and judges of student work. That support will be most concretely illustrated over the next few months as the school begins construction of a $12-million expansion building that will include space for a studio, library and auditorium.

Perhaps somewhat ironically, Otis/Parsons has become a place where thousands of the well-heeled and trend-conscious flock to yearly sales of student work, although the school emphasizes a non-elitist approach to art and is located in the not-so trendy MacArthur Park neighborhood.

"I think one of the things we stress around here is art as a public service, not a private service," says Roger Workman, the school's dean and top administrator. "You don't find a whole lot of therapy going on in the classrooms . . . We've really stressed getting your work out there and hitting the market with it . . . there is so much energy associated with the attitude that art is not a precious commodity."

Practicality apparently has a good deal to do with the school's resurgence.

A Million-Dollar Drain

When the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors narrowly voted to turn the school over to New York's innovative New School for Social Research and its Parsons School of Design nine years ago this month, the school was a million-dollar drain on the county budget. And that was bad news in the days following the voters' overwhelming approval of Proposition 13, the pioneering property tax-cut measure. (The school still retains some ties to the county but they are mostly formal and are required to meet stipulations in the will of Gen. Harrison Gray Otis, founder of The Times, who donated land for the school, founded in 1917.)

Today the school raises its $7-million annual budget through tuition--$7,500 a year--and charitable support. One of its successes has been the student fashion show as fund-raiser. This year's event, featuring designer James Galanos, netted $250,000, compared with $50,000 five years ago when the first show was staged.

So far, the school's unusual arrangement as the West Coast branch of an East Coast school has worked out well, says the New School's president, Jonathan Fanton, who maintains a close telephone and face-to-face relationship with Workman, who travels to New York two or three times a month.

The New School, once home to painter Thomas Hart Benton and composer Aaron Copland, is especially pleased that Otis/Parsons has risen in rank to fifth or sixth among the nation's art schools, Fanton said. Workman himself concedes that a decade ago the school probably wasn't even in the top 50 of the 150 accredited art schools in the country.

In the aftermath of the county's spinoff, the school added departments such as communication design (graphic arts, product design and illustration), fashion design, environmental design, photography, ceramics and graphic design to its fine arts program. Workman says 90% of the school's faculty work full time in their professions.

Former students say that their training--although maintaining a base is fine arts--is geared to the reality of the marketplace.

"They really do encourage originality but they also really do show you what will work out in the real world," says Lisa Lyons, a 1985 graduate from Portland, Ore., and now head designer for a division of Catalina, a Los Angeles apparel manufacturer. "They make you grow up."

Change in Student Attitudes

Instructor Will Weston, who teaches a course in painting for illustration, says he has noticed a change in student attitudes and flamboyance over the last few years.

"They're less countercultural and more young urban professional types," he explains, noting that the campus used to contain a lot of diversity--from "hard-core punks to 'Leave It to Beaver' kids from the (San Fernando) Valley." He adds, however, that students now are ethnically more diverse, reflecting the demographic changes in the city and state as well as an influx of foreign students from some 20 foreign countries.

Workman emphasizes, however, that the school doesn't put its students in academic straitjackets in the name of pragmatism.

"I think our curriculum is set up so that all of the structure and all of the discipline begins at day one and then loosens up so that by the time they're seniors, they work on independent projects side-by-side with faculty," he says.

Nor does Workman want the school to impose an artistic version of a cattle brand on its students.

"I don't want Otis to ever have a particular style," he says. "I don't want us to be known for any particular way of doing something. I don't want somebody to open a portfolio and says, 'Boy, that kid went to Otis.' "

While students are almost universally committed to studying art, they may be less enthusiastic about the college's emphasis on liberal arts courses such as English composition and usage.

Mecca for Top Art Students

"It's not unusual to see somebody pull A's and B's in their studio courses and getting D's and F's in their liberal arts courses because they just don't care about them," Workman says.

Nonetheless, Workman says, "I like to think also that these are the kids who want to go to college. They just don't want to go to art school. . . . It's not like Harvard obviously. They tend to be non-academic-oriented kids because nobody ever asked them to be. But they also tend to be the top art students in their high schools."

Teitelbaum, still elated over her movie poster, says effusively: "I learned everything I know there."

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