A Prettier Picture : Under John Lottes, the Art Institute Is Shaping Up Financially and Aiming to Raise Its Profile

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The leafy view from John W. Lottes' office-cum-treehouse, nestled among the sycamores that line Laguna Canyon, often can take the edge off the most stressful day. The same view, however, can also spark fretful memories.

Less than a year ago, firefighters were battling canyon-ravaging flames to keep them from reaching the Art Institute of Southern California, Orange County's only private four-year art college, where Lottes is president.

Disaster twice forced the school to close for four days--during the fire and again during subsequent mudslides--and prompted a dozen students to withdraw.

A dozen is a lot when your total enrollment is 135 full- and part-time students.

"We had a party for firefighters on Thanksgiving," Lottes recalled recently, "and the kids for the first time sort of let their hair down and said they were afraid the place wasn't going to be here, that their school would be gone. . . . Some of the kids just said, 'I'll see ya,' and they bailed out."

Other students, however, stayed the course, and now, having graduated, have started their own firms or won admission to prestigious schools to pursue advanced degrees. (The institute this fall will complete its first "comprehensive report" tracking graduates, Lottes said.)

The school also met its budgeted enrollment minimum of 115 full-time students last year, scoring another point for Lottes' administration, which has managed to erase an inherited $68,000 deficit, finish the past two years in the black, give the faculty modest raises and edge enrollment up.

"When I came here, the school was in survival mode," Lottes said.

Challenges persist. The head of similar arts institutes in Oregon, Minnesota and Missouri in the '60s, '70s and '80s, Lottes wants to heighten the school's visibility, which he admits is poor, increase salaries, restore programs cut before his tenure and get on with a long-stalled physical expansion, which may set off tenacious local environmentalists.

He also has to deal with the school's critics: One top local graphic design professional says that the school's curriculum is lightweight, and a former student complains that instructors are lenient.

Such gripes didn't prevent the institute's board last month from renewing Lottes' three-year contract. "He's an excellent chief executive," says board chairman Leon Lyon.

The board isn't alone in its recent praise of Lottes and the 33-year-old school.

"I think he's changed the whole atmosphere of the place," said Jim Lashley, an architect and member of the volunteer Arts Commission of Laguna Beach. "He's full of ideas, and his approach is one of getting things done."

"The institute is an unsung hero," said R. Dean Gerrie, president of Irvine's Dula Gerrie Design, a leading graphic design firm. Gerrie recently taught graphic design at the school and has employed its student interns. "The level of creativity is spectacular," he said.

Lottes already had set a recent record by completing his first three years at the art and design school. (No president in its last decade--there have been eight--stayed as long.) And that hasn't hurt the school's effort to win accreditation from the Western Assn. of Schools and Colleges (WASC).

The institute was accredited in 1985 by the National Assn. of Schools of Art and Design, but WASC's imprimatur would increase the number of schools at which graduates of the Art Institute may pursue advanced degrees.

WASC staff members, who periodically visit and evaluate candidate schools, have been chiefly concerned about the institute's fiscal strength and "continuity of leadership," Lottes said. They have visited twice since 1989 and are scheduled to return in 1996.

Having "turned around our finances" and increased enrollment, "things are looking good," Lottes said. He is, however, loath to take the credit, preferring to hand that to his board of trustees.

"In my judgment, one of the most significant limitations of the mid- to late '80s was trustee interference with the institute's management," he said. "When I came, the board pledged that that was history, and they've been true to their word."

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Lottes, 60, came to the Art Institute after four years as president of the Oregon School of Arts and Crafts in Portland. Before that, he was president of the Minneapolis Society of Fine Arts (parent of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, College of Art and Design and Children's Theater) and the Kansas City (Mo.) Art Institute.

A sleeves-rolled-up sort of man who quickly puts others at ease, Lottes said during a recent interview at the school that erasing its deficit was basically a matter of keeping enrollment up--it hit a record 130 during his first year--and expenditures down.

The same method was applied to end the two previous years with small budget surpluses, Lottes said. Last year's came to $13,000 on a total budget of $1.4 million. While salaries increased 5% during each of Lottes' first two years, they'll go up by only 2% during the 1994-95 school year, which opens in August, he said.

"We're not so sure about our enrollment growth, and we want to make sure we have the money before we increase the salaries," he said, which may nonetheless go up again--he hopes--at midyear if enrollment is high enough.

(According to the Assn. of Independent Colleges of Art and Design, the average teacher salary at its 31 member schools last year was $34,800, which falls roughly in the middle of the $27,000-to-$40,000 compensation range at the Laguna institute, which also is a member.)

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Furthermore, the school's gallery exhibition program, cut under Lottes' immediate predecessor, Russell E. Lewis, is "creeping back" with a current budget of $21,000 and 10 shows scheduled for the upcoming year, Lottes said.

Hiring a curator instead of faculty members to oversee it, as before, must wait, however. First, Lottes wants to bring on an academic dean and, even before that, a public relations officer. (A new development director, Milly Muzzy, was hired a year ago.)

"We need to get the word out about this place better," he said, both to entice new students and sources of private funding. "It's just not known.

"I'm really anxious as soon as we can to add back the sculpture major," which also was cut before he arrived, Lottes said.

Producing students who become major American artists--something else on Lottes' long-term wish list when he arrived--hasn't happened either. But several fine arts graduates have been accepted, many on scholarship, to graduate art programs at such competitive schools as Claremont College and UC Berkeley, he said. There also has been a slight rise, from roughly 30% to 40%, in the percentage of students majoring in fine arts rather than in design.

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That's partly because state schools are reducing their fine-arts curricula, he said, and because of the dour economy.

"In hard times, when jobs are not as available, or there are no jobs, people tend to pursue their dreams," he said. "We've seen students in increasing numbers saying, 'You know, I always thought maybe I should be a graphic designer, but what I really want to be is a painter.' "

Meanwhile, some art-world professionals believe more basic matters need improvement.

Irvine designer Gerrie, who will return to teach this fall, asserts that the history of graphic design has been "brushed over" at the institute--indeed, at all such schools--in the rush to give today's commercial-art graduates skills in computer-generated design skills.

"Something has had to give way," Gerrie said, "and that's been the contextual link between what's happened in the past and what you can do in the future. It's the MTV generation. Today's students see only what's apparent to them, and that doesn't necessarily hold principles that have been historically proven correct or to have staying power."

Jai Hall, now a partner in a Santa Monica design studio, left the school before graduating because he preferred to learn on the job. But he felt that its instructors weren't "rigorous" enough in evaluating student projects.

"They didn't get in there and tear people apart like they should," Hall said, "because that's what happens in the real world."

As for Gerrie's concern, Vito-Leonardo Scarola, chairman of the institute's visual communications department, notes that the school requires courses in graphic design. But he concedes that some students have taken Gerrie's upper-division classes before taking lower-division design history classes. While students are counseled to follow set curriculum sequences, "we can't control everything that every student does," Scarola said.

To Hall's complaint about lax scrutiny of students' projects, Scarola said "We have had a number of faculty meetings here, and that was a concern, that (such) standards needed to be implemented across the board." Nevertheless, Scarola stressed that the school's teachers "absolutely subject students' " projects to professional-level evaluations.

Beginning the school's long-stalled expansion has yet to happen, Lottes said.

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A $3.4-million building campaign announced in 1990 by former president William Otton that would have doubled the school's size has been "shelved," he said. Now under consideration is a more restrained plan that targets an adjacent 1.4-acre land parcel owned by the Irvine Co. Negotiations to buy the land are under way, and the school has so far raised $155,000 toward the purchase.

"Rather than one huge addition to this facility," the expansion probably will mean some expanded exhibition space and additional classrooms, plus rented off-campus satellite facilities if future enrollment goes beyond 250 students, Lottes said.

School officials have tried to keep environmentalists abreast of their progress, said board chairman Lyon.

"To a certain extent, I think when they get to know our people, like John and other trustees, we become more human to them," Lyon said. "They had a great concern that we wanted to expand the school to be much larger than what our plans call for."

After spending three years getting to know the institute, Lottes has mixed feelings about its progress. "On one hand, I think we're farther ahead than I thought we would be at this point; on the other hand, now I've learned a lot, and I see we have a ways to go.

"But I'm terribly happy to be here. I think we're turning out good graduates, and I think we fill an important place in the universe of art education."

BACKGROUND

* The Art Institute of Southern California was founded in 1961 as the Laguna Beach School of Art and Design. It was the brainchild of members of the Laguna Beach Art Assn., which became the Laguna Art Museum. The school was renamed the Laguna Beach College of Art, then given its current title in 1986.

The institute is accredited by the National Assn. of Schools of Art and Design and is seeking accreditation by the Western Assn. of Schools and Colleges, anticipated in 1996. WASC accreditation may increase the number of schools at which graduates may pursue advanced study.

The school's current exhibit, "The enerative Spirit," contains works by 42 artists who have taught at the institute during the past 30 years. Art Institute of Southern California, Ettinger and Reynolds Galleries, 2222 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. Monday through Friday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; Saturday, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Free. (714) 497-3309.

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