LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW : Steven Lavine : At CalArts: Inventing the Art of the Future Today

S<i> teve Proffitt, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a producer for Fox News and a contributor to National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" and "Morning Edition." He spoke with Steven D. Lavine at the educator's home in Sherman Oaks</i>

In the 1980s, when the art market was booming, Los Angeles gallery owners would make the drive to Valencia, 40 miles north of the city, hoping to discover a young painter whose work they could sell at dizzying prices to a seemingly endless array of art collectors. Today, with the art market gone bust, film studio executives and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs make the same journey--looking for the young animator or multimedia whiz who can drive home the next big hit, or design a million-selling CD-ROM. Their common destination is CalArts, an institution that, from its inception, has found success by poking around the outer edges of art and creativity.

Walt Disney dreamed up the idea for CalArts--properly the California Institute for the Arts--three decades ago. Disney envisioned an interdisciplinary laboratory for artists, in which painters, musicians, set designers and dancers could cross-pollinate and invent the art of the future. Before he died in 1966, Disney laid out the plans for his educational experiment, and his heirs saw it to fruition. CalArts held its initial classes in 1970 and, by all accounts, the early years were chaotic, marked by a no-grade policy and lots of nudity. In 1975, after unsuccessful attempts to sell the school to other institutions, the board hired as president a 34-year-old former Baltimore city councilman, Robert Fitzpatrick.

Fitzpatrick instituted a modicum of discipline, which included grading students, and he recruited powerful new members to the board of trustees. Over the next decade, CalArts secured a reputation as a top-flight art school; its graduates included painter David Salle, actor Ed Harris and director Tim Burton. In 1987, Fitzpatrick said goodby to take on an even more daunting challenge: the start-up of EuroDisney.

Enter Steven D. Lavine, a mild-mannered Wisconsin native who is, by his own admission, “too square to have ever thought of attending CalArts.” Lavine was recruited from the Rockefeller Foundation in New York, where his job was “to see everything that was out there and decide what we should support.” President since 1988, his greatest challenge came last year--the Northridge earthquake did almost $30-million damage to the Valencia campus. After months of meeting in improvised spaces, students are now back in a newly refurbished facility, celebrating the school’s 25th anniversary.


Lavine, 47, holds a doctorate in literature from Harvard and is married to writer and editor Janet Sternburg. In a conversation at his home in the Sherman Oaks hills, he talked about the difficulty of balancing creativity and discipline in education, the role of CalArts in the cultural life of Los Angeles and the stormy political climate facing art institutions today.


Question: At a point where the power in Congress seems to be so hostile to government support for the arts, is it better as an artist to say, “Fine, I won’t take your money”?

Answer: I think it means something that we say the arts are a national priority, just as we say education is a priority. It’s fundamentally amazing to think there are leaders in our government who don’t think it’s a priority.


I think of what Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote in “The Cycles of American History.” He says we go through 15-year cycles of public concern and activism, which are answered by 15-year cycles of self-absorption. It takes concentration and concern to make the world a better place--it’s hard work. And at a certain point, people just feel burdened, and the energy goes out of that swing. And then we lose ground. But Schlesinger believes it’s not a simple pendulum. He says there is some residue left of the good that’s done when things swing back. So I’ve been reading him to try and find some comfort in this time of social change.

I also go to my father, who’s 87 and a country doctor, for comfort. He says if the changes proposed by the House of Representatives are actually made, the sum total of social suffering is going to expand a great deal--and quickly. And the Republicans are not going to want a lot of people angry at them. Right now, I think, people feel the cuts being proposed won’t affect them--they’ll affect everybody else. When, in fact, they are going to affect almost everybody. But who knows--I’m in the arts, not in social history.

Q: Then let me move the conversation toward the arts. One of your predecessors at CalArts, the first president, Robert Corrigan, said, “The greatest challenge for arts and education is how to navigate the perilous course between adventure and discipline.” How do you tread that line, and find that balance?

A: At CalArts, each school finds it in a different place. I think our art school has been the one that has most consistently said, “We’ve got to think about conditions now, and in the future, and ask what that means.” So it has not really built itself by looking back at the history of art much beyond the 20th Century. It has really pressed forward and has been wildly successful doing that.

At the other extreme is probably our animation school. Animation’s a young art, but there’s quite an amazing amount of knowledge and lore about how to teach it--with figure drawing at the center. And that, of course, is the kind of art training that goes all the way back to the Renaissance. They are very strong on teaching the traditions of the past, and their challenge is not to simply reproduce the past but to graduate someone like (film director) Tim Burton (“Batman,” “Ed Wood”), who acquires the craft and then finds a way to push it forward.

But everything is always changing, so the balance must always be adjusted. Look at our art school. The important trend in the last 20 years has been conceptual art. Thinking about the world, and what’s the next question, has been considered more important than knowing how to put paint on canvas. But now painting is re-emerging with considerable force, much of it driven by CalArts graduates like Ross Bleckner and David Salle. And already we are teaching more painting, and that means teaching more of the “craft” of painting. That changes the nature of the art school.

So I think whatever decision we make about the balance between adventure and discipline, it has to be made by looking forward. We’re not primarily an institution like, for example, Juilliard, where conserving the past is what we’re about. CalArts is always about inventing the future, so one has to ask at every moment, “What do you have to know to do that?”

Q: The thesis of CalArts was to put together artists of various disciplines, and let them bounce off each other. To what degree does that still exist? And if it works, then why?


A: We have been the college or institute that is the most interdisciplinary. It shows up in an artist like Jim Lupine, Stephen Sondheim’s collaborator on Broadway shows like “Into the Woods” and “Sunday in the Park with George.” He’s a playwright and director, but at CalArts he studied to be a graphic designer. Well, if you look at the beauty of “Sunday in the Park with George,” you understand his training wasn’t wasted.

The remarkable thing now is this whole move into interactivity and multimedia technology, as it’s applied to the arts. As these new technologies emerge, the vision that launched us now has a chance of being more completely filled than ever before. You’ve got composers working at computers, graphic designers working at computers, set designers, animators--the degree in overlap of the tools is such that never existed before in the arts, and we are seeing a new species of student. They’re not defining themselves as a designer or a composer, but as someone who works in these still-undefined, interactive, integrated media.

It’s going to be artists who figure out what the real possibilities of these new technologies are. Then they’ll be made into popularized versions, but the artists will make the breakthroughs. And, to me, it feels almost like the manifest destiny of CalArts to be at the forefront of this revolution. Because one of the inheritances of Walt Disney was that we have always been technology-friendly.

Q: So are you saying it’s taken 30 years for CalArts to evolve into what Disney envisioned?

A: Yes, and it’s sometimes hard to remember that Walt Disney really was a visionary. Every single one of those animated films, I think, lost money originally. And yet they are almost the only old films we watch to enjoy, and not as a historical experience. Making those films was a big, dangerous bet he placed.

To have invested in Disneyland required a great deal of bravery. So when Walt turned his mind to CalArts, he approached it with the same kind of vigor--not trying to reinvent an art school like Juilliard, but to create something new and different.

(Harrison) Buzz Price, who did the feasibility studies for Disneyland, said he spent far more time working on plans for CalArts than he ever did on the theme park. For instance, when they did the model for CalArts, it was separate buildings, and Walt Disney said “no”; if it’s separate buildings, people retreat to their own space--it has to be under one roof.

Since its inception, there’s been an extraordinary reaching for quality at CalArts. Herbert Blau, the first provost, told me an interesting story. Robert Haldeman, of Nixon fame, was chairman of the board when CalArts was getting started. He interviewed Blau, and Herb said, “You don’t want to hire me. I’m pretty much a Marxist, and we don’t believe the same things.” Haldeman said, “I’m told you’re the most gifted theater artist in America.” Blau said he was pretty good, and Haldeman said, “Then I don’t care what your politics are.”


That was Walt’s inheritance. This was going to be a serious school of the arts, and it was going to go after the best.

Q: Yet, there has never really been the sense that CalArts was as integrated into the Los Angeles art scene as many would like. Part is it’s somewhat geographically remote. Should there be more of an effort to make the institution more a part of the city?

A: First, let me say the arts institutions of Los Angeles are filled with CalArts graduates, and we are, in significant measure, actually powering the art scene in the city. But you are right; for the most part, that’s invisible to people.

So we are carrying on an internal debate right now about whether we should be taking more performances into the city, or just the opposite--that we ought to recast CalArts as a place to go to find art.

Look at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, in the wilds of Brooklyn. People in Manhattan could never imagine finding there way there. But when BAM started to produce the Next Wave series--art that was simply more exciting than anyone else was presenting--people discovered that the 40 minutes it took to get there was worth it.

So perhaps we need to create a sense that CalArts is within peoples’ reach in Los Angeles. It, too, is just 40 minutes away from most of the city. So we are going to have to decide how much effort we put into carrying art into the city, and how much we put into trying to carry the city to us.

Q: Last year’s Northridge earthquake almost put you out of business. What was the net effect of this calamity on the community at CalArts?

A: The Army Corps of Engineers could have never done what we did. In two weeks we moved the entire campus to 16 buildings around Los Angeles. We built art studios, sound stages, darkrooms. If I had to go through an earthquake again, I would go through it with artists, and not engineers--the engineers would still be designing the solution.

The fact that we rebuilt in eight months--a job that should have taken two years to do--and the fact that we raised almost all the money to do it, has made us understand that when we were put to the test, we could succeed.

So the net effect of the earthquake was to increase our level of ambition and to make us feel that we are remarkable. With that comes a fairly large responsibility. Especially at this time, when there is a move within the culture to turn away from innovation in the arts.

I think the challenge for CalArts over the next decade is to be one of the real beacons of innovation. There is no one better placed to go on pushing the borders of what art can be. We’ve got to be smart and canny, because who knows what the financial circumstances are going to be, but we are in a unique place during this bumpy time in American culture.*