By Michele E. Buttelman
In 1961 legendary animator Walt Disney and his brother, Roy O. Disney, guided the merger of the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music, founded in 1883, and the Chouinard Art Institute, founded in 1921, to become the California Institute of the Arts.
It was the first degree-granting institution of higher learning in the United States created specifically for students of both the visual and performing arts.
“CalArts is the principal thing I hope to leave when I move on to greener pastures,” Walt Disney said. “If I can help provide a place to develop the talent of the future, I think I will have accomplished something.”
Following Disney’s death in 1966, the Disney family and other benefactors worked to execute his vision of CalArts.
The groundbreaking for the CalArts Valencia campus was held in 1969. Construction began on the centerpiece of the campus, a five-level, 500,000-square-foot “mega-building” designed by architects Ladd & Kelsey.
CalArts’ first classes were held at an interim campus in Burbank in 1970.
After several construction delays due to weather and the 1971 Sylmar Earthquake, CalArts started its fall semester in Valencia in November 1971 with 650 students.
The CalArts campus hosts six world-renowned schools dedicated to the arts including Critical Studies, Dance, Film/Video, Art, Music and Theater.
Looking at the Past, Looking to the Future
Ravi Rajan, named president of CalArts in June 2017, said CalArts is now old enough to look at its past, while also looking to its future.
Rajan replaced long-time president Steve Levine who stepped down in May 2017 after 29 years as CalArts president.
“For many years CalArts was the ‘young thing,’ it was new, it was the ‘cool thing.’ What is good about 50 years is that now we can look back and look forward,” he said.
Rajan said a hallmark of the CalArts community has always been experimentation.
“It’s what CalArts has always been about,” he said. “That is really at the heart of what we do and that hasn’t changed. So much has changed in society in the past 50 years, but experimentation has been the constant and it keeps evolving.”
Rajan said the COVID-19 pandemic was a test for the institution.
“But here we are today arguably stronger than we were before the pandemic,” he said. “I think how CalArts fits into the world is even more important than it was before.”
Rajan reflected on the 50 years of CalArts alums which number more than 14,000 and the influence CalArts has had on the world, not only in the arts.
“Our alums have had an outsized impact. If you think of all they have made happen, in art, in fine art, in music, in theater, in dance and most obviously in animation,” he said.
People isolated during the pandemic turned to entertainment for comfort and distraction. Artists and companies with ties to CalArts created much of that entertainment.
“We have just experienced how important that work is,” Rajan said. “Most people probably read something every day, or watched something every day. Someone had to write it, someone had to shoot it, someone had to direct it, to edit it.”
Janet Sarbanes, a CalArts faculty member since 1999 in Critical Studies, said she was attracted to CalArts because of the multi-disciplinary culture.
“I’ve always been interested in the making, as well as the studying of art,” she said. “CalArts always had a reputation of being an innovative and creative school. That really appealed to me.”
Sarbanes is also an amateur historian of CalArts.
“CalArts brought together two utopian visions, Walt Disney’s vision and the vision of the first faculty that was mostly recruited from the New York avant-garde,” she said. “That faculty was really interested in pushing the definition of what an art school was, and of school in general.”
Sarbanes said Disney wanted to create an institute much like Caltech where scientists come together in a collaborative environment across disciplines to work on problems.
Sarbanes said what eventually evolved at CalArts was not only a culture of experimentation and collaboration, but also the CalArts philosophy to accept students as artists the moment they enter the school.
“Faculty works with students to explore what they need to develop their visions,” she said.
Sarbanes said each school at CalArts has received acclaim throughout the past 50 years.
“There’s an incredible legacy in each school and across the institute,” she said. “There’s always something very exciting going on at CalArts.”
David Roitstein, director Jazz Program Specialization at CalArts, is one of its longest serving faculty members.
Roitstein and the late legendary jazz musician Charlie Hayden started the jazz program at CalArts in 1982-83.
Hayden was known as a pioneer of free jazz in the 1960s and was among the most influential bassists in the jazz world.
“In 1990 we realized our first CD project recorded at Capital Records and last year we released the 31st version of it,” said Roitstein. “We go in every spring and record an entire album’s worth of new and original compositions by students in our program.”
The jazz album is only one example of the opportunities afforded to CalArts students.
“CalArts is a very special place,” said Roitstein, now in his 40th year on the faculty. “I’ve always seen CalArts as a miracle, it is a totally unique place, it’s not like any other school.”
Roitstein credits the small size of CalArts and its supportive board of trustees and administrators for making CalArts an uncommon institution.
“CalArts is very much a “bottom-up kind of place, not a top-down place,” he said. “Ideas come from students, faculty, staff,” he said. “All the best ideas come from those of us in the trenches working together every day.”
When Roitstein arrived at CalArts in 1981 he said CalArts was “still pretty wild.”
“It was very unstructured and very adventurous, very unique and very individual and always surprising,” he said. “I loved that it always inspired me.”
While the intervening years may have tamped down some of the wild side of CalArts, Roitstein said the students at CalArts remain the most “courageous, original and adventurous of any other school that I know of.”
“CalArts has been very significant to advances in every area of art studied at CalArts,” he said. “In writing, in research, visual arts, animation, graphic design, dance, theater, film and all kinds of music… across the spectrum CalArts has been a leader in all of these art forms across the world.”
In the past 50 years CalArts has been known for its “epic” graduation ceremonies. Ushers at graduation exercises have been known to hand out whistles and jars of soap bubbles.
Roitstein said in the early years of CalArts there are many stories of “legendary graduations and they were pretty much all true, none were exaggerated or untrue.”
Roitstein’s favorite graduation story is when Bob Fitzpatrick, president of CalArts from 1974 to 1987, was “kidnaped” by a group of students who put him on a helicopter and flew him “way up on I-5 near Frazier Park.”
Fitzpatrick was wearing an “expensive, crisp, white linen suit” that had become smeared with fake blood during another graduation stunt.
“He hitchhiked back to CalArts in a ‘blood-stained white linen suit,’” said Roitstein. “He made it back by the end of commencement. I could tell you a 100 graduation stories but that one is in a class by itself.”
A 50th anniversary kickoff celebration was held Oct. 13 with a cake cutting ceremony and party.
Like many celebrations during the COVID-19 pandemic, the CalArts 50th anniversary was pushed into its 51st year.
“In November 2021 they weren’t letting us gather here because of the pandemic,” said Rajan. “We are kicking off now to bookend our 50th year.”
Events include an alumni reunion and the World Music Festival in April, 2023.
“This is really going to be a ‘happening,’” said Marylou Ferry, vice president CalArts Marketing and Communications. “We will have our alumni back, the community, our past employees.”
Rajan said he wants everyone to celebrate with CalArts.
“In typical CalArts fashion we can’t just have one celebration. It will be a three-day marathon celebration,” he said. “We will have numerous performances.”
For more information on the CalArts 50th Anniversary Celebration visit https://celebrate.calarts.edu.