Walt Disney and his brother, Roy O. Disney, guide the merger of the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music, founded in 1883, and the Chouinard Art Institute, founded in 1921. The resulting entity is incorporated as California Institute of the Arts.
Walt Disney introduces his concept for “CalArts” to the public at the Hollywood premiere of Mary Poppins. His presentation includes the short film The CalArts Story. Walt sees the college as part of L.A.’s brand-new, world-class cultural infrastructure, alongside the L.A. County Museum of Art and The Music Center.
Following Walt Disney’s death, the Disney family and other benefactors press ahead to bring his cherished vision to fruition. “CalArts is the principal thing I hope to leave when I move on to greener pastures,” Walt had said. “If I can help provide a place to develop the talent of the future, I think I will have accomplished something.”
The Board of Trustees, chaired by H.R. “Bob” Haldeman—of later Watergate infamy as President Richard Nixon’s chief of staff—appoints Robert W. Corrigan, dean of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, as CalArts president. Haldeman also hires fiery iconoclast Herbert Blau, co-director of Lincoln Center’s Repertory Company in New York, as provost.
Using the example of Black Mountain College (1933–1957), Provost Herbert Blau and a core group of faculty design a radical educational model that favors independent artistic work over rigid curricula; collegial relationships within a community of artists over hierarchies of teacher and student; and continuous interaction among the different arts over the self-containment of each discipline—what would become known as “interdisciplinarity.”
Construction of the new CalArts campus begins in the northern L.A. suburb of Valencia with “The Great Ground Breaking.” The centerpiece of the campus is a five-level, 500,000-square-foot “mega-building” designed by architects Ladd & Kelsey.
As it begins accepting applications, CalArts assembles a high-powered faculty with some the most innovative and unorthodox voices in the arts. They include artists Allan Kaprow, John Baldessari, Miriam Shapiro, Nam June Paik and Alison Knowles, composers Mel Powell and James Tenney, electronic music pioneer Morton Subotnick, sitar master Ravi Shankar, ethnomusicologist Nicholas England, choreographers Bella Lewitzky and Donald McKayle, actress Beatrice Manley, designers Peter and Sheila de Bretteville, architect Craig Hodgetts, film director Alexander Mackendrick, experimental filmmaker Pat O’Neill and animation maverick Jules Engel.
Opening its first, famously chaotic academic year at an interim campus in Burbank, CalArts encompasses six schools: Art, Critical Studies, Design, Film, Music and Theater & Dance. The wide-ranging work includes John Baldessari’s legendary “Post-Studio” art seminar, Happenings-like performances, classes in computer music alongside those in world music and dance, experiments in video art and optical composite printing and Fluxus-inspired projects such as underwater music concerts and mushroom-hunting expeditions.
With some classes having already moved to Valencia during the spring, the permanent campus opens in full for the start of fall semester, welcoming more than 650 students.
Faculty Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro start the influential Feminist Art Program with students such as Suzanne Lacy and Faith Wilding. Its counterpart is the Women’s Design Program, guided by Sheila Levrant de Bretteville. The ensuing breakthrough work includes Womanhouse, a collaborative installation set up in an abandoned Hollywood mansion.
Following a period of institutional turmoil, during which President Robert Corrigan and Provost Herbert Blau depart, CalArts names Robert J. Fitzpatrick, professor of medieval French literature and dean of students at Johns Hopkins University, as new president.
The School of Film/Video launches the Character Animation Program with a faculty of seasoned Disney veterans. The inaugural class alone contains a remarkable collection of future visionaries: John Lasseter, Tim Burton, Brad Bird, Henry Selick, John Musker, Jerry Rees and Mike Giaimo.
The New York art scene sees the first wave of CalArts alumni—Jack Goldstein, David Salle, Ross Bleckner, Eric Fischl, Barbara Bloom, James Welling, Matt Mullican, Troy Brauntuch, Ericka Beckman—emerge in force as part of the nascent “Pictures Generation,” alongside artists such as Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, Sherrie Levine and present-day CalArts Art dean Thomas Lawson. As more alums begin arriving in New York at the start of the ’80s, a new term is coined: “The CalArts Mafia.”
Robbie Blalack becomes the first CalArts alumnus to receive an Academy Award when he is honored as part of the VFX team on Star Wars. Blalack is among a group of CalArtians who use optical compositing and motion graphics, honed as techniques of experimental film and animation, to create groundbreaking FX. A couple of years later, Jerry Rees “choreographs” the radical computer-generated VFX for Tron.
The inaugural Contemporary Music Festival kicks off the annual series that firmly puts CalArts on the international map of avant-garde music. Turning up for the festival each year is a who’s-who of modernist greats—John Cage, Morton Feldman, Milton Babbitt and Lou Harrison, among others. The series continues through the 1980s.
The Jazz Program is launched by Charlie Haden, the bassist of the legendary Ornette Coleman Quartet and founder of the Liberation Music Orchestra. Within a decade, program alums shake up New York’s downtown scene with a CalArts-specific mix of creative skills and far-reaching musical knowledge, which extends from global traditions to the avant-garde.
CalArts President Robert Fitzpatrick oversees the L.A. Olympic Arts Festival, held in the lead-up to the Summer Olympics. Featuring some 400 experimental and interdisciplinary performances from around the globe, the festival is a landmark in the cultural history of the city as it establishes new professional links—in many cases via the Institute—between the L.A. and international arts communities.
As Apple co-founder Steve Jobs purchases the computer graphics division of Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) and renames it Pixar, alumnus John Lasseter completes Pixar’s first film, the landmark CG short Luxo Jr.. Lasseter’s work becomes the first 3D computer animation to be nominated for an Academy Award.
Robert Fitzpatrick departs CalArts to head Euro Disney in Paris.
Steven D. Lavine, Associate Director for Arts and Humanities at the Rockefeller Foundation, is appointed president of CalArts.
The Little Mermaid starts the “Disney Renaissance” as a core group of CalArts alums—including Glen Keane, John Musker, Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise, Brenda Chapman, Chris Sanders and Rob Minkoff—lead the way in reviving the animated feature film as an art form. More huge Disney hits follow: Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992) and The Lion King (1994).
Striving to engage more with the lives of Angelenos, CalArts launches the Community Arts Partnership (CAP), a youth arts education program with community groups and, later, public schools in underserved neighborhoods across L.A. CAP mobilizes CalArts faculty and student-instructors as its teaching corps. The partnership goes on to offer free arts programs to well over 300,000 youth between the ages of 6 and 18, and provide multiple generations of CalArts student-instructors with hands-on teaching experience and a source of income while in school.
CalArts and Capitol Records begin what becomes an annual collaboration: the production of a CD of original work by students in the Jazz Program, recorded at the legendary Capitol Studios in Hollywood. The CD series, which continues to this day, helps boost the profiles of numerous Jazz Program students on their way into the professional world.
The hugely influential MOCA exhibition Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s confirms that L.A. has grown into one of the most vibrant centers of artmaking in the world. The show includes the work of alumni Mike Kelley, Jim Shaw, Meg Cranston, Liz Larner and Lari Pittman—all artists who chose to stay in L.A. in the 1980s instead of moving to New York like their CalArts predecessors.
The Institute sustains damages totaling more than $15 million during the Northridge Earthquake. In the aftermath, classes continue in trailers and off-campus sites during the spring semester. Major reconstruction on campus is completed ahead of the fall semester.
Trumpeter, bandleader, A&M Records co-founder and philanthropist Herb Alpert teams with CalArts to establish the Herb Alpert Award in the Arts—five unrestricted $50,000 fellowships given each year to “early mid-career” artists in the fields of dance, film/video, music, theater and visual art. The juried awards are administered by CalArts on behalf of The Herb Alpert Foundation.
At Pixar Animation Studios, John Lasseter and CalArts colleagues Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter and Joe Ranft usher in the era of CG animation with the hit feature film, Toy Story. It earns Lasseter a Special Achievement Academy Award. Pixar goes on to achieve unprecedented critical and commercial success with movies such as Finding Nemo and The Incredibles. Disney eventually buys the studio in 2006. Meanwhile, CalArts, onetime “Mickey Mouse U.,” is recast as the “School of Pixar.”
Having been earlier elevated from the rank of “Division,” the new School of Critical Studies launches the MFA Creative Writing Program as its first degree-granting course of study.
The Center for Integrated Media offers a supplemental concentration, Integrated Media (IM), for MFA students who work with digital, interactive and participatory media across disciplines.
As plans take shape for the Frank O. Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown L.A., Roy E. Disney—Walt’s nephew—provides initial funding for a separate CalArts performance space and gallery: the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater (REDCAT), named in memory of Roy E. Disney’s parents. The new venue would give the Institute a presence in the heart of the city—in line with Walt Disney’s original vision for CalArts.
The international art world’s fascination with the L.A. scene continues unabated with Sunshine and Noir: Art in L.A. 1960-1997, a huge survey organized by the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark. Half of the featured 52 artists are from CalArts and Chouinard. The show travels throughout Europe before touching down in L.A. two years later at the Hammer Museum.
The School of Theater inaugurates the Center for New Theater (CNT) as its professional producing arm. Its role is to develop creatively ambitious new work while linking CalArts students with the professional community. CNT debuts with Bad Behavior, by Richard Foreman with Sophie Haviland. CNT eventually becomes the Institute-wide Center for New Performance.
CalArts launches the MFA Writing for Performance Program, with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks as director.
The School of Art and Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London join forces to publish the art journal Afterall. This partnership continues until 2010.
REDCAT, the Institute’s downtown center for the presentation of contemporary arts, kicks off its inaugural season. Its multidisciplinary programming divides into three parts: established artists and companies of national and international standing; emerging new voices, including CalArts alumni, from across Southern California; and brand-new projects developed at the Institute. The Huffington Post soon hails REDCAT as “the gold standard of the avant-garde in L.A.”
The School of Theater embarks on a new annual tradition by dispatching a contingent to Scotland to stage original work at the famous Edinburgh Festival Fringe. This ongoing participation allows CalArts students to present to international audiences and make professional connections with counterparts from around the globe.
The Sharon Disney Lund School of Dance is dedicated in memory of the longstanding CalArts benefactor, the late daughter of Walt Disney.
The MFA Creative Writing Program publishes the first issue of Black Clock, a literary journal edited by faculty member Steve Erickson. “Audacious rather than safe, visceral rather than academic,” Black Clock is the Institute’s idiosyncratic West Coast answer to Conjunctions. The journal continues until 2016.
CalArts becomes the first American film school honored with a full retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. The sweeping three-month, 39-program survey, Tomorrowland: CalArts in Moving Pictures, covers 35 years of film, video art and animation made at the Institute. MoMA calls CalArts “one of the truly successful experiments in American arts education.”
The Center for New Theater expands into the CalArts Center for New Performance (CNP) to develop production of new music, dance and interdisciplinary performance in addition to projects in theater. CNP makes CalArts not only an institution for training professional artists but also an originator of professional work. Its premiere production at REDCAT is What to Wear, by Richard Foreman and Michael Gordon.
CalArts breaks ground for The Wild Beast, a variable-use, indoor-outdoor music pavilion designed by Hodgetts + Fung, the facility is named after composer Morton Feldman’s metaphor for the ineffable generative force in art.
CalArts inaugurates The Herb Alpert School of Music following an historic $15 million endowment gift from Herb and Lani Hall Alpert, who had already donated $10 million since the early 1990s. CalArts also announces its first-ever doctoral program: the Doctor of Musical Arts (DMA) Performer-Composer Program.
REDCAT and The Wooster Group, the internationally celebrated New York performance ensemble, announce an ongoing residency at CalArts’ downtown L.A. center. The Woosters, having already come to REDCAT in its inaugural season, mount a multimedia incarnation of Hamlet in their new role as resident ensemble.
The Sharon Disney Lund School of Dance unveils The NEXT Dance Company, a resident ensemble that each year comprises the entire graduating class. The company’s aim is to mirror the professional experiences students are likely to encounter after graduation.
The School of Critical Studies enrolls the first students in the Master of Arts (MA) Aesthetics and Politics Program. Its first class includes architect, writer and activist John D’Amico, who promptly goes on to win election to the City Council of West Hollywood.
The Wild Beast opens in the spring as The Herb Alpert School of Music’s premier concert venue. In addition to supporting classes and rehearsals, the facility can be configured into a band shell for outdoor concerts.
The School of Art rolls out East of Borneo, an online magazine of contemporary art and its history, as considered from an L.A. perspective. It publishes original essays, artist profiles and interviews alongside a “collaborative archive” of videos, images and historical texts, added by both editors and readers to prompt new connections and lines of thought.
The Getty organizes Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A., 1945—1980, an unprecedented six-month-long series of exhibitions, screenings and performances presented with more than 60 partners, including CalArts. Scores of CalArts and Chouinard alumni and faculty—both current and former—are featured in “PST.” The School of Art’s contribution is The Experimental Impulse at REDCAT.
The Herb Alpert School of Music opens the Machine Lab, a research facility dedicated to the development of robotic musical instruments and new performer-computer interfaces.
More than a third of the 60 artists featured in Made in L.A. 2012, the city’s first-ever biennial, are associated with CalArts.
CalArts joins with online education leader Coursera to offer its first MOOCs (massive, open online courses), representing, at the time, the only comprehensive arts college among Coursera’s elite higher-ed partners.
The Center for New Performance presents an independent TED conference, “TEDxCalArts: Performance, Body & Presence,” to explore the expanded field of “performance” in art, technology and politics.
In its most challenging production yet, the Center for New Performance stages Prometheus Bound at the Getty Villa’s outdoor amphitheater. The ancient Greek tragedy is performed on and around a 5-ton, 24-foot-tall steel wheel. Prometheus Bound is part of the citywide Radar L.A. Festival, presented by CalArts and REDCAT with Center Theatre Group.
Vanity Fair magazine’s annual “Hollywood issue” offers an in-depth look at the first years of the storied Program in Character Animation. The feature includes a tableau, by photographer Annie Leibovitz, of the CalArts alumni who redefined the art of story animation.
Alumnus John Luther Adams wins the Pulitzer Prize in Music for Become Ocean, only one year after faculty member Wadada Leo Smith, with his magnum opus Ten Freedom Summers, had been one of three finalists for the same prize. Adams follows Mel Powell, the Institute’s founding Music dean, winner of the Pulitzer in 1990 for Duplicates: A Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra.
Alumna Alice Könitz wins the $100,000 Mohn Award for her contribution to the Hammer Museum’s Made in L.A. biennial. Her best-of-show entry is part of an ongoing project called The Los Angeles Museum of Art—wherein Könitz builds idiosyncratic “display systems” to house the work of fellow artists.
When Pete Docter receives his second career Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, for Inside Out, it marks the ninth year out of 15—since the category was introduced—that a CalArtian has collected the top prize. Docter, Brad Bird and Andrew Stanton each hold two Best Animated Feature Oscars, while Mark Andrews, Chris Buck, Brenda Chapman and Don Hall have one apiece. John Lasseter, meanwhile, has a “Special Achievement” Oscar, for Toy Story, from before animated features had their own Academy Award category.
Ravi S. Rajan, Dean of the School of the Arts at Purchase College, is appointed president of CalArts.