Presidential inauguration speeches are a peculiar genre. They ask a new president to celebrate a school’s history and give a compelling vision for its future. And it sometimes wants this vision even before the new president knows the institution well—never a wise move.
So let’s start with history. Many of you know the story. Walt Disney had three great passions: movies, Disneyland, and CalArts. As early as the 1930s, Walt was thinking about an academy for the arts. “We could get the best instructors from all over the country,” he wrote in 1939.
From the start, CalArts was a bold experiment. No one had quite done this before, bringing the visual and performing arts together—all in one school, and all in one building. It was as though some mad scientist wanted to see what happens when very practical business people joined forces with risk-taking artists to create a school. Fireworks were sure to ensue.
The fact that Walt himself didn’t attend college was no deterrent to his vision. His brother Roy explained: “Walt was obsessed with the idea that, in life, you just continually go to school.” You keep learning, exploring, and creating… for your entire life.
You keep learning, exploring, and creating….This lifelong quest is deeply ingrained at CalArts. We get that from our founder.
Walt had big dreams for this new experimental school. He famously set up a trailer on the Disney studio lot which contained a model of the campus, and he used that trailer to “persuade” influential donors. He would muse aloud about inviting Picasso and Dali to join the faculty. He even contemplated his own role on the faculty. “I don’t mean drawing,” Walt said to a friend, admitting that he wasn’t the best draftsman. “But I’m a damn good storyman! I could teach story!”
With the vision of Walt, and the guidance of his brother Roy, two great institutions, the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music and the renowned Chouinard Art Institute, joined forces to become California Institute of
the Arts. The transition was not without its pains, including the perils of merging faculty from two institutions, and an earthquake in Sylmar that delayed our opening.
Upon opening in November of 1971, the first faculty in Valencia, a rather legendary group, shaped an innovative curriculum that championed original voices, creative collaborations, and the intentional blurring of the boundaries between the arts.
As CalArts began to lay down its roots, our alumni and faculty began shaping its story, one of extraordinary drive and powerful ideas. CalArts grew to include new perspectives and new artists, giving the school a reputation for teaching the avant garde to students who were focused on “breaking the rules.”
Meanwhile, our home city of Los Angeles began to reimagine it's own story, positioning itself as a growing cultural mecca. This is a story to which CalArts proudly contributed, and at a ratio far out of proportion to our size. From Star Wars to the ’84 Olympics; from policy makers to Oscar-winning animators; from the recording studio to the TV station; from underground clubs to major museums, concert halls, and theatres, CalArts fueled the growth of the Los Angeles arts scene, as it still does to this day. Except now, our graduates fuel the arts across six continents.
Walt Disney’s third passion, like his first two, had become a culture-changing success.
So where is CalArts today?
A few years ago, a task force, comprised of people who know and love this school, produced a report called CalArts 2030, which mapped out a plan for the Institute’s future. Among the topics it explored, CalArts 2030 bravely asked, “What an Arts Education Should Look Like in the Future?” The answer was elegant in its simplicity. An arts education should be:
- Engaged and expansive
- Agile and in a process of constant reinvention
- Outward-facing, open to possibility
Yes, we’ll continue teaching the next generation of artists—but we’ll also teach them to look outward, invent possibility, and always be advocating for a better world. And really, isn’t that what we do at CalArts, always advocate for a better world? While I’ve only been here a few months, I feel the CalArts 2030 answer to “the Arts education of the future” is still the answer we need today.
In this “getting to know you” period, I’ve also been fortunate to talk with many CalArtians. These have been great conversations. And what I’ve enjoyed most is listening to the passion in their stories. Our graduates are indeed fully engaged with the world, agile in their thinking, and outwardly facing—making connections with each other, and with all aspects of our society. And, most of all, they are really passionate about CalArts.
“What makes CalArts so special?” I would ask. Their answers were amazingly consistent: “Oh, I took X’s course, and nothing was the same after that….It changed me forever.” The names of the teachers and the courses varied, but the answer didn’t—a CalArts teacher changed my life. Some were quick to vouch for the rigor, “The faculty really challenge you here. They push you hard. But they respect you, and they treat you like a peer on day one.”
A key component of CalArts’s strength is the body of amazing thinking artists on the faculty and staff here. Thinking artists who treat students like a peer. This means everything to a young artist, and I am humbled to be in this amazing environment. Retaining the strength of our faculty and staff is important to me. After all, Isn’t This Our Secret Sauce: The Powerful Relationship Between Mentor And Student? It changes you forever.
I’d like to tell you about another academic ceremony and another presidential speech. Not an inauguration, but a convocation. It took place 54 years ago, almost to the day.
On Saturday, October 26th, 1963, President John F. Kennedy—less than a month before his terrible assassination—traveled to Amherst College for a special ceremony. Amherst was dedicating its new library, which was being named for the poet Robert Frost. Kennedy’s theme that day was the role of the artist in society. Allow me to share a few passages with you:
When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment. The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state.
An intrusive society and an officious state. Kennedy continued:
[In a] democratic society…the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation.
Isn’t this also a value of CalArts? Remain true to yourself and let the chips fall where they may.
Here’s another…I found this one in a book called, Artists in Offices, by Judith Adler. In the late 1970s, Adler was a young sociologist at Memorial University in faraway Newfoundland. She decided to do a major study of arts education, including what happens to artists when they join bureaucratic organizations. She chose CalArts as the focus of her study.
Her book is chock full of quotes from our founding era, and what emerges is a story of an ambitious—if somewhat untethered—institution. One in particular struck me. Adler says it came from an “unnamed” provost, but it didn’t take much detective work to figure out it was Herbert Blau. At a faculty meeting, Blau told his colleagues:
CalArts is one of those institutions… that is determined in some peculiar way to put the whole cracked world together again.
Now there’s a mission statement! But isn’t that who we are? No matter the métier, aren’t we still inspired by that challenge? Why do we work so hard to forge the future monuments of culture? Why do we struggle to put forth darker truths that our society prefers not to confront? Why? To put this cracked world back together.
Both Kennedy and Blau point us to another part of CalArts that we should be very proud of: We create Citizen Artists—capital C, capital A. We do this in C A (California), through C A (CalArts), to become C A (Citizen Artists). Our graduates make a profound impact on the world. Whether as writers, elected officials, filmmakers, dancers, entrepreneurs, animators, musicians, disruptors, actors, photographers, producers…our graduates are Citizen Artists. They interpret the present, and they steer us toward a better future.
As you may have surmised, I’ve been attempting to put a frame around the very large picture that is CalArts. It’s clear to me that all of these things are a part of who we are. It’s clear that CalArts changes lives, and does so in profound ways. It’s clear that we attract students who want to spend their lives putting this cracked world back together. And, it’s clear that CalArts prepares these students to be Citizen Artists that are engaged, agile, and outward facing. Which brings me back to the whole vision thing….
So what’s my vision for CalArts?
- First and foremost, this should not be my vision, but our vision. We must build it together, base it on the strength of our past, and push it boldly into the future. We have a lot of important work to do, and I am looking forward to collaborating with the entire CalArts family on this.
- Together we will strengthen CalArts so it can operate without undue reliance on tuition revenue, allowing more students who gain admission the ability to attend.
- Together we will celebrate 50 years of success by telling our story and engaging alumnae/i in ways we never have before.
- Together we will move CalArts to become a model of diversity that reflects the world in which we live.
- Together we will renew our facilities and increase the special “creative collisions” that help define us.
- Together we will honor our traditions by putting forth new models of pedagogy, preparing artists for all the ways they interact with the world.
- Together we will create a novel business plan for CalArts, a plan as innovative as our faculty, staff, students, and alumni/ae are.
- Together we will strengthen our global reach, sharing CalArts’s special mode of cultural education far and wide, and bring the world’s cultures back to Los Angeles.
- Together we will celebrate the strength of our faculty and staff, and perpetuate that strength into the future.
- And most of all, we will keep CalArts true to its founding spirit of experimentation, equality, and equity in all that we do, so that our Citizen Artists continue to be the glue that puts this cracked world back together.
Please join me, so that together we can build our future. Thank you.
Ravi S. Rajan is the 4th president of California Institute of the Arts.