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


LAGUNA BEACH — 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."


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.

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