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

March 05, 1995|Steve Proffitt | S 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

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?

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