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Uproar at Art Center

A group of students and alumni urges the college to invest in education, not new buildings.

June 11, 2008|Mike Boehm | Times Staff Writer

Concerned that Art Center College of Design is putting too much money and energy into expanding its campus and promoting itself to outsiders -- and not enough into scholarships and instruction -- hundreds of students and alumni of the elite private college in Pasadena are petitioning its trustees to suspend plans for a $50-million building by Frank Gehry.

Art Center graduates have been weighing in over the Internet from as far away as France and South Korea, adding their names and comments to the "Education First!" petition that some students posted on the Web. Among the alumni calling for change are executives at Microsoft, the Walt Disney Co., Mercedes-Benz and Johnson Controls Inc., a designer of auto interiors.

Casting President Richard Koshalek as an empire-builder, the petition asks trustees to ignore "the legacy needs of one man" and "take immediate action to again make education the school's top investment." Launched May 31, the petition contains nearly 800 digital signatures, many of them from "anonymous" supporters.

A counterpetition in support of the new building -- "Vote for Art Center’s Future! Put Honesty First!" was launched last Friday. That petition notes that the project will use only funds donated specifically for the new building. As of midday Tuesday, there were 80 digital signatures, about a third without names displayed.

Koshalek said Monday that the chance to work with cutting-edge technology in Gehry's Design Research Center would be an educational boon for students. And in a global economy, he said, building a network of corporate and international contacts for Art Center will pay off in opportunities for its graduates. Educational quality and student performance have not slipped, Koshalek insisted, even as "the tension between short term and long term priorities . . . causes a lot of discussion."

That discussion has grown more urgent since mid-May, when Nate Young, the college's second-ranking administrator, suddenly resigned as executive vice president and chief academic officer.

Young, a 1987 Art Center graduate and a former board member, would not comment Monday on why he left after five years as the top academic administrator. He said Art Center needs to move quickly to offer new skills that a rapidly-changing design world demands. "We were starting to make these adjustments and move forward.""Right now, the entire school is in an uproar," Mike Rios, director of issues for the Art Center student government, said Monday. "Nate was a great advocate and resource for the students, and losing him really hurt."

Through an Art Center spokeswoman, board chairman John Puerner, a former Los Angeles Times publisher, said he would not comment until after the trustees' regularly scheduled meeting on June 19.

Nestled into a verdant hillside overlooking the Rose Bowl, Art Center long has been among the nation's leading gateways to careers designing automobiles and consumer products. Undergraduates also can major in film, fine art, graphics, illustration, photography, advertising and environmentally-conscious design.

Alumni include film director Michael Bay, landscape painter Thomas Kinkade and a large cohort of highly placed car designers, including J Mays, who designed the new Volkswagen Beetle.

A plan for the future

Koshalek, the former director of L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art, has been president since 1999, spearheading the drive to enlarge Art Center's facilities, visibility and wealth. In February, he announced that the school had reached the halfway mark of a $150-million fundraising and expansion campaign begun shortly after he arrived. So far, the money has yielded the renovation of a former aircraft testing plant that now serves as a satellite campus about five miles south of the main one, and has boosted the endowment from $17 million to $43 million.

The Gehry building -- a combination library and high-tech design studio complex -- would be built on the main campus, where the existing facilities are strung along the hillside in a long, bridge-like structure by Modernist architect Craig Ellwood.

Koshalek's other initiatives include hosting semiannual, nicely catered design conferences that bring outside eminences to the campus to discuss current themes and challenges, and an Art Center-led "global dialogues" series that began with a March event in Barcelona, Spain.

Some alumni regard these as unnecessary public relations gambits -- peripheral to what they see as the traditional mission of turning out ace designers who emerge skilled and ready for the working world. That heritage, some say, is jeopardized by tuition costs that have been rising annually by leaps of 5% to 6%, producing a current price of $135,000 for an undergraduate degree.

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