Dr. ELISA STEPHENS – My Visit with the President

A trip to San Francisco’s Academy of Art University

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By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka

I love going to school. But for practicalities, I might have remained a professional student. With SanFranciscoSentinel.com I’m on The City’s cultural beat. That includes a lot of Opening Nights, tours through every museum exhibit, and once in a while something really fun. Like the Maria Callas exhibit now at the Italian Cultural Center. I’m dazzled by the opera star’s media appeal, her designer wardrobe, the heavy bling, cover designs for every recording, a letter demanding certain changes in a set design for Aïda, and – for just the right touch of romance – a feathery fan she once carried in La Traviata. Behind every one of these historical items is a professional artist. I’m also fascinated by the artistry of the local designers who organized and assembled the exhibit and created the PR. Riding on this kind of fuel and with my particular bent for the Advertising-variety of Art, I was anxious to visit with Dr. Elisa Stephens, President of the Academy of Art University. We’re both native San Franciscans. Prior to the meeting, I learned we have a number of other things in common: In & Out burgers, the Renaissance, and fantasies about Cary Grant.

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Dr. Elisa Stephens

Elisa Stephens’ impressive credentials and background – including the fact she is the granddaughter of the Academy’s founder, Richard Stephens – has been well covered by the press. The school’s web site, Academy of Art University, provides the reader clear information about their curriculum, instructors, degree programs, even the athletic events. Seated in her office, my curiosities were totally personal, not wikipedic.

I am inspired by the Academy’s already formidable influence on The City and their on-going efforts to establish new campuses. Since taking on the leadership role in 1992, Dr. Stephens’ efforts and success at bringing the school into the digital age, along with the development of convenient and comprehensive on-line programs while assembling a teaching staff of working professionals have resulted in the AAU becoming the country’s largest private university of art and design. I am likewise cognizant of past tensions and heated discussions which have been a part of the school’s expansion efforts, such as those surrounding the campus at St. Brigid’s on Van Ness Avenue and the takeover of space once occupied by the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre. Again, everything documented and readily available on the Internet. Nothing is easy or painless in San Francisco, especially when it involves the Planning Department, the Board of Supervisors, and the strength of concerned neighborhood groups. I’m keeping the Academy’s course catalogs within reach.

Last year I interviewed one of the Academy’s most glamorous faculty members, actress Diane Baker, Executive Director of its School of Motion Pictures and Television. The occasion marked the 50th Anniversary of the film version of The Diary of Anne Frank and its release onto Blu-ray and DVD. Diane was twenty when she was contracted to 20th Century Fox and hired by director George Stevens to play “Margot”, Anne’s older sister. Our interview began with me admitting to a life-long fascination with another film she made that year, Journey to the Center of the Earth. It and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1964 thriller Marnie, which paired Diane with the dashing Sean Connery, are always near the DVD player. We spoke about the vast differences between Hitchcock and Stevens, how they guided her performance (or not), and the tensions that existed on the set. She transported me to a reality that went behind the finished products I know so well to her immediate concerns as a young performer – with a sharp eye on her future, under contract to a major studio, relying on her training and common sense, and facing larger-than-life film directors. At the Academy, Diane brings her acting and producing savvy to the performance art students who are now and will be in front of the camera. My first question to Dr. Stephens was about the success of one of my favorite performers.

Seán: How is the Performing Arts wing of the Academy doing?

Elisa: Wonderful. Diane Baker is doing a wonderful job. Not only is she using people in the Bay Area, she’s flying-in a lot of people who have been very hands-on in the industry for a long time. So, we’re getting the Hollywood expertise as well.

Seán: So, the emphasis is on film rather than theatre.

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Elisa: It’s interesting you say that. Diane is overseeing acting for the camera and also cinematography, screenwriting, producing, directing, and editing. She has also designed a separate major for performing arts, which is theatre. We already do acting and movement, so we have a lot of that curriculum. She’s also overseeing sound for motion pictures and television. We also have a separate program of music for visual artists which is film scoring and sound for TV commercials, web sites, any type of voice-over – which is also a good way for our students to make money. People don’t realize – I’m sure you do – that many actors are voiced over.

Seán: Oh, I’m painfully aware of it!

Elisa: (After a round of laughter.) There’s a lot of work for students who graduate with reels that show their versatility and what they can do. Diane is also doing a wonderful job promoting our students. One of them is in the Palm Springs Film Festival, we’re working closely with the Cannes Film Festival, the Sundance Film Festival. Robert Redford is a good friend of Diane’s. We’ve done things with him at the Kabuki, she’s gotten many students jobs and walk-on parts in TV shows where they go to Los Angeles to do the work. Diane is a working actress while she’s overseeing the program. She’s very connected and that is what’s so wonderful for us. When my grandfather started the Academy he believed that professional artists had to train the next generation of artists. That principle and mission statement is what I have followed-through on.

Seán: My degree is in Theatre Arts with an emphasis in Acting. My career was as a professional singer and for over twenty years now I’ve been coaching working singers here in the Bay Area. I know what it means to compete for a job. I’m also keeping – in front of everybody – a recent article that appeared on Yahoo about some degrees being worth more than others. It reveals the starting and mid-career annual salaries of the ten worst-paying college degrees. And there they are – the performing arts and fine arts degrees – right at the bottom. Yet, we can step outside this building and be immediately effected by the power and impact of the Arts upon The City. The other thing in this crazy mix is the issue of loans. Government loans to students in the Arts? Students who may not be able to pay back the loan because of the nature of their degree.

Elisa: We have very few students who receive Federal financial aid compared to most schools, whether they’re proprietary schools or non-profit schools. My grandfather was a fine art painter, even though the Academy started as an academy of Advertising art. He art directed for Sunset Magazine – in the ’30s, when it was on Kearny Street – during the day, came and taught drawing and painting at night. He was a member of the Guild in San Francisco and would show his art and paint on the weekends. It was always understood in the family, at the University, and at the Board level that the pricing of the tuition would be more in alignment with what the fine artist might make selling his or her work at galleries. And that’s who we have training our fine artists to do landscape, portraiture, to mix their paints, their palette, according to the Impressionists or in the Renaissance traditions. They are taught many different techniques and concepts so that, when they leave the Academy, if they get an assignment or commission to paint someone’s portrait they can do that. Their own personal work may look different. But if asked and if someone is going to pay them ten thousand dollars or more for that portrait – they can do that. If someone asked them to do a premiere painting to hang over their fireplace – they can do that. We teach them to be artists and be able to get back to where they were. In other words, if they mix their palette a certain way on Monday, they can re-mix it on Tuesday. We don’t believe it should rely on luck. We believe it should rely on craft and concept – a time honored principle of the Renaissance which we view as the last great period of Art. So, we really managed it for the fine artists who will work in galleries, sell their work, and do very well. We would anticipate in the beginning that an animator might walk out the door and make $70,000 to $80,000 a year which is conceivable. Everything we do is geared to the fine artist – ultimately starting at $40,000 to $50,000. For a long, long time non-profit schools particularly have been chasing Federal financial aid. And they have out-priced themselves. Stanford did, a few years ago, when they had to offer tuition-free any kid whose parents made under $100,000. That was just because the government was willing to loan up to that amount. We really didn’t play into that game and the family schools didn’t play that game. For the most part, I don’t know of any family schools that did. They understand they have to look at the job market and see where their students are getting most of their employment and base it to what’s reasonable.

Seán: Do you get students who believe they’re going to ceate that one great painting, sculpture or film and – through the classes – come to realize they have to develop a broader vision? Do they become discouraged by that? In other words, their question might be, “Why does my individual creativity have to be so commercialized?”

Elisa: I think that the Academy of Art University is very clear in its mission statement and very up-front about what we do. We’re not trying to be all things to all people. We probably don’t attract the student who wants a disciplined approach and there will be students who don’t want a disciplined approach. They want to go into a classroom and do their own thing. They don’t care if the teacher is running the classroom or not. We have a problem with that from the point of view that if someone wants to come in and do their own thing – they should stay home and do it. They don’t need to pay us or any school for that matter. From our point of view, if a student for some reason comes here and thinks it’s something other than what we said it was, then they usually don’t even get down the path into the classroom. We’re really clear in our orientation about what our expectations are about, what they are going to be learning, and the amount of work they’re going to have to put into it.

Seán: What do you think is the strongest motivation for an art student to come to The City and to this Academy?

Elisa: I think they come to San Francisco because it’s a beautiful city. Artists see more than most people and they want to be in a beautiful environment. They can and do paint it. We’ve had the program on-line for about seven years. About a third of the population is 100% on-line. Another third is hybrid, which means they come into the City once or twice a week and then take the rest of the program on-line. So, the convenience of not having to commute and staying where they are is appealing to them.

Seán: Being a native San Franciscan, I have to ask about what sparked your interests, your epiphanies. I come from a family with few artistic interests. But I attended St. Monica’s Catholic School, which included daily access to the adjoining church, which has a relatively opulent interior. I was totally taken-in. Then a couple of field trips to the de Young Museum and Legion of Honor changed everything for me. I’m eight years old, standing transfixed in front of El Greco’s John the Baptist. I know I wasn’t dwelling on the religious particulars of the subject. I fell in love with the painter. It’s been a life-long affair. What was it for you?

Elisa: My parents were very creative. My mother’s an artist, my father is creative – and my grandfather. I was always around beautiful things, always looking – my parents were always telling us to look at these beautiful things. I wasn’t really aware of it. I too went to schools with beautiful architecture.

Seán: Where did you go to school?

Elisa: Crystal Springs, an all-girls high school. I was always being exposed to art and told to look. The Academy was a labor of love for our family and for my father. He was adding more and more subjects after World War II, in the ’50s. The School was always growing under his leadership. I started to take art classes in high school and then had a full art curriculum at Crystal. At Vassar College I took studio art every year. When I graduated I took more foundation courses at the Academy.

Seán: Did you have the creative urge? Did you think you could succeed in a particular discipline?

Elisa: I wasn’t sure. I took drawing and anatomy, structure and form. It’s funny – I might have done advertising.

Seán: I want to bring up the support the Academy has extended to San Francisco’s Gay community. This year the Academy took part in the Pride Parade and made a generous donation of $25,000 to the LGBT Center during its recent financial struggle. You’ve even established “Outloud”, a support group for Gay students here at the Academy.

Elisa: I’ve worked with homosexuals my whole life. At the school, there are a disproportionate number of people who are homosexual. It’s not something we discuss, it’s just a fact. We have always worked for the best artists. That has always been our drive. Every year we’re trying to be better and better. It just so happens there are a percentage of people who are recognizable because they are out. They can be open about their lifestyle because it’s never going to be an issue here at the art school – ever, at all. It became for us that – wow! if there is a voice outside the school – then it’s really important to us to support that voice because of how important the Gay population is to the creative process.

Seán: Does the presence of Outloud influence the inter-communication that I’m assuming happens throughout the Academy? Does it have an impact on class assignments or final projects?

Elisa: I think that is a question for the individual artists, because they are living the life. They’ve had to overcome challenges by not being “the norm” per se. They are younger and enjoying the freedoms that were hard fought by you guys and the guys that came before you. Interestingly enough, they probably think less about their orientation.

Seán: It’s a natural thing – because of the age and era in which they have grown-up.

Elisa: Right. It might be that they’ve come full circle, that they don’t even have to express their art as a Gay male or female. They are who they are. I sense that it’s not impacting them so directly. The club, Outloud, started on its own. There may be some students who come from smaller towns where being Gay is less acceptable, or to their parents. So it’s a nice thing if the student feels they have a need to connect, that they have an avenue to connect.

Seán: How would you advise someone who wants a job such as yours?

Elisa: I fell into it about the age of 32–33. I started as a counsel here after graduating from University of San Francisco Law School. I actually worked for several different presidents and then my dad – who’s Chairman of the Board – came out of retirement in ’65. He trained me for two years. I ended up seeing how much impact the University has on the lives of its students. And how – using the professional artists we have in our class – how these students get a portfolio, and then get a job and are actually living their dream. And I’m thinking – they’re not going to be engineers, doctors, and lawyers. Their passion is in the Arts. They are going to be professional artists. They will be going into the big leagues, the major leagues. They’re not going to be in the minor leagues. They are going to be professional artists. There are huge job opportunities – especially since the computer is the tool for the artist, a virtual tool. They drive and run that machine and I don’t see that going away. The better the artist can draw and design, sharpen their hand skills – the better they are working the machine. The computer allows a lot of people to pretend they are artists. But, what’s happening is that the demand for a true artist is even stronger and more necessary as a result of the machine. Once they have their first job, they’re going to learn more on that job. It’s important that they get that job, grow in that job, and maintain that job. That’s what our goal is. I saw that happening consistently. People coming to the school know our background, they know we can train them and that they can walk away with something tangible. I knew we’re changing lives much like a doctor saves a life. It’s intriguing to me to put in all the hard work to make the school get better, to keep it growing, and be what it is today.

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Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Seán Martinfield, who also serves as Fine Arts Critic, is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”, which is being prepared for publication. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on AllExperts.com. If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: sean.martinfield@comcast.net.


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