Art-school consequential

Scoping the city’s two new creative colleges

Art makers or office drones? Students get busy in one of several Mac labs at the new International Academy of Design and Technology, Sacramento.

Art makers or office drones? Students get busy in one of several Mac labs at the new International Academy of Design and Technology, Sacramento.

So far, there isn’t any art on Roger Gomez’s office walls. Come to think of it, everything about 2850 Gateway Oaks Drive is, to all outward appearances, artless, utilitarian and generic. The perfunctory office-park landscaping. The bald absence of cultural or architectural history. The fact that 2860 Gateway Oaks Drive, another monolith of glass and steel and sand-colored stone right next door, looks exactly the same.

But Gomez works in the brand-new Art Institute of California, Sacramento, of which he is president, and for which artistic expectations are the stock in trade. Sacramento’s is the 36th campus in the national Arts Institute franchise, which began in Pittsburgh 35 years ago as what Gomez calls “a grassroots institution, a mom-and-pop shop.” But, he says, “as the evolution of creative arts expanded as something viable in terms of employment, it made sense to move into other metropolitan areas. We do a lot of research and make formidable assessments on where we want to put a new location.” Sacramento’s time had come.

AI is the second art school to open a branch here this year—the International Academy of Design & Technology, also in Natomas, was the first—and to infuse local post-secondary creative education with the whiff of a distinctly corporatized, bottom-line mentality. The schools’ arrival raises an important question for the growing city: Can we have the artsy without the fartsy?

When Gomez speaks of “an unmet need,” and “trying to expand our horizons as an organization,” he sounds, well, like a company man—the talented management professional he is, not to mention the holder of two political-science degrees. But that doesn’t mean he and his school can’t be good for Sacramento’s cultural health. Of the area’s artistically inclined young citizens, he says, “People kind of flee the central region and go to San Francisco or L.A. for employment. We want to change that. We want not only to provide a quality education, but to spearhead community involvement.”

With a fresh crop of 87 students, AI’s classes only just began last month; the 35,000-square-foot facility—it’ll be 45,000 when they complete the film and video studio next year—will have to be a work in progress for a while. Thus is the matter of office artlessness open to interpretation: an understandably low priority for a busy young administrator with an institution to launch, or an augury of that institution’s ultimately uninspiring priorities?

It’s easy to imagine the resistance. From an older generation, say, of change-fearing boho burnouts, who, having failed to secure reputations for themselves in the bloodthirstier Bay Area, skulked valleyward to relax into cheaper studio spaces and lower expectations. But what about these kids today, with all their techo-widgets and their new-economy commercial priorities? What really matters to them?

And what, then, should an art school even look like nowadays? Some majestic red-brick marvel set like a jewel in the leafy hills of New England? A funkified urban fortress of stone and steel? Ultimately, isn’t the landscape architecture of student imagination the only kind that really matters?

Earlier this year, in the shadow of Arco Arena, a block away from a street called “Commerce,” another new franchise outpost of college-level arts education took root. It faces a wide-open field, ripe for development, in which a lone sign reads, “Natomas Town Center: Hungry for Variety?” Just plain hungry, anyway; the variety so far seems mostly to do with what’s for lunch: Will it be Pizza Guys or Panera Bread Company? This is not, in other words, your textbook example of a creative enclave. But if somebody’s got to move in, why shouldn’t it be an art school?

“I think it’s so needed,” says IADT’s Sacramento president, Melody Rider. “The community’s like, ‘Wow, I didn’t know you were here.'” Like Gomez, Rider is friendly, attractive, articulate and professional. Like him, she will be her school’s face for the time being—at least until the students redesign it.

And in that interim, the two new schools probably will be hard to tell apart. Sure, there are subtle differences: Whereas Gomez favors a tie under his suit jacket, Rider, under hers, inclines toward tie-dye. But the situation, and the spiel, is pretty much the same. Both schools say they value perseverance and commitment over raw talent; celebrate the creative mind and encourage self-expression; keep classes small and hands-on; seek instructors with direct, recent experience in their fields; emphasize community outreach; and fully intend to keep the talent they develop from leaving Sacramento for bigger cities.

Both make use of blank, deliberately modular rooms, in which you might sooner expect a conference on “The Future of the Panel Discussion in the Age of Power Point” than a figure-drawing or design class. But, for the 207 students who’ve enrolled at IADT since classes began there in May, at least, that doesn’t really seem to matter.

“My students are amazing,” Rider beams, eyeing the “student brag board” class-project displays lining her hallways. “And I only hire people that love what they do and are all about the student. The student feels immediately important. The mantra is: ‘It’s your school.'”

It’s a far cry from the primary lesson hissed by John Malkovich’s angsty professor in Art School Confidential: “Don’t have unrealistic expectations! Only one out of a hundred of you will ever make a living as an artist!” Or maybe it’s just a student body with a different set of priorities.

“Sacramento can definitely afford more art. Therefore, it’s wonderful to see new art-related institutions opening up,” says professor Jiayi Young, chair of the art/new media department at American River College. “On the other hand … IADT and AI tend to be strongly market-focused. With a strong, fast-track focus on technically producing art rather than creatively making art, many aspects of artistic and visual communication can be compromised.”

Sounds like resistance again, but this time from a well-established competitor, and worth considering. “As the city of Sacramento grows, it’s interesting to see how the growth is viewed and what kinds of businesses would come in to take advantage of such opportunities that correspond to the type of growth they see,” Young continues. “One would almost wonder about the similarities and differences [between] today’s digital production workers and yesterday’s assembly-line workers.”

Can there be such a thing as an art-school factory drone? Well, probably. But maybe it’s also possible that a proletarian work ethic might be constructive—might help keep les pretensions des artistes in check. After all, at their worst, corporate chain training and over-educated, soft-handed entitlement probably run about neck-and- neck for soullessness.

And so, Bohemian fantasies aside, maybe a little market focus isn’t so bad. “No one wants to go through years of school to learn to be a starving artist,” says Sacramento artist Ben Walker, an alumnus of Academy of Art University in San Francisco, who now conducts Midtown’s weekly “Pompsicle” figure-drawing classes. “I don’t know a lot about these particular schools, but just looking at the list of programs at AI Sacramento, it seems like a decent match for the types of businesses in the Sacramento area,” Walker adds. “It wouldn’t be right to have a school set up where graduates have to move to get work.”

Local lowbrow art-star Skinner echoes these sentiments, with qualifications. “I don’t know much about art school,” he says. “But if it motivates people to do something, then that is awesome. Of course my stance on capitalism being integrated into the expressive segments of our culture still stands: I don’t like it. … In my opinion, art schools can be amazing, but they can also be very much the Hot Topics of the art world.”

True enough. For Sacramento’s newest institutions of higher education to be entrusted as arbiters of the city’s cultural priorities, they must intend their curricula and their classrooms not to tickle cognoscenti fancies, but rather to support working professionals who deal with aesthetic questions as practical matters every day.

In time, the new schools will meaningfully affect the city’s creative complexion. As Skinner would have it, “I need some more weirdos to go thrash with, so bring ’em on out—and hopefully they like graffiti; this town needs help!” You could say it’s like an empty office wall, awaiting artful decoration.

As for Gomez’s fledgling Sactown AI, it’s not all boring and bland over there. For instance, they still haven’t put drapes on the human anatomy classroom windows either.