ArtCenter Gives Artists Edge in Creative Economy

Photo courtesy Juan Posada / ArtCenter College of DesignArtCenter President Lorne Buchman and Board of Trustees Chairman Robert Davidson
Photo courtesy Juan Posada / ArtCenter College of Design
ArtCenter President Lorne Buchman and Board of Trustees Chairman Robert Davidson

Starving artists of yesteryear, look no further.
The ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena is seeking the creative, the innovative, the avant-garde, the interconnected and the just plain different to change the world through — yes, art — but also through development, design, discipline and industry.
That last bit may not sound sexy to a true artist, but the ArtCenter offers a new model for art and design education, the leading model, some will say, rooted in the 21st century to give students the skills necessary to craft cutting-edge work.
“The world’s greatest cultural achievements emerge from creativity, and the skill level and great imagination of our students who come here make this happen,” said Lorne Buchman, ArtCenter president. “We foster a conservatory spirit — there’s a clear and unapologetic purpose to help our students become professionals.
“We’re not anticipating the future, we’re creating it,” Buchman quipped.
Proving that point, the ArtCenter job placement rate among graduates is a whopping 88%, and within the students’ same field of study, within a year of graduation.
“We’re incredibly proud of that number,” he said, noting that the salaries graduates are commanding are a good 20% higher than those from competitive schools.

Photo courtesy ArtCenter Daniel Jimenez, an ArtCenter graduate of Transportation Design, is a senior designer for Nissan’s Afinity Car Co.
Photo courtesy ArtCenter
Daniel Jimenez, an ArtCenter graduate of Transportation Design, is a senior designer for Nissan’s Afinity Car Co.

The ArtCenter encompasses two campuses in Pasadena, one at the South Campus, a complex on Raymond Avenue with three main buildings (a former supersonic wind tunnel, a post office distribution facility and a six-story office building). The other Hillside Campus is nestled in the San Rafael hills above the Rose Bowl, and boasts the modernist steel and glass Ellwood building. Both campuses are home to innovative learning spaces, studios, project rooms and exhibition galleries.
With about 2,130 students, the college offers 11 undergraduate programs and seven graduate programs. The general admissions rate is an average of about 50%, but that is also after the completion of a specified portfolio that is part of the admissions requirements. Some schools, like the entertainment design and transportation design programs might only have a 10% entrance rate, while others have a 70% rate.

Photo courtesy Therese Swanepoel Therese Swanepoel, an ArtCenter graduate of Environmental Design, now works as a design strategist for workplace innovation at Nike.
Photo courtesy Therese Swanepoel
Therese Swanepoel, an ArtCenter graduate of Environmental Design, now works as a design strategist for workplace innovation at Nike.

Kit Baron, senior vice president of admissions and enrollment management, noted that many students spend a year or two at Pasadena City College to develop their portfolio and hone their area of study, because the ArtCenter doesn’t have general education courses. Students must enter already declaring their school of study.
That’s the path that recent graduate Daniel Jimenez, a transportation design major, took when he relocated from New Jersey to Pasadena after high school. He was intent on joining the ArtCenter after reading about the college in a car magazine.
“I read about a car designer from the ArtCenter and saw his beautiful clay models. One full-scale clay model looked like it was made out of chocolate, and I just saw the beauty in that,” Jimenez recalled.
But creating his portfolio to enrollment specifications proved to be more work than he expected. So he got a job and attended the ArtCenter’s public classes by night for more than a year, making sure he was well-rounded in general design, automotive product design and graphics.
The prep work paid off. By his junior year, he landed an internship with Nissan in San Diego and was offered a job contract even before graduating. Now, Jimenez is a senior designer for Nissan’s Infinity Motor Co., creating “concept cars” of the future.
He pauses when asked if he considers himself more of an artist, a designer or an engineer.
“Our career is kind of a gray zone; some people say we’re artists, others say we’re more engineers. I think of it as being kind of like a Swiss Army knife,” he said, noting that the ArtCenter taught him the discipline of production.
“I was able to use the ArtCenter as a tool to sharpen the blade. It was a little like a military camp, if you will. It beat us into shape, made us realize we weren’t as good as we thought — as we should be,” he said. “It also taught me to improvise. As a designer, there’s always so much more you want to do, but time is an issue. Designers are illusionists — we have to make it seem like there aren’t any imperfections with a very limited amount of time.”
Another recent graduate, Therese Swanepoel, an environmental design major, has landed at Nike in Portland, Oregon, where she is a design strategist for workplace innovation. She is developing cutting-edge workplaces for Nike across the globe, taking cultural considerations into mind at each site.
Born and bred in South Africa, Swanepoel heard of the ArtCenter at the architectural firm where she was working. She had already gotten her bachelor’s in multimedia design and also had started a small web design and development business.
The ArtCenter helped her find her passion for designing workplaces, she said.
“I already knew I was an innovator, but I really didn’t know where I could push the boundaries, or how,” she said, noting that now her craft is focused on design thinking and strategy, how an office works, functions and collaborates. “Designers have to think peripherally; that’s something the ArtCenter has taught me to do.”
Swanepoel continues to collaborate with the college as part of the product design faculty, helping to mentor and facilitate student-led classes. She feels a lot of gratitude to the college, she said, especially because they helped her secure scholarships and work-study programs after she almost had to drop out due to financial hardships.
“They nourished me both as a student and a person; it’s the tribe I became a part of and I will always be invested in. Hopefully, my contributions will continue to grow,” she said.
The ArtCenter costs about $20,000 per semester, with full-time students attending fall and spring sessions. There is also a summer semester for students looking to graduate in less than four years. About 78% of the students receive some kind of financial aid.
Apart from its “premier reputation” among leading employers, the college also has a prestigious international reputation, noted Robert Davidson, chairman of the ArtCenter Board of Trustees. With 32% of the student population coming from abroad, the school has earned its reputation with high-quality staff and faculty, he said.
“We are the No. 1 art and design institute in the world,” he said. “We lead the world in innovative design and solutions. We are living in a creative economy today, and it’s seeking those solutions that only our students can provide.”
As board chairman, Davidson is leading a new chapter for the school — a massive 15-year master plan that aims to reposition the college with expansive, urban campuses connected by open spaces for pedestrians, new housing and student amenities. The plan could boost enrollment to 2,500 students and help them achieve affordable housing with new student housing towers. The plan was recently presented to the city and public for consideration.
Speaking to the college’s recent open house, where entire families and prospective students could be seen perusing the Hillsides Campus galleries filled with whimsical illustrations, models and designs, Davidson affirms the passion of the faculty, often seen sketching and brainstorming with students.
“I think of the ArtCenter as the happy place. Students here are changing their trajectory in life. They’re changing their lives together,” he said. “When I see someone in their 20s creating the car of the future, it is absolutely exhilarating.”
Even Jimenez, who travels with Nissan from international car show to car show with his “borderline exotic cars,” admits he loves to return to the ArtCenter to observe what the newer students are creating.
“I like to go up there and just float around and to be inspired as well. The next generations are creating some crazy weird products,” he said, laughing, admitting he sounds beyond his years, even though he just graduated in 2015. “But seriously, you’ll see some stuff coming soon that is really out there.”

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