Elisa Stephens is changing the role of art 

Academy of Art University remains focused on expanding its curriculum to accommodate a growing demand for multimedia artists in today’s technological world.

Elisa Stephens is a texting addict, which makes her fit in with all the students at the Academy of Art University. There’s a catch, though: She’s not enrolled at the school. She’s the president.

While Stephens’ obsession with texting could be seen as just a quirk she shares with the thousands of students that flood San Francisco’s streets every day, it also provides a window into how her understanding of technology has elevated the school from a small, private art-and-design school to a cutting-edge, multimedia factory.

Since 1992, Stephens — who admits to buying five of the same model phones at one time to be certain one is always at her side — has run the private art-and-design school that her grandfather, former Sunset magazine art director Richard Stephens, founded 81 years ago. Stephens assumed the school’s top post from her father, also named Richard, who had served as president since 1951 and had expanded its student body from an enrollment of just 250 in 1946 to 2,300 when she took over. During her tenure, Stephens is credited for growing its student body to about 16,300. Today, the university is considered the largest of its kind in the U.S.

While art remains as traditional as a paint brush against a canvas, technological advances in recent decades have made the artist a more necessary contributor to the global marketplace, Stephens said.

When her grandfather founded the university, its initial 15-person student body was taught primarily to use art in advertising. But advancements in photography after World War II helped expand the school’s curriculum to meet new market needs.

Zip forward to the emergence of personal computers in the 1990s and you’ll understand why the Academy of Art has grown rapidly during the last 20 years.

“For a long time, the popular thought was that engineers would be the drivers of the computer,” she said. “But the computer is a visual tool, and it became very clear that it was a tool for the artist.”

The school became the nation’s first to have a Macintosh computer in its classroom. In the ’80s and ’90s, artists were using computers to amp up movies such as “The Terminator” and “Jurassic Park.”

In later years, Stephens said, vast strides could be noticed in art used in video games, and more recently in Web design and new media. “[The computer] demanded ... someone who had a trained eye, who could draw, understand color, perspective, 3-D, acting, sound, music and movement.”

Every time new technology demanded the work of an artist, the Academy of Art University responded with a new course offering. Each new course brought in new students, and each new student demanded expansion of the campus and the university’s online presence. Soon enough, the school had not only created its own village on New Montgomery Street, but its presence could be felt across The City.

That swift expansion has not always made neighbors comfortable. The school has faced criticism for the manner in which it has assumed new properties and operated its 50-vehicle bus fleet.

Stephens said she believes the university is “getting better” in how it handles expansion. She likened residents’ discomfort with the school’s growth to complaints that arise when a hospital expands.

“We’ve been visible,” she said. “We’re not hiding.”

Growth at the university has brought economic benefits to The City — whether by feeding a work force ravenous for high-tech professionals, or by providing customers for hotels, restaurants and shops.

“Every tax we can think of, we pay,” she added.

According to Stephens, however, the university is not trying to expand only for the sake of growing. Responding to the needs of an artist’s education in a world in which their services are ever-changing and increasingly necessary is the main goal of the university. And she believes that technologically minded art “is an area that the United States can be a leader worldwide.”

The Academy of Art University’s next avenue of growth is in its online classroom, which has already enrolled students from far-off regions that include Europe, Iceland, Australia and Asia.

Stephens said she wants to use emerging technologies to establish remote classrooms or meeting locations worldwide where students taking online classes can share their work and learn from others in-person.

In that effort, it will be even more important that the school be connected. And with five nifty Nokia model cell phones — ones that not only allow users to text, but to build PowerPoint presentations as well — the school’s president should have little problems in that regard.


Athletics teach lessons in artistic collaboration

The Academy of Art University might be known for its creative curriculum, but that doesn’t preclude students from donning sports uniforms too.

The university’s NCAA Division II program began in 2008 when school officials brought in star power to run their athletic program. Its athletic director is none other than former San Francisco 49er Jamie Williams, who played tight end for the NFL team from 1990 to 1993 and was also an accomplished basketball player in high school and college.

The athletics department features a wide variety of sports programs, including baseball, softball, basketball, golf, cross country, soccer and volleyball. The school even boasts a full cheerleading squad. The mascot, appropriately, is the Urban Knights.

The art-and-design school is also establishing intramural sports, university President Elisa Stephens said.

The mixture of art and athletics should not surprise anyone, Stephens said. In latter-day art, where multiple artists work together in creating multi-disciplined works such as video games, films and other digital productions, teamwork is necessary, Stephens said.

“If you are in any subject [at the Academy], except for maybe fine art, you’re going to have to collaborate with people,” she said, adding that students who were both artists and students in high school want the opportunity to continue both skills at the university.

The sports program offers the feel of a traditional university — including the school’s very first homecoming celebration last year.

— Mike Aldax

Elisa Stephens

A quick look at the Academy of Art University leader:

Occupation: President of Academy of Art University (since 1992)
Age: 51
Family: Married, 5-year-old son
Residence: Nob Hill
Last best book you’ve read: “Leonardo da Vinci: The Complete Paintings and Drawings”
Three movies you think everyone should own: “It Happened One Night”; “My Favorite Wife”; “The Terminator”
Top three favorite artists of all time (any style): Michelangelo; Breugel; Rodin
Favorite type of music, musician: Soul music, Al Green
Three city restaurants where you most often dine: Mercedes Hair of the Dog Cantina; Big Four Restaurant; Garden Court at Palace Hotel
Favorite bargain bite in city: In-N-Out Burger
Favorite city park: Huntington Park
Favorite type of dog: Dachshund
If you could have dinner with any celebrity in the world (living or deceased), who would it be? Cary Grant
The last TV show you’ve watched regularly: “Saving Grace”
If you could be any animal, what would you be? Jaguar

Academy of Art University

17 Academic buildings in The City
17 Residence halls serving AAU in The City
30-plus Areas of academic emphasis at AAU
50-plus Buses in AAU fleet
1929 Year AAU was founded
16,300 Approximate students currently enrolled at AAU
50,000-plus AAU Alumni worldwide

Source: Academy of Art University


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