Dot Magazine - FALL 2014 ABOUT / ARCHIVE


More than a Building—
A New Future for Illustration 
and Fine Art at Art Center

photo ©Lawrence Anderson/Esto

by Mike Padilla

From the outside, with its textured black surfaces interrupted by geometric cutouts, the two-story building invites curiosity. Inside, a broad, sky-lighted stairway rises alongside atrium galleries displaying exceptional student artwork.

A long-vacant U.S. Postal Service facility at 870 South Raymond Avenue has been transformed into the newest addition to Art Center’s expanding South Campus—the first new home for the College’s Illustration and Fine Art departments in 40 years. This donor-supported visual arts center, humming with creative energy, is revitalizing art and design education, while giving our campus community and the community at large new ways to experience our students’ work.

“Today’s art students don’t just paint, draw and sculpt,” says Fine Art and Illustration instructor Tom Knechtel, a key member of the team that planned the new building, carefully designed to amplify student collaboration across the disciplines. “They’re involved in performance work, filmmaking, photography, bookmaking, digital media and more. Bringing Fine Art and Illustration students together under one roof, providing them with shared spaces for work and installation, and encouraging campus community engagement are natural steps toward breaking down departmental barriers and accelerating creativity.”

Being able to work across disciplines also mirrors what creative businesses seek in employees today, says faculty member Aaron Smith (BFA 88 Illustration), who was also on the planning team. “Industry leaders actively seek out artists and designers who already have experience working with many other kinds of designers,” he says. “The closer we can mimic the teamwork and collaboration across increasingly fluid boundaries that students can expect to encounter after graduation, the better prepared they’ll be.”


Solving the commuter school challenge

Imagine creating a large painting or sculpture at home because there isn’t enough space at your school to do so. Now imagine transporting that piece of art to campus by car, bus or train for critique, only to have it taken down before most of your peers get to see it. Eight-seventy (as the building has been dubbed) provides students with space to create and display their work for extended periods of time so that other students can view it, comment on it and gain inspiration from it. All of which contribute to exceptional learning.

“So much of being a designer is about learning how to network with others and knowing about the kind of work your colleagues are engaged in,” Knechtel says. Organized in clusters that he calls “neighborhoods,” 870’s studio spaces allow students to work at once individually and in close proximity to their peers, offering windows onto other students’ projects that they might otherwise not know about.

“As South Campus continues to grow and make room for other departments, and as plans move forward for student housing to be built alongside 870, those synergies will only increase,” adds Smith.

out of the basement, into the spotlight

Art Center’s Illustration and Fine Art departments, which have produced such luminaries as Doug Aitken, Marc Burckhardt, Tara McPherson and Jennifer Steinkamp, are consistently among the top-ranked undergraduate degree programs of their kind nationally. Yet prior to these departments occupying 870, relatively few people in the local community had opportunities to see the work being produced by students in these programs.

That is now changing.

“The new building’s galleries, visible from the street, and other spaces that are open to visitors mean a stronger public face for both departments and for the College as a whole,” says Vanalyne Green. The recently appointed Fine Art chair describes 870 as having an “open-door policy” for the community, with a wealth of opportunities for public events, exhibitions and open studios. Such public exposure, she points out, is a dramatic improvement on Fine Art’s former basement location at the Hillside Campus. Easy access via the 110 (Arroyo Seco Parkway) and the Metro Gold Line also makes it easier for curators, art dealers, collectors and prospective employers to engage directly with students; and for students to connect with local art and design communities. “No longer in a symbolic ivory tower on a hill,” says Green, “our artists now have a space rich with opportunities for a more dynamic relationship with the city of Pasadena and beyond.”

student reaction

Students are particularly excited about expanded access to nearly 50 studios and the ability to co-program exhibition spaces, says fifth-term Fine Art student Stephen Kugelberg. “Being able to create work on campus in the company of other students and being able to put your art up and let it breathe for a few days is a boost to the creative process,” he says.

He adds that even seemingly minor changes, like providing classrooms with windows, can “bump up” the student experience. “Spending up to 10 hours a day in a classroom with no natural light can lead to feeling like you’re working in a prison cell,” Kugelberg says. “The new building solves that problem.”

According to faculty member Smith, Kugelberg’s sentiments are shared by many students in both departments. “When we first presented the College’s plans for the building,” says Smith, “you could hear a collective sigh of relief from Illustration and Fine Art students that many of the things they struggled with were at long last being addressed. The success of the building, however, is also about anticipating the future of art and design education. And that means creating the kind of space where community can flourish.”

Made possible by alumni and foundation gifts

The opening of the 870 building highlights the growing momentum of generous support that Art Center’s campus expansion has received from foundations and alumni.

A total of $2.5 million in foundation grants have helped fund the purchase and renovation of 870. A $1 million grant from The Ralph M. Parsons Foundation went toward the building’s acquisition; and The Rose Hills Foundation, the Hutto-Patterson Charitable Foundation and the Fletcher Jones Foundation have each contributed $500,000 toward its renovation.

These grants build on the philanthropy of individual donors whose $5 million in combined gifts enabled the purchase of the 870 building, including environmental designer Richard Law (MS 58 Industrial); kinetic sculptor Steven Rieman (BS 74 Product) and his wife, Ruth; Lynda Weinman and Bruce Heavin (BFA 93 Illustration), owners of

Other vital alumni contributions include a substantial in-kind gift from architectural lighting firm Vode—facilitated by company co-founder Scott Yu (BS 82 Transportation)—providing lighting throughout the building. Yu is quick to remind other potential donors that “applying the problem-solving skills we learned at Art Center and in business can keep the College thriving as it continues to educate young designers.”

Art Center alumnus Frank L. Lanza (BFA 57 Advertising Illustration) donated $1 million to establish a scholarship endowment in his name that will provide support for Illustration and Fine Art students.

Gifts like these strengthen student learning while demonstrating powerfully all that is possible thanks to the shared vision and commitment of Art Center’s generous supporters.




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