Elizabeth Bayne: What is 90/300? Were you aware that was the statistic when this exhibition was initiated?
Steven Butler (BFA Film 13): 90/300 is an exhibition commemorating the 90th anniversary of ArtCenter, as well as celebrating the approximately 300 Black alumni that have come from the school. At first the idea for this exhibition was to simply honor our Black alumni and welcome them back to ArtCenter. But as we began doing research and discovering these statistics, it became apparent that this exhibition needed to be much more. We wanted to really showcase the impact of Black artists and designers on the global creative economy as well as make a strong statement with the exhibition itself. I’m proud to have discovered the title, 90/300: A Measure of Representation, in celebration of cultural influence, as well as written the overall exhibition introduction/summary. I hope it serves as a beacon and call-to-action for the ArtCenter community for many years to come.
EB: Why does it matter?
SB: I mean, if the United States is 12 percent African American people, and it's only 1 percent of [ArtCenter's] total student body, that's not really the correct balance of numbers. So it just doesn't seem like it's right. You know? And it could be a lack of awareness of the school, but I don't think that's the reason.
EB: It sounds like from what you're saying, it should be fixed, but whose responsibility is that?
SB: I think the responsibility lies in pretty much the entire school, from leadership down to the student body.
EB: How or when did you decide to pursue a creative field?
SB: So that's a long story. But around the age of 15, I started taking dance classes, and that was my first entrance into the creative world. I then became a professional dancer, and then a choreographer. And that work led me to the other things like writing, directing, editing and fine art.
We wanted to really showcase the impact of Black artists and designers on the global creative economy, as well as make a strong statement with the Impact 90/300 exhibition itself.Steven ButlerCreative Operations Manager, DEI, Designmatters
EB: How did you transition from a dancer into film?
SB: I was working with other choreographers and other directors, basically helping to set choreography based scenes and realizing, "Hey, wait a minute, I'm actually directing this." I’m doing the staging and blocking, I’m figuring out the camera placement. So I might as well learn how to do this for myself.
EB: Did ArtCenter equip you to become that person?
SB: The things that I learned at ArtCenter have led me to be able to do a number of things that I never would have been able to do. For instance, I've done media installations; I've directed and produced. I'm now a creative manager of a department at the school. ArtCenter is what gave me the tools and skillset to succeed in a multitude of different creative fields.
EB: Do you think a lot of young people are aware of that? That there are these different creative avenues that could provide a sustainable career?
SB: No, because even for me, when I was little, I wanted to be an architect. Then once I realized all the math that was involved, I was like, "eh." But if I knew about environmental design, I may have actually studied that instead, which is more of the fun part that I wanted to do and not all the math. I think people see, "Oh, I could be a dancer, or an actor, or I could maybe be a makeup artist." But they maybe don't know about product design, industrial design, entertainment design, all these different creative fields.
ArtCenter's Commitment to Black Lives
EB: Why did you come to ArtCenter? Because there are a lot of film schools in Los Angeles.
SB: [With] ArtCenter, you own your films. They let you do what you want. It was the freedom to study and explore any sort of creative idea. But also having illustration people I could be inspired by, and product design people, and all these other artists that I got to collaborate with and learn from. I took classes in advertising, motion graphics, graphic design — that made me more well-rounded, I would say. So that's the reason why. It's the whole package of what ArtCenter is able to offer and how much freedom I had.
EB: Were you able to find your voice here at ArtCenter?
SB: I was able to find my voice, maybe, about 60 percent of the way. The rest of it came a couple of years ago when I did this TEDx Talk. And through that, I realized that I really hadn't been exploring super personal subjects through my work and maybe I should put out artwork that is specifically from my soul, which is really scary but also more fulfilling.
EB: How much does being an African American play into your voice or your identity?
SB: I used to think it didn't. I was the person who was like, "I'm not a Black artist. I'm an artist." It wasn't until recently I was like, OK, everything that I've ever experienced, whether that's good or bad, has gone into making me who I am. It's part of my existence being Black, being African American. And that's what goes into everything that I create whether I’m fully aware of it or not.
EB: 300 alumni, 90 years. Would you say that number represents progress or does it represent a deficit on the part of the school?
SB: When I came here, there were only about 10 black students at one time, maybe 10 at the most. And now there are a lot more. And so I think the numbers are growing. You don't want to feel like you're the only one.
EB: We talk a lot about diversity and having Black representation at the school. But for me, it's about the fact that we're image-makers and we're creating. Because culture is shaped off those images, the media, and the content that we consume. Why is it important for more people of color, and Black individuals specifically, to have those skill sets, to communicate at that level?
SB: Because if not, then we will see our stories told by — no offense to certain directors — but we'll see our stories told by Steven Spielberg doing Amistad, instead of Spike Lee. There's always an excuse: There's no one who has the talent, there's no one who has the skill set, or that can command a crew. But there are. There are tons of people; we just have to find them and give them access.
EB: Anything else you'd like to add as a staff member about the theme of Impact 90/300?
SB: I think it's been a long time coming, to put Black people at the forefront, and say we're celebrating these people because they're great, and that's it. There's no question about it. We’re putting money behind it, we're celebrating the 90th anniversary of the school.. So I think it's special.
EB: Have Black students at ArtCenter contributed to the school?
SB: The culture of the school has changed and shifted in really cool and positive ways based on people like myself, people like you, people like the Next Level Brothers. I remember just being around the hall and having these guys walk around with boomboxes playing music, creating a positive, soulful atmosphere and giving people high-fives and stuff. I was like, yeah, we need more of that energy; we need more vibes. But also in the classroom, having people who are smart and talented speak up for themselves, speak up for their work and their art, challenge teachers, share in certain ways, and educate people. Because if I’m learning about your heritage, then you learn about mine, [now] we're having this exchange of culture. I think that's the key.
*This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.
Photo credit: Everard Williams