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Here's a fun little article about the school

topic posted Tue, September 14, 2004 - 12:05 PM by  *Marmalaide*
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Found this today in the SF Gate


www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi

The Creative Landlord
The Academy of Art University runs a bustling dormitory business in downtown SF
- by Carol Lloyd, special to SF Gate
Tuesday, September 14, 2004




Matt, an aspiring young filmmaker, sits in his new home: His room in downtown San Francisco is adorned only by a tacked-up poster, a narrow bed and a low bookshelf where he's stacked a pile of jeans and placed his laptop.

The bathroom is "vintage" -- meaning it hasn't been touched in half a century; the kitchen "efficient" -- meaning that it's the size of an average bathroom. On the other side of the double parlor doors, his two roommates share the other room of what might be charitably called a "junior one-bedroom." There's no living room or place to sit to eat a bowl of cereal, and you have to walk through the other bedroom to get to the kitchen, but since Matt, unlike his roommates, has his own room, he's stoked.

"It's pretty cool," says the baby-faced 22-year-old as he looks around the 12-by-12-foot room. "The room is big, so I'm happy."

It's not fancy, but it's a fine crash pad for these young men who have come to San Francisco to pursue their creative dreams. Like generations of artists before them, they find the city as a whole is their real home. Their apartment is just a place to fulfill biological necessities: eating, sleeping and downloading mp3s.

But unlike their bohemian forebears, Matt and his roomies haven't discovered cheap digs in a communal house in the Mission or a Tenderloin apartment building. In fact, for his studio-plus, he and his roommates pay a total of some $3,500 a month -- about triple the current market rate.

"It's hella expensive," he says with a shrug. "But I don't really think about it, because my parents are paying...."

Indeed, Matt's artist pad occupies a special niche in the world of San Francisco housing. It's a dormitory, owned and operated by the Academy of Art University, the school that lured Matt, once a student at George Washington University, to move across the country and try his hand at filmmaking.

In the wake of the dot-com boom when the boho-cheap artists fled the city in droves because of the high cost of housing, San Francisco has become a mecca for another kind of creative immigrant: the art student.

This fall, the Academy of Art University, which claims to be the largest art education institution in the country, enrolled over 7,700 students in its 12 departments, which range from architecture to industrial design, fine arts to film. While some students take only online classes, at least half sign up to live the life of a young artist in San Francisco. This romantic image is propagated by the Academy of Art's seductive media campaign, which runs spots on MTV and recruits students from around the world.

Academy of Art students may be squeezed into tiny apartments and their lifestyles may be far from affordable, but the kids are well funded by Mom and Dad -- as well as by loans underwritten by Uncle Sam.

In this case, one family's debt is another family's profit. Founded in 1929 as the Academy of Advertising Art by Richard Samuel Stephens, an illustrator who worked for Sunset magazine, the Academy of Art University is, in essence, a family business. Unlike most art schools, such as the nonprofit California College of the Arts and the San Francisco Art Institute, the university is what's known as a proprietary school -- it's a for-profit business.

As a proprietary art school, the Academy of Art University is not alone -- Savanna College of Art and Design is another -- but it differs from traditional art schools in significant ways. At the undergraduate level, the academy requires no portfolio, baseline GPA or interview for admission, so its size is only limited by its ability to recruit students. It also has a large international population -- with 32 percent of its students coming from 64 different countries. Because admission is open to everyone with -- as the joke goes -- "a checkbook and a pulse," it's an excellent way for young people who couldn't get into a college with standards to obtain student visas.

In 1992, Stephen's granddaughter Elisa Stephens took over from her father Richard A. Stephens, and since then the institution has grown to become a very visible presence in San Francisco. Between 1994 and 1998, the school doubled its real estate holdings from seven to 15 properties. And since then it has purchased eight more buildings, bringing its portfolio to 23 -- which includes a few with special symbolic significance.

In 2001, the Stephens family purchased the First Congregational Church, an 86-year-old Romanesque landmark and site of the 1949 founding of the United Nations, for $7.5 million to house their auditorium for film screenings and fashion shows.

The academy also recently purchased a warehouse of art studios formerly owned by the prestigious but fiscally challenged San Francisco Art Institute. And it has now taken over a massive former car dealership on Van Ness Avenue to house a new transportation design specialty.

Together, the two dozen buildings -- each emblazoned with the school logo of a pair of red nested A's -- are appraised at more than $37 million.

Combined with its fleet of ubiquitous blue buses that provide shuttle service for students, the Academy of Art has burnished a brand identity that would make many multinationals salivate.

But despite its success, the school has been dogged by controversies. Critics have accused it of being a diploma mill or, worse, a real estate investment firm. And last spring, it became the center of heated censorship debate when one of its creative writing teachers brought a student's gruesomely violent short story to the attention of the administration. The teacher was not rehired for the following semester, and the student was expelled. The administration suggested that her assigning a violently themed David Foster Wallace short story was at fault.

A recent tour of the academy gave me a glimpse of the school beyond the controversy -- a school brimming over with student services, fancy equipment and extensive facilities. It seemed corporate, sure, but not in a particularly bad way.

The campus was clean, well-organized and well-equipped. With its free bus service, staff of student advocates, swank storefront galleries and professional foundry, it didn't seem like a real estate empire in disguise. And while I've heard complaints about the quality of the education on offer, most of the students I interviewed were satisfied with their school experience and enthusiastic about their teachers.

Whatever the strengths or weaknesses of the university's curriculum, however, it's striking that in an era when arts organizations are shutting their doors and prestigious art schools are struggling to balance the books, the Academy of Art has made art pay and pay big.

So what accounts for the school's progress toward global domination?

Elisa Stephens emphasizes it's the excellence of the education provided that has accounted for the institution's success. "It's unusual that the portfolio to be the emphasis. We have a performance-based focus that makes us unique. It's the professional of today teaching the professionals of tomorrow," she explains.

Ellen Supple, director of career services, says that the school takes special care to prepare students for the real world of work. "It's the career preparation that differentiates us from other arts schools," she says, adding that the school places 80 percent of its graduates in their chosen industry. (Placement-within-the-industry statistics are difficult to verify, and in competitive arenas like acting, painting or film they are essentially meaningless.)

Art schools are rarely an inexpensive venture for students -- aside from one state- funded art school in Massachusetts, they tend toward the private and pricey. For example, California College of the Arts (with campuses in Oakland and San Francisco) charges its 1,500 undergraduate students about $12,000 per semester in tuition. Elisa Stephens claims Academy of Art University has the "lowest tuition of any private art institute in the country," at about $6,600 to $9,000 per semester depending on the number of units.

But classes are only one part of the Academy of Art University's product. Unlike many local art schools, which offer housing to only a small proportion of their students, the academy guarantees housing to everyone. Hence, about 850 students are housed in 11 student residences -- 6 dormitories and 5 apartment houses -- that range from remodeled Pacific Heights mansions to an old hospital near Nob Hill to repurposed apartment houses near Union Square. Paying an average of $1,000 a month, student renters contribute to what appears to be a profitable business.

Dormitories usually cost more than comparable housing, in part because they carry added expenses like resident assistants who oversee the buildings, janitorial services and activities budgets. Even so, the Academy of Art's housing is more expensive than that of other Bay Area schools.

For instance, a double dormitory room at UC Berkeley runs about $550 per month, per person. At the San Francisco Art Institute -- where housing is available to only 45 students -- students pay about $525 a month. At CCA's dormitory in Oakland, double rooms go for $517.

The Academy of Art University trumps these prices: Double rooms run $1,000 a month, and the rate goes up during intersession (the three weeks between the fall and spring semesters, for instance) when students are charged -- whether their room is a studio apartment or a "quad" (four to a room) -- $45 a day. When asked why the Academy of Art's housing is more expensive than that of other local schools, President Stephens did not respond before publication.

And though dormitories are notoriously cramped, the academy has applied a new level of creativity to the art of wedging students into small spaces.

Last semester Matt shared an apartment that included two bedrooms and what he characterized as an "open space without doors" or, as the school calls it, "a converted living room," with a total of four roommates. The combined rent on this unit came to about $5,450 per month. By contrast, new graduate student housing at UC Berkeley, which features single rooms in two- to six-bedroom units, remains relatively expensive at $800 and $950 a month per room. But at least these apartments have dining rooms, living rooms and kitchens.

If you were to set out to imagine a more lucrative business for old apartment buildings, you'd be hard pressed to better the housing system run by the Academy of Art University. Since you can pack many more students into dormitories than you could into market-rate studio apartments, you can maximize the profit from each apartment. And since the tenants are middle-class kids and not derelict crackheads, you can charge far more than you could for SROs. Finally, you're exempt from a vexing set of laws that makes most San Francisco landlords apoplectic with self-pity, since rent control does not cover dormitories.

Indeed, as the Academy of Art University accrues multimillion-dollar properties like so many ten-cent trinkets, it has succeeded in doing what chambers of commerce across the nation can only dream of doing: monetizing a myth.

Drawn by the San Francisco's beauty, creative vibe, counterculture history and high- tech industries, Academy of Art students come here for the same reasons that many other young creative people have chosen to make the Bay Area their home. What distinguishes their experience from that of earlier dreamers is that it now costs so much to get their toehold in paradise.


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Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about Bay Area real estate. She teaches a class on buying your first home in the Bay Area, and another class based on her best-selling career counseling book for creative people, "Creating a Life Worth Living." For more information, email her at surreal@sfgate.com.

URL: sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi


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©2004 SF Gate
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