California Institute of the Arts

The California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) is a private art university in Santa Clarita, California. It was incorporated in 1961 as the first degree-granting institution of higher learning in the US created specifically for students of both the visual and performing arts. It offers Bachelor of Fine Arts, Master of Fine Arts, Master of Arts, and Doctor of Musical Arts degrees through its six schools: Art, Critical Studies, Dance, Film/Video, Music, and Theater.

The school was first envisioned by many benefactors in the early 1960s, staffed by a diverse array of professionals including Nelbert Chouinard, Walt Disney, Lulu Von Hagen, and Thornton Ladd. CalArts students develop their own work, over which they retain control and copyright, in a workshop atmosphere.


CalArts was originally formed in 1961, as a merger of the Chouinard Art Institute (founded 1921) and the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music (founded 1883). Both of the formerly existing institutions were going through financial difficulties around the same time, and the founder of the Art Institute, Nelbert Chouinard, was mortally ill. The professional relationship between Madame Chouinard and Walt Disney began in 1929 when Disney had no money and Madame Chouinard agreed to train Disney's first animators on a pay-later basis. Through the vision of Disney, who discovered and trained many of his studio artists at Chouinard (including Mary Blair, Maurice Noble, and some of the Nine Old Men, among others), the merger of the two institutions was coordinated; the process continued after his death in 1966. Joining him were his brother Roy O. Disney, Lulu Von Hagen and Thornton Ladd (Ladd & Kelsey, Architects), of the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music. The original board of trustees at CalArts included Harrison Price, Royal Clark, Robert W. Corrigan, Roy E. Disney, Roy O. Disney, film producer Z. Wayne Griffin, H. R. Haldeman, Ralph Hetzel (then vice president of Motion Picture Association of America), Chuck Jones, Ronald Miller, Millard Sheets, attorney Maynard Toll, attorney Luther Reese Marr, bank executive G. Robert Truex Jr., Jerry Wexler, Meredith Willson, Peter McBean and Scott Newhall (descendants of Henry Newhall); and the wives of Roswell Gilpatric, J. L. Hurschler, Richard R. Von Hagen.

In 1965, the Alumni Association was founded as a nonprofit organization and was governed by a 12-member board of directors to serve the best interests of the institute and its programs. Members included leading professional artists and musicians, who contributed their knowledge, experience, and skill to strengthen the institute. The 12 founding board of directors members were Mary Costa, Edith Head, Gale Storm, Marc Davis, Tony Duquette, Harold Grieve, John Hench, Chuck Jones, Henry Mancini, Marty Paich, Nelson Riddle, and Millard Sheets.

The ground-breaking for CalArts' current campus took place on May 3, 1969. However, construction of the new campus was hampered by torrential rains, labor troubles, and the earthquake in 1971. CalArts moved to its present campus in the Valencia section of the city of Santa Clarita, California in November 1971. From the beginning, CalArts was plagued by the tensions between its art and trade school functions, as well as between the noncommercial aspirations of the students and faculty and the conservative interests of the Disney family and trustees. The founding board of trustees originally planned on creating CalArts as a school in an entertainment complex, a destination like Disneyland, and a feeder school for the industry. Such a model is exemplified in the 1941 Disney film The Reluctant Dragon. In an ironic turn of fate, they appointed Robert W. Corrigan as the first president of the institute.

Corrigan, former dean of the School of Arts at New York University fired almost all the artists and teachers from Chouinard in his attempt to remake CalArts into his personal vision. Herbert Blau was hired as the institute's provost and dean of the School of Theater and Dance. Subsequently, Blau was instrumental in hiring a number of professionals such as Mel Powell (dean of the School of Music), Paul Brach (dean of the School of Art), Alexander Mackendrick (dean of the School of Film/Video), sociologist Maurice R. Stein (dean of Critical Studies), and Richard Farson (dean of the School of Design; now integrated in the Art school as the Graphic Design program), as well as other influential program heads and teachers such as Stephan von Huene, Allan Kaprow, Bella Lewitzky, Michael Asher, Jules Engel, John Baldessari, Judy Chicago, Ravi Shankar, Max Kozloff, Miriam Shapiro, Douglas Huebler, Morton Subotnick, Norman M. Klein, and Nam June Paik, most of whom largely came from a counterculture and avant garde side of the art world. The fundamental principles established at the institute by Blau and Corrigan included ideas such as "no technique in advance of need," and that a curriculum should be cyclical rather than sequential, returning to root principles at regular intervals, and that "we’re a community of artists here, some of us called faculty and some called students."

Corrigan held his position until 1972, when he was replaced by William S. Lund, a Disney son-in-law. Within a month of Lund's tenure as president, 55 of CalArts' 325 faculty and staff were fired. Structured schedules were introduced. Classes were trimmed back, and within a year, the institute was operating on budget. Some credit Lund with saving CalArts. Others see his tenure as the end of an idealistic experiment. In 1975, Robert J. Fitzpatrick was appointed new president of CalArts. Holding this position for 12 years, in 1987, Fitzpatrick resigned as president to head Euro Disney in Paris. Nicholas England, former dean of the School of Music, was appointed acting president. One year later, Steven Lavine, associate director for arts and humanities at the Rockefeller Foundation, was named the new president.

On June 24, 2015, Steven D. Lavine announced he would step down as president of the California Institute of the Arts in May 2017, after 29 years in the position. Concluding a search with over 500 candidates, the CalArts board of directors announced on December 13, 2016, that Ravi S. Rajan, dean of the School of the Arts at the State University of New York at Purchase was unanimously elected as president, to begin in June 2017.

Beginning in the summer of 1987, CalArts became the host of the state-funded California State Summer School for the Arts program. It began as a program to nurture talented high-school students in the fields of animation, creative writing, dance, film and video, music, theatre arts, and visual arts. CalArts expanded on the concept by creating the Community Arts Partnership in 1990. While CSSSA is open to qualifying California students, CAP, as it is commonly known, is a service provided to students living within underprivileged communities in the Los Angeles County school system. Many CalArts faculty and students mentor the high school students in both programs.

In 1994, Herb Alpert, a professional musician and admirer of the Institute, established the Alpert Awards in the Arts in collaboration with CalArts and his nonprofit the Herb Alpert Foundation. While the foundation provides the award for winning recipients, the school's faculty in the fields film/new media, visual arts, theatre, dance, and music select artists in their field to nominate an individual artist who is recognized for their innovation in their given medium. Recipients of this award are required to stay for a week as visiting artists at CalArts and mentor students studying their metier. In 2008, CalArts renamed the School of Music in his name, courtesy of a $15 million donation.

Over the years, the school has also developed on-campus, interdisciplinary laboratories, such as the Center for Experiments in Art, Information, and Technology, Center for Integrated Media, Center for New Performance at CalArts, and the Cotsen Center for Puppetry and the Arts.

On August 29, 2014, a freshman student identified as Regina filed a Title IX complaint against CalArts, regarding CalArts' alleged improper response to her reported rape by a classmate. According to Aljazeera, the CalArts administration questioned the victim, "...ask[ing] her questions about her drinking habits, how often she partied, the length of her dress, ..." She was allegedly subjected to retaliation from friends of the perpetrator. The student filed a complaint against CalArts with the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights, which was eventually dismissed. The perpetrator was suspended for a year. CalArts students walked out of their classes and protested in solidarity with the victim on October 23, later initiating a student-led meeting to discuss the issue of sexual assault.

In March 2019, Cal Arts announced a tuition hike that would take its annual tuition to $50,850.


CalArts offers degree programs in music, art, dance, film and video, animation, theater, puppetry, and writing. Students receive intensive professional training in the area of their career purpose without being cast into a rigid pattern. Its focus is in interdisciplinary contemporary art, and the institute's stated mission is to develop professional artists of tomorrow, artists who will change their field. With these goals in place, the institute encourages students to recognize the complexity of political, social, and aesthetic questions and to respond to them with informed, independent judgment.


Every school within the institute requires that applicants send in an artist's statement, along with a portfolio or audition (depending on the program) to be considered for admission. The school does not review an applicant's SAT scores without consent of the applicant and does not consider an applicant's GPA as part of the admission process.

Conception and foundation

The initial concept behind CalArts' interdisciplinary approach came from Richard Wagner's idea of Gesamtkunstwerk ("total artwork"), of which Disney himself was fond and explored in a variety of forms, beginning with his own studio, then later in the incorporation of CalArts. He began with the film Fantasia (1940), where animators, dancers, composers, and artists alike collaborated. In 1952, Walt Disney Imagineering was founded, where Disney integrated artists from his animation studio and elsewhere, as well as formally trained engineers, and achieved creative critical mass in the development of Disneyland. This team included Herbert Ryman, Ken O’Brien, Collin Campbell, Marc Davis, Al Bertino, Wathel Rogers, Mary Blair, T. Hee, Blaine Gibson, Xavier Atencio, Claude Coats, and Yale Gracey. He believed that the same concept that developed WDI could also be applied to a university setting, where art students of different media would be exposed to and explore a wide range of creative directions. Disney himself has stated of his memorial school:


Schools at CalArts include:

  • School of Art
  • School of Critical Studies
  • School of Film/Video
  • The Herb Alpert School of Music
  • School of Theater
  • The Sharon Disney Lund School of Dance


    Walt Disney Modular Theatre

    The Walt Disney Modular Theatre is an indoor performance space located within the California Institute of the Arts.

    Funded by Lillian Disney, who lent support to Walt's venture into education, her gift to the school to remodel a campus theater and rename it the Walt Disney Modular Theatre in 1993. The modular theater is based on a concept suggested by Antonin Artaud, who asserted that the ideal theater could be reconfigured for each and every new performance or play. When Walt Disney founded his Institute of the Arts, he requested suggestions from leaders in various artistic fields as to what would be the ideal tools for advancing the study and practice of their medium. One of the overwhelmingly popular suggestions from the theater community was a modular theater as suggested by Artaud. Disney had the Modular Theatre incorporated as the central performance space of his Institute. It was the first of its kind constructed and remains one of only five in the world.

    The chief feature of the theater is a segmented floor, divided into 348 4'x4' square platforms, each mounted on its own independent pneumatic pistons, allowing the floor to be reconfigured into whatever shape is desired. The theater is also composed of segmented pieces, so that walls can also be easily reconfigured, creating a virtually limitless number of possibilities in design. The theater is two stories tall from floor to ceiling—the pneumatic pistons reach another story down into the CalArts library, where they are a dominating architectural feature. There are doors on all sides of the theater so that the audience can be made to enter from whatever direction the artists choose. The theater can be divided into several playing spaces, the audience can be separated into several sections, and any combination of levels and directions can be used. The theater can also be configured into an environmental space, with the audience moving through multiple locations in the course of a show, or being presented with a virtual environment rather than one in which they are separate from the performance.

    The Walt Disney Modular Theater is employed year-round by students and faculty at the CalArts, primarily those in the school of Theater. Though the idea of modular theater has fallen out of fashion, in favor of environmental theater and the resurgence of proscenium spectacle theater, the theater remains in use, run by the Technical Direction Department, including both students and faculty.

    It was designed by Fisher Dachs Associates, a collaboration between the Dean of the Theater School, Herbert Blau, lighting designer Jules Fisher, and Thornton Ladd (Ladd & Kelsey, Architects).


    A113 is a classroom at CalArts where many character animation classes have been taught. Many CalArts alumni have inserted references to it in their works as an homage to the classroom and CalArts.

    Roy and Edna Disney CalArts Theater at Walt Disney Concert Hall

    In 2003, CalArts established a performance theater in downtown Los Angeles called REDCAT, the Roy and Edna Disney CalArts Theater at Walt Disney Concert Hall. The Center for New Performance, the professional producing arm of the CalArts Theater School, brings works to the space from both student and professional artists and musicians.

    Wild Beast

    In fall 2009, the Institute opened an on-campus music pavilion, known as the "Wild Beast". The 3200 sqft, free-standing structure serves as a space for classrooms and combined indoor-outdoor performance space. CalArts' President Steven Lavine has stated, "The core demand is that our Herb Alpert School of Music has doubled in size in the last decade; when we have guest artists, there is no place for them to perform—And the second reason was to allow enough space for the general public to attend [...]"

    John Baldessari Art Studio Building

    In 2013, CalArts opened its John Baldessari Art Studio Building, which cost $3.1 million to build and features approximately 7,000 square feet of space—much of it used as studio space for art students and faculty.

    Notable alumni, faculty, and visiting artists

  • List of California Institute of the Arts people

    Alpert Award in the Arts

    The Alpert Award in the Arts was established in 1994 by The Herb Alpert Foundation and CalArts. The Institute annually awards a $75,000 no-strings-attached fellowship to five artists in the fields of dance, film and video, music, theatre, and visual arts. Awardees have a residency at CalArts during the following academic year.

    Critical reception and cultural influence

    In 2011, Newsweek/The Daily Beast listed CalArts as the top school for arts-minded students. The ranking was not aimed to assess the country's best art school, but rather to assess campuses that offer an exceptional artistic atmosphere. Today, CalArts is recognized alongside Black Mountain College and the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design as one of the truly successful experiments in American arts education.

    Animation industry

    Several students who attended CalArts' animation programs in the 1970s eventually found work at Walt Disney Animation Studios, and several of those went on to successful careers at Disney, Pixar, and other animation studios. In March 2014, Vanity Fair magazine highlighted the success of CalArts' 1970s animation alumni and briefly profiled several (including Jerry Rees, John Lasseter, Tim Burton, John Musker, Brad Bird, Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise, Henry Selick and Nancy Beiman) in an article illustrated with a group portrait taken by photographer Annie Leibovitz inside classroom A113.

    In the late eighties, a group of CalArts animation students contacted animation director Ralph Bakshi. As he was in the process of moving to New York, they persuaded him to stay in Los Angeles to continue to produce adult animation. Bakshi then got the production rights to the cartoon character Mighty Mouse. By Bakshi's request, Tom Minton and John Kricfalusi then went to the CalArts campus to recruit the best talent from what was the recent group of graduates. They hired Jeff Pidgeon, Rich Moore, Carole Holiday, Andrew Stanton and Nate Kanfer to work on the then-new Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures television series.

    In an interview, Craig "Spike" Decker of Spike and Mike's Festival of Animation commented on the work of independent animator Don Hertzfeldt stating that Hertzfeldt demonstrated good instincts coupled with his lack of interest in the world of commerce. In making a comparison, Decker made a reference to CalArts stating: "A lot of animators come out of CalArts — they could be so prolific, but then they're owned by Disney or someone, and they're painting the fins on the Little Mermaid. You'll never see their full potential".

    In 1969, during the groundbreaking ceremony of the Valencia campus, as Lillian Disney turned over the first shovel full of soil, director Bob Clampett stood behind her mugging for the flashing cameras. Clampett had previously worked for Disney as a maker of Mickey Mouse dolls for about a month, thereafter got hired for in the Warner Bros. animation department, a known competitor of Disney at the time. He would later go on to serve as a mentor to John Kricfalusi, who has been openly critical of Disney and the CalArts style.A derogatory term of "CalArts Style" emerged in the late 2010s by animation fans, directed at the thin-frame animation style that had been taught at CalArts around this period. The term is attributed to animator John Kricfalusi in a 2010 blog post, on which Kricfalusi criticized the recurring trend of animators to copy, even inadvertently, a popular animation style into their own works and not trying to be original. The CalArts Style has been used in successful animated shows like Adventure Time, Gravity Falls, and Over the Garden Wall, all from CalArts graduates Pendleton Ward, Alex Hirsch, and Pat McHale, respectively, but has also been used by other non-CalArts animators, such as with Rebecca Sugar's Steven Universe, Kyle Carrozza's Mighty Magiswords, and John McIntyre's Ben 10 2016 reboot. Animation fans have derided works using this CalArts Style, particularly for reboots of existing franchises, such as Ben 10, ThunderCats Roar, and Teen Titans Go!, as the style re-envisions originally detailed and powerful characters in a "chibi" appearance, which fans feel degrade the characters. In associating with CalArt's relative importance to Western animation, these fans believe that the CalArts Style can become a dominant form of animation. Animators have defended the style, stating it is only part of the current trend of animation, and that while CalArts does produce a large number of influential animators, the school does not have that much practical influence on the industry. Animators have also said the term simplified the process of animation design too much, and has become too vague as a catchall term. Some observers also believe that animation fans have derided the CalArts Style as it tends to be associated with shows that appear to promote, in their views, "Tumblr culture" that favors progressive views.


    During the formative years of the Art School many of the teaching artists led different camps of movements. The two main camps were the conceptualism students, which were led by John Baldasseri, and the fluxus camp, which was led by Allan Kaprow. Kaprow's approach to art was a continuation from his tenure at Rugers University. Other movements included Light and Space, which was closely related to the artists associated with the Ferus Gallery in the greater Los Angeles area. In 1972, Calarts hosted an exhibition called The Last Plastics Show, which was organized by faculty artist Judy Chicago, Doug Edge, as well as Dewain Valentine.. This exhibition included artist such as, Carole Caroompas, Ron Cooper, Ronald Davis, Fred Eversley, Craig Kauffman, Linda Levi, Ed Moses, Barbara T. Smith, and Vasa Mihich.

    In the autobiography Bad Boy: My Life On and Off the Canvas by CalArts alum Eric Fischl, he describes his experience as a student as "CalArts had such a narrow idea of the New. It was innovation for its own sake, a future that didn't include the past But without foundation, without techniques or a deeper understanding of history, you'd go off these wild explorations and end up reinventing the wheel. And then you'd get slammed for it."

    In the LA Weekly op-ed piece "The Kids Aren’t All Right: Is over-education killing young artists?", published in 2005, curator Aaron Rose wrote about an observed trend he recognized in Los Angeles's most esteemed art schools and their MFA programs, including CalArts. He uses the example of Supersonic, "a large exhibition […] that features the work of MFA students from esteemed area programs like CalArts, Art Center, UCLA, etc." In his observation of the showcase, he examined, "[...] the work left me mostly empty and with a few exceptions seemed like nothing more than a rehash of conceptual ideas that were mined years ago." He went on to state that "these institutions are staffed with amazing talents (Mike Kelley and John Baldessari among them). Legions of creative young people flock to our city [Los Angeles] every year to work alongside their heroes and develop their talents with hopes of making it as an artist." He goes on to further state "What happens too often in these situations, though, is that we find young artists simply emulating their instructors, rather than finding and honing their own aesthetics and points of view about the world, society, themselves. In the beginnings of an artist’s career, the power in his or her work should lie not in their technique or knowledge of art history or theory or business acumen, but in what one has to say."

    Contemporary artist Amanda Charchian was asked in an interview what she disliked about going to art school. In her response, she noted, "Most of my teachers came from the 1970′s CalArts conceptual art world, so they had us deconstruct everything we did in terms of the material being the message (Truth to materials). So if I used marble it had to be about social class, ancient sculpture, heaviness, etc. There was this idea that there’s nothing in the work that couldn’t relate to why you made it. Intuition was never enough of a reason."

    CalArts alumnus Ariel Pink notes in an interview "Unlike other art schools, they didn’t focus on skills of any kind, specific color theory or anything like that. They were the only art school that was totally focused on teaching artists about the art market. They were trying to make the next Damien Hirst. They’re trying to make the next Jeff Koons. Those guys don’t need to know how to paint or draw."


    CalArts graduates have joined or started successful pop bands, including: The Belle Brigade, The Weirdos, Bedroom Walls, Beelzabubba, Dawn of Midi, The Rippingtons, Fitz and The Tantrums, Fol Chen, London After Midnight, No Doubt, Mission of Burma, Radio Vago, Oingo Boingo, Liars, The Mae Shi,Touché Amoré, and Ozomatli.

    Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon, members of the band Sonic Youth, remarked in an interview with VH1 about the band Liars, of which Angus Andrew and Julian Gross are CalArts luminaries. Moore's initial remarks were: "There's this whole world of young people who [think] everything's allowed. What Liars are doing right now is completely crazy. I saw them the other night and it was really great. It's really out-there". Gordon then stated "I'm not so crazy about the way [the Liars' They Were Wrong, So We Drowned] sounds. It's like 'how lo-fi can we make it?' But I think the content is really good". In reference to CalArts and Gordon's statement, Moore lastly remarked "They're art kids. They came out of CalArts and that's the kind of sensibility you have when you come out of these sort of places."