The Driving Force of San Francisco

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San Francisco and the surrounding area is a haven for the creative types. Maybe it’s something in the water from the bay. From the geniuses in Silicon Valley who are constantly breaking technological barriers and literally redefining the way the world works, to the culinary artists who garner the attention of foodies and the praise of the most stringent critics, to the vintners in Napa Valley who elevated wines from California to compete with those from the world’s most revered regions, to the artists and designers behind the cultural institutions and private galleries that are filled with priceless works, there is no room for doubt that San Francisco calls to original visionaries whose life works take various forms of beautiful manifestations of art.

Thus, it makes sense that the city is also home to the Academy of Art University, a school “by artists, for artists,” as the motto goes. It is the nation’s largest private accredited art institution and an integral part of the city’s cultural scene. Its influence extends around the world, as graduates from the university have excelled in numerous industries. You probably are familiar with the works of some of the graduates; if you are into popular music, you’ve likely seen director Chris Milk’s music videos for greats like U2, Green Day, and Kanye West. Perhaps you saw the photo that won former student Deanne Fitzmaurice a Pulitzer Prize in feature photography in 2005. AAU graduate Guilherme Jacinto currently serves as an animator for Pixar Studios, having worked extensively on this summer’s Up! blockbuster, and school of fashion alumni Mari Matsumoto was included in Forbes magazine as one of “five future fashion designers to watch.” The influence of the students and faculty also can be seen throughout the city, thanks to the public art galleries, community outreach programs, and city beautification projects in which the undergrads and graduates take part.

Leading this collection of greats is Dr. Elisa Stephens, the president of the university, which was founded by her grandfather Richard S. Stephens in 1929 with the assistance of his wife. The school was launched to teach advertising art, but it wasn’t long before the curriculum expanded and the long-standing philosophy emerged: hire established professionals to teach future professionals. Elisa’s father, Richard A. Stephens, took over the reigns in 1951, expanding the enrollment from around 50 students to 5,200, and increasing the number of department majors as well as the school’s facilities. Elisa succeeded her father as president in 1992 with a clear vision of continuing the school’s enduring legacy of excellence. Today, AAU has more than 16,000 students pursuing bachelor and master’s degrees in arts, fine arts, and architecture with more than 30 areas of academic emphasis, as well as certificate programs and continuing education options. In addition to the sprawling urban campus that incorporates some 42 sites, AAU features three non-profit galleries in downtown San Francisco that exhibit fine artworks by students, faculty, and world-renowned artists.

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