The Driving Force of San Francisco

This love for classic cars earned Elisa the distinction of being the first female honorary chair of the Palo Alto Concours d’Elegance in 2009, which she tied back to the university by having students in the industrial design program exhibit their work during the event while also providing an opportunity for them to see cars they typically aren’t exposed to.

The city’s most notable and influential residents are grateful for her dedication to excellence. After one quick email to former Mayor Willie Brown, I received a phone call from his San Francisco office. He offered the following thought: “Dr. Elisa Stephens and her flagship Academy of Art University is a godsend for our city. The diversity of the student body and of the content of the training programs makes this as much of an interesting art educational center as any city in the world. And it is being done by a private, adventurous, entrepreneurial woman—just what San Francisco loves.”

Louise Renne, former San Francisco city attorney and current partner in Renne Sloan Holtzman Sakai LLP Public Law Group, was also eager to share her thoughts about Elisa’s positive impact on the community. “Dr. Stephens has added greatly to the City of San Francisco. It is truly impressive how she and her family have grown what was once a small art school into the force that it is today—known both locally and internationally. On a personal note, I know that Dr. Stephens has been extremely helpful to a number of worthy causes here in the city and that is greatly appreciated.”

The list of causes in which Elisa is involved is a lengthy one. She is a member of the Young President’s Organization, San Francisco City Club, Metropolitan Club, University Club, San Francisco Rotary Club, San Francisco Junior League…you get the idea. “I’ve been actively involved in the community ever since I became president,” she shares. “I have a list of things that I support, and I never really questioned it.”

She does so because it is important to her for San Francisco to be an excellent community that welcomes and nurtures her students. “We’ve been here for 80 years and we do a lot to support this city,” she says. And the school’s latest endeavor exemplifies her commitment to working together for a common cause—a brand new athletic program. As part of the school’s commitment to have its students become the very best they can be, the new sports allow students to “play like professionals, because they are taught by professionals.” And just as the academic faculty is made up of industry leaders, the Athletic Director is without a doubt a leader in his field. Dr. Jamie Williams, a former tight end for the 49ers and a Super Bowl champion, is heading up the ambitious new program that includes men and women’s basketball, women’s volleyball, men and women’s golf, baseball, softball, men and women’s soccer, and track and field. “We expect our students to have a great portfolio, but then we began looking at them as individuals, looking at how well they work as a team. The more I thought about it, it quickly became clear that nothing epitomizes teamwork better than sports. Our motto is ‘Be an Artist, Be an Athlete.’ They are artists first, but they have to work as a team.” The school plays in the NCAA’s Division IIA, and they also introduced club sports and intramurals, allowing this notion of teamwork and sportsmanship to trickle down through the entire student body.

But, of course, art remains the focus of the school, and the community as a whole covets the works created by students, faculty, and alumni. On Saturday, November 7, AAU held it’s 14th annual Faculty + Alumni Fine Art Auction. “Every year, the paintings on auction come from both young and established artists,” Elisa explains. Bonhams & Butterfields held the auction and served as the appraisers for the works as well. Fifty percent of proceeds earned go to the artists themselves, with the rest going to the Fine Art Student Scholarship Fund.

Since its founding, the school has helped 45,000 aspiring artists and designers pursue their educational goals in art and design though its scholarship program. In addition, AAU has an online program, making its curriculum available to students around the globe. The school will continue making strides to increase its enrollment as well as continue to make a positive impact on both San Francisco and the art world alike.