Elisa Stephens In The Fast Lane

Academy of Art University President Elisa Stephens is famed for accomplishing many things, but she described only two things as in her blood during an interview last month

Text by Shilpika Lahri
Photography by Bob Toy

This well known entrepreneur’s various areas of interest boil down to two main passions: cars and leading the San Francisco-based university. When asked about her obsession with antique cars, as evidenced by her multiple showrooms sprinkled throughout San Francisco, Stephens explained how cars have always been a part of her family and that she had always dreamed of having a museum one day. “We [her family] view these cars as sculptures, and when we look around and see the designs and the looks, they’re so beautiful and magical and appealing. And it’s not the design that makes them obsolete; it’s the engineering that makes them obsolete,” she said while admitting to also occasionally taking them out for a spin. Stephens started collecting about seven years ago. Her passion for antique automobiles was rather evident not only during the interview but also as we walked among the cars and toured the museum — I even had the honor of
having a car matched to my outfit according to Stephens’ eye for design.

Other than being the product of a Stephens family hobby, the car museums have yet another purpose. Stephens said that the cars are often used in classes taught by the Academy’s Executive Director of Industrial Design, Tom Matano. “We teach drawing and modeling, and we wanted the students to see firsthand and be able to walk around the cars that really started the car industry,” Stephens explained. The collection contains elite cars from the ’30s, “a very good period for cars,” and from manufacturers that have since been discontinued. “They [the students] see the detailing and what cars were and what they could be again,” she added. Stephens also boasted that many car design companies recruit from not only the Academy’s School of Industrial Design but also its fashion program.

The concept of physically introducing archetypal models of design like the cars in Stephens’ museums is one of the many hands-on approaches that the Academy of Art takes in instructing its students. Another one is the emphasis the institution places on technology. In order to prepare students for real-world jobs upon graduating, Academy professors are sure to instruct while following the latest trends in technology like providing classes online, teaching students to create apps, etc. “As technology changes, we’re trying to stay six months ahead of it,” Stephens said.

But are the online classes simply a response to the recession? Stephens disagreed and said that the Academy “hasn’t really felt it,” citing the jumps in admissions, the institution’s physical expansion and the numbers of employed graduates. She added, “I think it’s a testament to the artist. You know, everybody works a computer, and the computer is the artist’s tool.” In fact, Stephens actually expanded the Academy’s scholarship program to now include 2,000 students — a large increase compared to the 1,000 her father, Richard Stephens, achieved to establish during his presidency at the Academy.

Prior to her father’s presidency, Stephens’ grandfather (also named Richard) founded the Academy of Art. This chain
of leadership is precisely what Stephans referred to when she said, “it’s in my blood.” At first glance, her academic interests from the past appear to have been leading her in a different direction. Studying Political Science at Vassar and proceeding to obtain a JD before ultimately becoming president of the Academy may seem like a rather indirect route, but Stephens explained that her role as legal counsel at the Academy allowed her to witness and better understand the inner-workings of how her father ran the school, especially after earning access to more responsibility and exposure. Her background in politics and law also contributed to her drive to expand the Academy of Art. Stephens’ aggressive business mindset has allowed her to broaden the curriculum, into which she hopes to soon incorporate Art History, a teaching credential program and a creative writing department (which would include fashion reporting, copywriting, screenwriting, etc.). Moreover, while there are no official plans to broaden the Academy’s physical reach to outside state lines, she did acknowledge that “demand is there [and] request is there” when she said, “anything can happen.” There certainly seems like there is more to come during this Stephens’ reign as president.

Despite her family’s legacy, Stephens credits the Academy’s success to its professors: “The faculty make the school. The instructors make the school … It’s the person in the classroom that makes a difference in the educational outcomes in the classroom for the students.” According to Stephens, her grandfather firmly encouraged the notion of having professionals from the field teach at the Academy.
Although she does not currently teach, Stephens still wished to give the following advice to aspiring artists: “If you think you want to do this thing called art and design, start right away, studying. Don’t delay … [You should] spend your time getting right into the meat of the matter, taking art classes: drawing, painting, design, acting. Because the truth of the matter is that art is, you know, it’s a young person’s game. All the creative ideas are coming from 18 and 19-year-olds. It’s like an Olympic: you want to be young and doing it. And you can. You need the portfolio to get the job. You need the skills … and you need to work hard to get [them]. So if you’re thinking about becoming an artist, you want to try it, I would jump right in and go to an art school. If you want to be a professional artist, you have to go to a professional art school. That sort of thing, the big secret that nobody tells anybody: you can’t go to the type of school I went to — a liberal arts school. You have to go to a professional art school. So that’s number one … Now let’s say you’re out of college. And you’re working, and you’re realizing now that it’s hard work. It’s not always fun … I’d say do your best job on every assignment. That’s all anybody is asking: to put a 100% of your effort into the project at the time. And do that on every project. Because it’s remarkable how quickly, with a professional artist teaching … how fast we see our students get better … It takes the practice, but it’s a lot easier than learning to play golf. So what I would say is to get going. Don’t waste your time.”