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Publish date: Mar 10, 2011

One in a series of profiles from the Winter 2011 issue of Champion magazine. To read Part 1 of this story, click here.

The Academy of Art University is a school with a soul

Richard S. Stephens, who founded the Academy of Art in 1929, was about to sell the school after World War II but decided to first check with his son Richard A. Stephens, who was attending Stanford at the time. The son protested, saying that the buyer “had no soul.”

The elder Stephens, an art student his entire life, founded the academy after spending years in Paris studying Renaissance art. He and his wife, Clara, opened the new school, called the Academy of Advertising Art, in a rented loft at 215 Kearny Street. It accommodated a handful of aspiring art directors. Eighty-one years later, the academy is the largest private school of art and design in the country. 

“He believed an ad fails not because it’s not technically sound but because it lacks taste,” said Stephens’ granddaughter and current academy President Elisa Stephens. “So he sought to increase art directors’ ‘taste’ by emphasizing art history and the Renaissance.”

He also sought to extend an art director’s shelf life. He felt it was his responsibility to teach people to draw well enough to get their idea on paper, where it would evolve and change.

“If they could express themselves in that way, they would have a better chance of staying current and keep their job longer,” Elisa Stephens said. “Those are time-honored principles from the Renaissance and the pedagogy that my grandfather started.”

Rather than selling to the man with no soul, Elisa’s father assumed the reins from his father in 1951 after graduating from Stanford. The Navy veteran was on track to become a dentist until the school-sale episode prompted him to change his major to education.

Enrollment at the academy had “grown” to about 50 students, and fashion and fine arts had been added to the curriculum. Son Stephens added photography and changed the school name from the Academy of Advertising Art to the Academy of Art.

In the ensuing years, the school expanded to more than 5,000 students who enjoyed even more diverse majors. Stephens maintained his father’s philosophy of hiring established professionals as instructors – a practice still in place today. About 3,000 faculty members, most of whom are adjunct, accommodate a student body of 18,000 in 40 buildings and 17 academic offices spread throughout downtown San Francisco.

Here are some of its students:

Ivan ‘B.J.’ Prema

Basketball sophomore and game design major Ivan ‘B.J.’ Prema.

“Five years ago, I thought I would go to a ‘regular’ college to study biology or something. I enjoyed that subject and exploring how diseases affected the body and how you could treat them. My high school basketball coach brought up the possibility of playing basketball here. I was like, what? I had seen banners around the city, but I didn’t know the academy had a basketball team.

“Our opponents always assume we are weaker as a team because we’re an art school. I think that is a disadvantage for them because it makes them take us lightly. Then when we actually get on the court, they’re surprised – they don’t know that they’re in for a fight. As for this year’s team, people are working a lot harder. We were 0-26 last year. That’s 26 reasons to work harder.

“I’ve always loved art. In middle school art class, I enjoyed drawing dragons and snakes and stuff. I’m a game-design major. I’ve loved video games growing up, and I’ve always wanted to learn more about how to do it. I’ve always wanted to do environmental art for video games. Sometimes I’m playing a game and notice the crazy environment. I would love to work at EA Sports when I leave here as an environment modeler.”


Lorraine Etchell

Basketball junior and architecture major Lorraine Etchell.

“The biggest surprise is how far this program has come in so short a time. I’m the only one on the team who was here from the beginning. Every year we are attracting more skilled players. We have the same plays but we’re picking them up a lot faster now, and we can put in some more plays instead of having to take weeks to put in one or two.

“Some of the faculty have never been around sports, and they don’t have kids who play sports, so because they don’t have much interest they don’t always understand it. Some of the students here didn’t at first, either. But now people are noticing how sports is another way of bringing the school together. There’s a central pride, and more people are coming to our games.

“The juxtaposition of art and athletics is unusual only because it hasn’t been done. I would have had to push aside my career interests if I wanted to concentrate on basketball somewhere else. There are more athletes who are artists than people think.

“My mom is in real estate, so I’ve always been around really cool houses. I had thought about being an architect for a while but never really thought about it seriously until now when all of the pieces of a college choice fell into place. The academy is just an hour from my home, and I’m doing exactly what I want career-wise and I’m playing basketball. It’s perfect.


Dan ‘Phooey’ Yang

Volleyball senior and fashion major Dan ‘Phooey’ Yang.

“This school is amazing, so creative. You can go to other schools and learn a lot from books, but you might not be as creative as you would be at a place like this.

“I have played volleyball for 17 years. I left China because I didn’t feel like I was getting what I needed for my education. So I thought I could learn something new and fresh by leaving the country. As for fashion, I’m pretty tall for a Chinese woman (6 feet, 3 inches). For me, I never was able to get ‘girl’ clothes. I always wanted to go buy clothes that are pretty and fashionable. When I was younger, I actually thought about learning fashion as a way just to make my own clothes.

“I am starting to find out more about myself since I’ve been at the academy. I feel like I am doing what I love to do and not what I have to do. When I play volleyball here, it’s so much more enjoyable than just playing to do a job. Same thing with fashion – when I am designing I feel so much freedom. If I think of something and can relate it, I just go ahead and draw it without feeling like someone will stop me. Before, I didn’t know I was creative or that it was even possible to design your own clothes. Now I know I can, and I’m much more confident."