CalArts campus
Room A113 blue door

The door to Room A113.

Room A113

Inside of Room A113.

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The California Institute of the Arts, commonly referred to as CalArts, is a private art school located in Valencia, Santa Clarita, California, founded by Walt Disney in 1961.

Created specifically for students of visual and performing arts, it was the first degree-granting higher education institution of its kind. CalArts is accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges to grant Bachelor of Fine Arts and Master of Fine Arts degrees in visual, performing, and literary arts.

Notable alumni

School of Film/Video

School of Theater


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 also fatally ill. The professional relationship between Madame Chouinard and Walt Disney began in 1929 when Disney had no money and Madame Chouinard agreed to train his first animators on a pay-later basis.

He never forgot and over the years watched the Chouinard Art Institute grow into the finest art school on the West Coast. It was 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), that 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.

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 May 3, 1969. However, construction of the new campus was hampered by torrential rains, labor troubles, and the earthquake in 1971. So the "new" school began its first year in the buildings of Villa Cabrini Academy (7500 Glenoaks Blvd, Burbank, Calif.), a former Catholic girl school on the edge of downtown Burbank (where Woodbury University now stands). 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 non-commercial 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. In an ironic turn of fate, they appointed Dr. Robert W. Corrigan as the first president of the Institute.

Corrigan, former dean of the School of Arts at New York University, was attempting to create a similar mix of artistic disciplines as those that were going to be attempted at CalArts. Corrigan fired almost all the artists and teachers from Chouinard in his attempt to remake CalArts into his personal vision. He was joined the following year by his friend Herbert Blau, 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 like 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 other influential program heads and teachers such as Allan Kaprow, Bella Lewitzky, Michael Asher, Jules Engel, John Baldessari, Judy Chicago, Ravi Shankar, Max Kozloff, Miriam Shapiro, Douglas Huebler, Morton Subotnick, 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 the late Corrigan included ideas like “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, a Stanford B.A., active in business, real estate, and economic counseling. 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 twelve 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 D. Lavine, associate director for arts and humanities at the Rockefeller Foundation, was named new president, a position he still holds.

Beginning in the summer of 1987, CalArts became the host of the state-funded California State Summer School for the Arts program. It began by the state of California 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's 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.

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.

In 1994, CalArts was damaged by the Northridge earthquake. Michael Eisner, on the board of trustees at the time, directed the real estate team at Disney to find a temporary site for the school. All the art programs were relocated to the Lockheed Rye Canyon Research facility for six months until the school was repaired.

That same year, Herb Alpert, a professional musician and admirer of the institute, collaborated with CalArts with his nonprofit foundation to establish the Alpert Awards in the Arts. 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.

In 2003, CalArts established a performance arts theater in downtown Los Angeles called REDCAT, the Roy and Edna Disney Cal Arts 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.

Recent developments

In fall 2009, the Institute opened an on-campus music pavilion, known as the "Wild Beast". The 3200 sq ft, 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 [...]”

The campus is located on McBean Parkway, which has a direct connection to Interstate 5.


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 his/her 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.


Admissions to CalArts is based solely on the applicant's creative talent and future potential. Every school within the Institute does require that applicants send in an artist's statement, along with a portfolio or audition (depending on the Program) in order to be considered for admission. The school does not review an applicant's SAT scores without consent, and does not consider an applicant's GPA as part of the admission process.

Disney's vision

The initial concept behind CalArts' interdisciplinary approach came from Richard Wagner's idea of Gesamtkunstwerk ("total artwork"), which Disney himself was fond of and explored in a variety of forms, beginning with his own studio, then later in the incorporation of CalArts. He began with the classic Disney 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. He believed that the same concept that developed WDI, could also be applied to a university setting, where art students of different mediums would be exposed to and explore a wide range of creative directions. Disney himself has stated of his memorial school:

"If you keep busy, your work might lead you into paths you might not expect. I’ve always operated like the princes of Serendip, who went on quests not knowing what they would find. That happens in science; some of our most important discoveries have come from scientists who were searching for something else. What young artists need is a school where they can learn a variety of skills, a place where there is cross-pollination. The remarkable thing that’s taking place in almost every field of endeavor is an accelerating rate of dynamic growth and change. The arts, which have historically symbolized the advance of human progress, must match this growth if they are going to maintain their value in and influence on society.

The talents of musicians, the self-expression of the actor, and the techniques and applications of fine and commercial artist are being use more and more in today's business-not by themselves but rather, in close association with each other. What we must have, then, is a completely new approach to training in the arts-an entirely new educational concept which will properly prepare artists and give them the vital tools so necessary for working in, and drawing from, every field of creativity and performance. I like the workshop idea, with students being able to drop in and learn all kinds of arts. A school should offer a kind of cross-pollination that would develop the best in it’s students. That is the direction I would like CalArts to take. It shouldn’t be a school where studies are rigid and narrow. Students should be able to study the whole spectrum of the arts. Perhaps a musician would find he is more talented in arts; and vice versa.

There is an urgent need for a professional school which will not only give its students thorough training in a specific field, but will also allow the widest possible range of artistic growth and expression. To meet this need is exactly why California Institute of the Arts has been created, and why we all believe so strongly in its importance. Students will be able to take anything - art, drama, music, dance, writing. They'll graduate with a degree of Bachelor of Fine Arts, and if they want a Bachelor of Arts they can go to other colleges and acquire a few more credits.

The student body of CalArts shouldn't be over two thousand, and as many as possible should reside on campus. There should be some allowance for those who are talented, yet are not students; they should be able to express themselves without worrying about grades. There will be a lot of scholarships at CalArts. Those who can pay will pay; those who can't will get scholarships. We don't want any dilettantes at CalArts. We want people with talent. That will be the one factor in getting into CalArts: talent. It's the principal thing I hope to leave when I move on to greener pastures. If I can help provide a place to develop the talent of the future, I think I will have accomplished something."


Schools and degree programs available at CalArts include:

  • School of Art: Fine Arts, Graphic Design, Photography and Media, Art and Technology
  • School of Critical Studies: MFA Writing, MA in Aesthetics and Politics
  • The Sharon Disney Lund School of Dance: BFA and MFA
  • School of Film/Video: Film and Video, Experimental Animation, Character Animation (BFA), Film Directing (MFA)
  • The Herb Alpert School of Music: DMA Composer-Performer, Composition, Composition for New Media/Experimental Sound Practices (ESP) (MFA), Performer/Composer, Performer/Composer: African American, Improvisational Music (MFA), Music Technology (BFA and MFA), Performance, Musical Arts (BFA), World Music (BFA and MFA)
  • School of Theater: Acting, Directing (MFA), Writing for Performance (MFA), Puppetry (MFA), Design and Production: Costume Design, Lighting Design, Producing (MFA), Stage Management, Production Management (MFA), Scene Design, Sound Design, Video for Performance (MFA), Technical Direction, Scenic Painting, (MFA).


Walt Disney Modular Theater

The Walt Disney Modular Theater is an indoor performance space located at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, California.

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 Theater 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 Theater 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 California Institute Of The Arts, primarily those in the schools of Theater, Dance, and Music. Though the idea of modular theater has fallen out of fashion, in favor of environmental theater and the resurgence of proscenium spectacle theater, this theater and the few others like it represent one of the most striking ideas in the effort to advance and expand the possibilities of live performance. The Theater is run by the Technical Direction Group.

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).

Honorary degrees

CalArts confers honorary Doctor of Arts degrees to artists who have consistently represented the bold innovation and visionary creativity championed by the Institute, and who have each made extraordinary contributions to contemporary arts and culture. A list of past honorary degree recipients, include: Beverly Sills (1975), Roy Lichtenstein (1977), Twyla Tharp (1978), Gordon Davidson (1980) Haskell Wexler (1981) Mischa Schneider (1981), Bella Lewitzky (1981), Henry Mancini (1983), Jan de Gaetani (1983), Ravi Shankar (1985), John Cage (1986), Frank O. Gehry (1987), Trisha Brown (1988), Donn B. Tatum (1989), Luis Valdez (1989), Paul Taylor (1989), Ornette Coleman (1990), Beatrice Manley (1990), Lulu May Von Hagen (1990), Ustad Ali Akbar Khan (1991), Pearl Primus (1991), Adrian Piper (1992), Ray Bradbury (1992), Yvonne Rainer (1993), Steven Bochco (1993), Stan Brakhage (1994), Vija Celmins (1994), Betye Saar (1995), Carolyn Forche (1995), Laurie Anderson (1996), Elvin Jones (1996), Chantal Akerman (1997), Lee Breuer (1998), Ed Ruscha (1999), Bill Viola (2000), Steve Reich (2000), Ry Cooder (2001), Faith Hubley (2001), Bruce Nauman (2001), Alice Coltrane (2002), Roy E. Disney (2003), Anna Halprin (2003), Carolee Schneemann (2003), Christian Wolff (2004), Daniel Nagrin (2004), James Newton (2005), Harrison “Buzz” Price (2005), Julius Shulman (2005), Rudy VanderLans (2006), Rudy Perez (2006), Alonzo King (2007), Harry Belafonte (2008), Herbert Blau (2008), Terry Riley (2008), Elizabeth LeCompte (2009), Morton Subotnick (2009), William M. Lowman (2010), Trimpin (2010), Annette Bening (2011), Donald McKayle (2011), Peter Sellars (2012), and Eric Fischl (2013).

See also

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