2003 Essay | California College of the Arts

2003 Essay | California College of the Arts

California College of the Arts: Craft's Intersection with Art, Architecture, and Design

By Michael S. Roth


Marilyn da Silva
Recipes for Blackbird Pie
2001, sterling silver, brass,
wood, gesso, colored pencil,
paint, 17 x 10 x 9
photo: courtesy of the artist
and Mobilia Gallery

In the summer of 2003, California College of Arts and Crafts, better known in recent years as CCAC, announced that it had changed its name to California College of the Arts. It was, in some ways, a change long expected, as the misperceptions about a college of “arts and crafts” had been an issue for many years. The confusion had grown even more pronounced with the recent addition of the college’s San Francisco campus, the home of its design, architecture, and graduate programs. In other respects the change was a surprise; never had there been a stronger lineup of faculty in the craft disciplines, and never had the role of craft been stronger in the curriculum.

As a historian with deep respect and affection for the Arts and Crafts movement, I cherished the interrelationships between disciplines at CCAC—textile art and fashion design, glass and architecture, painting and ceramics. I have also been committed to the Arts and Crafts movement’s belief that art thrives when it maintains a vital connection to society, and that society is impoverished without a vital connection to the arts. However, as president of the college, I also realized that the college was less effective than it should be in communicating its seriousness of purpose and the breadth of its programs. This was partly due to always having to explain what “arts and crafts” did not mean at CCAC. We needed to dispel the summer camp connotations of working with Popsicle sticks and lanyard. After considerable reflection and consultation, I recommended to the board of trustees that we adopt the name California College of the Arts, and they unanimously embraced this new appellation.

But, after nearly a century with the arts and crafts moniker, was dropping “crafts” from our name the right decision?

First, a little history. The college was founded in 1907 by Arts and Crafts movement partisan Frederick Meyer. Originating in Europe in the nineteenth century, the movement was a reaction to the industrial revolution and advocated an integrated approach to art, design, and craft. A cabinetmaker in his native Germany, Meyer immigrated to San Francisco at the turn of the twentieth century. There, he established a cabinet shop and taught at the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art. The 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed both his shop and the institute. At a meeting of the Arts and Crafts Society shortly after the disaster, Meyer expressed his dream of a school that would integrate both theory and practice in the arts. A year later he founded the School of the California Guild of Arts and Crafts across the bay in Berkeley with $45 in cash, forty-three students, three classrooms, and three teachers. In 1908 the school moved and was renamed the California School of Arts and Crafts.

Lia Cook
Traces: Big Beach Baby
2001, cotton/jacquard
160 x 56
photo: courtesy of the artist

The school quickly outgrew its early homes. In 1922 Meyer bought the four-acre James Treadwell estate in Oakland. Students, faculty, alumni, and the Meyer family all pitched in to transform the dilapidated buildings and grounds into a college campus. In 1936 the school was renamed California College of Arts and Crafts, with Meyer as its first president, a position he held until his retirement in 1944. Post–World War II population growth and the educational support of the GI Bill led to dramatically increased enrollment, prompting the addition of several academic programs and the expansion of campus facilities. The reputation of the college spread far and wide as graduates from the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, such as Nathan Oliveira, Viola Frey, David Ireland, Raymond Saunders, Louis Siegriest, and Peter Voulkos, gained prominence in the art world.

The 1980s ushered in a new period of growth. The college established an architecture program in 1985. In 1989 the Oliver Art Center opened on the Oakland campus, housing a professional gallery that has exhibited everything from woven baskets by Julia Parker to a bull’s head and dead butterflies in works by Damien Hirst. Ten years later the college completed a new permanent San Francisco campus to house the growing architecture and design programs, individual graduate studios, and a first-class exhibition space, the Logan Galleries. New graduate programs in design, visual criticism, and writing were established in the last three years, and today the campus is a beehive of creative activity.

One of the most important legacies of the Arts and Crafts movement at California College of the Arts has been our dedication to playing a role in the wider civic culture. In recent years the college’s Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts has mounted one of the most exciting contemporary arts exhibition programs in the country, initially under the leadership of Larry Rinder, and for the last three years with Ralph Rugoff at the helm. The Logan Galleries in San Francisco and the Oliver Art Center in Oakland have been destinations for those seeking a fresh perspective on current artistic practice. In the last three years, we have also developed the Center for Art and Public Life, which has worked closely with partners around the Bay Area to develop service learning in the arts, and to use art practice to make a positive difference in the lives of diverse populations of our region. Our commitment to the Wattis and the Center reflects the best of the Arts and Crafts movement in a contemporary American context.


Donald Fortescue
Pip, Plumb, Pike
Installation at SFMOMA
laminated Finnish plywood
various sizes
photo: courtesy of the artist

Of course, the people who have been associated with the institution over the last ninety-six years constitute our most enduring legacy. CCA faculty and graduates have influenced, and in many cases led, almost every mid- and late-twentieth century art movement. The prominent Bay Area figurative and expressionist work of Manuel Neri and Nathan Oliveira has inspired generations of artists and collectors. The photorealist movement of the 1970s is represented by current faculty member Jack Mendenhall and alumni Robert Bechtle and Richard McLean. Alumni have also been prominent in conceptual art (Dennis Oppenheim), minimalist sculpture (John McCracken), painting (Raymond Saunders, Squeak Carnwath), and film (Wayne Wang). As leaders of the California design movement, faculty members and alumni Michael Vanderbyl and Lucille Tenazas have had a major impact on contemporary American graphic arts.

California College of the Arts has been an especially fertile ground for artists working in the craft media. In the 1960s, alumni Robert Arneson, Peter Voulkos, and Viola Frey helped instigate the ceramics revolution, firmly establishing the medium as art. The path they forged has been explored with humor and bravado by Arthur Gonzalez, current chair of the Ceramics Program. For many years, Marilyn da Silva, metals artist and chair of the Jewelry/Metal Arts Program, has astonished viewers with her ability to combine delicacy and strength in her work while revealing extraordinary refinement and playfulness (B). Clifford Rainey, chair of the Glass Program, has used figurative sculpture to make powerful political art that is both grounded in specificity and capable of speaking to problems of violence that have become all too familiar universally (A). The Wood/Furniture Program has been led in recent years by Donald Fortescue, an Australian artist whose abstract forms teeter on the brink of fragility and solidity (C). Lia Cook, chair of our Textiles Program, has a boundless capacity to make her textile work respond to the world around her. Lia has taught at California College of the Arts for more than twenty-five years, and she continues to inspire students to weave their most contemporary concerns—be they with technology, history, or childhood trauma—into their artwork (D). All these artists have found innovative ways of mining craft traditions to create work that is richly conceptual yet grounded in the specificity of their materials.

This brief list of artists illustrates the centrality of contemporary craft at California College of the Arts. However, no list of all-star craft artists will convey how the media of ceramics, wood, textiles, and metal inspire creative work across the many disciplines at the school. Industrial designers learn about working with materials of all sorts when they solve problems in the glass studio. Architects have their concepts of space reconfigured when they confront the patterning of textiles as boundaries, mirrors, and screens. Designers working with metals and illustrators critiquing figurative representation in ceramics—all are drawing on the deep well of the crafts, even as they feel surprise and delight at how contemporary craft can transform their work.

Then why did our board of trustees decide to drop the last “C” in CCAC? California College of the Arts has not dropped the “C” word; it has integrated that word and what it represents into a broad and inclusive concept of the arts. One of my first insights into the importance of doing this happened after the opening of SOFA CHICAGO in 2000. Having only recently started as president of the college, I was getting to know a group of prominent collectors and patrons of SOFA. In the course of a late-night dinner after the opening evening’s festivities, I asked the distinguished group (which included CCA trustees Ronald Wornick and George Saxe) whether we should consider changing the name of the school. Much to my surprise, the answer was a resounding yes. We collect art, they added. This was the beginning of the process that resulted in our name change.

Craftsmanship and an understanding of cultural context have always been key to the education offered at California College of the Arts. These are values we have embraced in the past and will continue to embody. In today’s world, craft is art; the artificial boundaries between art, design, and craft that were so important to the nineteenth-century academies no longer exist. Our commitment to the unity of the arts, our curriculum’s reinforcement of craftsmanship, and our continued support of community-based arts programming are substantial evidence that the college will continue to embrace the ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement. In the past one hundred years, the understanding of the words “arts and crafts” has clearly changed. Moreover, contemporary craft is now firmly part of the most progressive work in art, design, and architecture. And the visual, performing, and literary arts are now intersecting in the most productive and powerful ways. By placing our students and faculty at the heart of these intersections, we will continue to provide them with the very best of what an education in the arts, and an education through the arts, can offer.

Michael S. Roth is president of California College of the Arts (CCA), and a speaker in this year’s lecture series. An intellectual historian and curator, he is the author or editor of several books in cultural history and visual studies.

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