Art History Class c. 1975
It was 1971. Richard Nixon was president. Alan Shepard and Ed Mitchell had been driving a golf cart around on the moon, and I had been driving a taxi around Philadelphia. I was twenty five, and I had just been offered a better job. I had met a man named Phil Trachtman, 6 months earlier during my one man show of paintings at the Wallnuts Gallery, on Locust Street. Phil had just opened a new graphic design school, named "The Art Institute of Philadelphia." He was an art director in town and often had to hire fresh talent. But his complaint was that the graduates from the Philadelphia art schools "don't know how to DO anything!" He had to spend months training them at things like "paste-up" and "mechanicals." So Phil decided he would try a novel concept: to create an art school, where graduates were actually ready to work!
His faculty was created from working professionals that he personally knew. Sophia Chitjian, for example, was a fashion illustrator for Strawbridge and Clothier, and he talked her into teaching...of all things...fashion illustration! Well known graphic art/ illustration pros like Jack Duffy, Ralph Malatesta, Bob Arufo, Jack Martin and the amazing Charlie Ellis rounded out the faculty. Recognizing that foundation skills such as drawing and painting were essential, he also had a number of fine art types, like Harvey Silverman and Bob Koffler teaching those classes. Art history was also part of the curriculum and when an opening came up, he contacted me.
Jack Duffy at the school...
I was invited in for an interview. I didn't have an art history degree. I didn't have ANY degree, only a certificate, but it was from one of the great art school of the world, The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. I had also had been making a bit of a splash with my work, had received several well known grants, including a Tiffany, and the Academy provided me with a letter attesting to my qualifications to teach. With that, the state of Pennsylvania certified me to teach art history- and Phil hired me for the highest salary I had ever received: seven dollars an hour! I had never made more the four, (including while working in a Pittsburgh steel mill) so this was a huge step!
I'm not writing a "history of the school" here. This is much more about what it has meant to me to be a teacher, and the value of a school such as AIP (as it was called then.) But, in January 1972, when I was hired, the school, amazingly, had one person who did all the administrative duties, a woman named Alice Law. All the records were kept in paper files. Personal computers did not exist. Our first graduating class, was two students. They both were hired, as were almost all of our early graduates, thanks to the "hands-on" curriculum, and the industry contacts of Phil and the faculty.
So it was January 1972, when I walked into a class room as a teacher, for the first time. I greeted the fifteen or so young faces. I was their art history teacher. I was just slightly older than they were. I began talking to the class about the Paleolithic period. I thought of the many exciting art history classes I had experienced. To me it was akin to "time travel." I didn't have to fake any enthusiasm for the subject. Art was my life. I had a huge mass of slides which I had taken myself (thanks to my grants) and used these to try to engender a love for the subject in my students. Several of those early students are still friends. I've seen them raise families, and one has a daughter who is an art history major in college.
Faculty from Cherry Street school
The school, in time, went through a metamorphosis. We grew in enrollment and after a few years moved to a much larger space at 18th and Cherry St. I began to teach drawing and painting as well as art history. Students from the mid-1970s era are now in their 50s, and many of them are Facebook friends, fellow art exhibitors, and teachers themselves. We have occasional get-togethers, during "First Friday" events in Philadelphia's Old City section. I'm amazed at how MUCH they remember from my classes. I always tried to spice up art history with a bit of scandal or the bizarre, and those stories are remembered: was Vermeer a woman? for example.
My students and me in the late 1970s
In the late 1970s a major shift came to the school when it was purchased by Pittsburgh based, Education Management Corporation. It was probably inevitable, because of huge changes in the graphic design and education worlds. Computers were beginning to be used, both to run the business of the school, and in making art (the MACintosh!) Also, federally insured student loans were becoming more and more important, which meant accrediting bodies had more power. It used to be a good portfolio was your ticket to a career, now a degree was becoming a pre-requisite.
So in 1980, now called AIPh (because AIP was the Pittsburgh school)- we moved to a massive new place in the heart of Philadelphia- 1622 Chestnut Street. We had begun with Phil Trachtman's vision and less than 100 students on the second floor of an 8th Street retail space, and now we occupied an historic art deco structure in the exact heart of the city. We also had thousands of students. In evolutionary terms, this is called success, and there was a good reason for it. Our graduates were indeed building careers, and their friends and children were coming to the school for the same "hands-on" education. Graduates were now art directors and were hiring talent from their alma matter. The school also went to great lengths to be anticipatory of the changing art world. When "Flash" became an important part of the design industry, for example, we had graduates trained and ready to go!
What I have always loved about our school, is that we will give almost ANYONE a chance. We have an "open enrollment" policy. You don't need a high GPA in high school, to be admitted. Some people, especially pretentious academic "elites," see this as meaning we "let anyone in, just to take their money, or the government's money." These people, frankly have not seen a REALITY which I have experienced. Time and again, a young man or woman who had struggled to get D grades in high school, finds a path in life which is creative, fulfilling and viable at our school. Sometimes, the students we enroll are not ready, have not found their way, and it is the duty of faculty and administration to be realistic with those people, and fail them out of the program. I don't see it as a fault or an avaricious aspect of the school, that they were given a chance to succeed in the first place. Sometime, even our graduates cannot pay back their loans, (although most do.) But this is little different, percentage-wise, from what happens even at "prestige universities."
I have also had, in my forty years of teaching, many students who had degrees from other schools (including Ivy League)- which proved to be worthless as far as making a living in the world. They came to our school to do what they loved, which is art and design. Almost all of them get at least a viable start in the design world, thanks to our curriculum. I love it when I hear that 100% of our graduates have jobs in the field, and that happens quite often, especially in the web design department where I continue to teach.
No one can tell me that The Art Institute of Philadelphia is anything other than, a force for good in our society. There are certainly problems at our school, and as someone who has taught at 4 other major art colleges (PAFA, Rutgers, Rosemont and UArts)...they have the same or similar problems. Teachers, staff and administrators sometime have different perspectives, but when it works as it should, they are all part of the same symbiotic system. The faculty is unionized at AIPh, and the union has been, from my view, a pragmatic force for betterment. It has been able to work with management in the past, to craft mutually beneficial contracts. In 2012, we are in a very difficult time. But we are all in this together. We have a shared endeavor: education. If that is ever lost...a very fine thing will be lost.
What I see, and value, is this: Every student I meet, is a son or daughter of someone. Many of them are parents, brothers and sisters. Some are former military with PTSD. Some are people, whose lives have become unviable, due to technological changes, and they are being re-trained for new careers. Some are young people, searching for something they have yet to define. Many have come from foreign countries, to study "in America" where they expect to get "the best education." Most of them are just out of high school. Some had the benefits of family support and great art programs. Some barely survived an environment of drug violence and indifferent teachers just struggling to maintain a semblance of order. Some...are brilliant- bursting with creativity and intelligence beyond what I recognize in myself.
They all, have the full expectations of youth. They all, have some kind of HOPE. It has been my great joy to help them, along with so many dedicated faculty, and staff and administrators to achieve, their personal vision- their HOPE. That is the essential goodness of our school and why I am so grateful to have been a small part of it for the past forty years.
My former students and me- 2011