Initiated in 1961 and officially founded in 1970, the early years of the California Institute of Arts (CalArts) were marked by an extraordinary experimental phase that involved a radical paradigm shift from object to socio-political contestations in art and design. The crucial agenda of avant-garde teachers at the Institute in the early days, among them Victor Papanek, Judy Chicago, Miriam Schapiro, Ravi Shankar, Alison Knowles, Nam June Paik, Allan Kaprow, and John Baldessari, envisioned fostering students’ critical engagement with the reality of their lives by interweaving art and discourse rather than (re)producing objects. Drawing in large part on performative, conceptual, and feminist approaches of the hippie and anti-Vietnam war movements, collective practices and experiential processes were at the forefront of artistic creation. The separation of teaching and artwork was dismissed. What happened in class was already what was to be created and the artwork itself. Students were seen as equal creators and teacher-student hierarchies were supposed to be abolished. A fixed curriculum and grading of work were rejected. Instead, the lessons lived from experiments initiated by the teachers and the participation of all included. Invited guest artists, an encouragement of intensive mutual criticism, study and field trips determined the program and were supported by a pluralistically oriented perception of art.

The progressive phase of the institute only lasted for a short time, however, and slowly came to an end around the mid-1970s, after first the provost Herbert Blau was dismissed in 1972, and then the founding director Robert W. Corrigan resigned under pressure from the board of trustees. Both, along with Allan Kaprow, had been instrumental in recruiting early-period teachers from Fluxus circles and other experimental networks. The CalArts Board, however, which consisted largely of the conservative relatives and friends of the school’s initiator Walt Disney, was increasingly alarmed by the institute’s socio-critical developments. Indeed, Walt Disney did envision an interdisciplinary laboratory with flat hierarchies for his project, which he presented in 1964 in a promotional film at the premiere of Mary Poppins. However, his ideas, which were inspired by Richard Wagner, envisioned the freedom of the arts as closely linked to the economic aims of popular entertainment. In Disney’s vision, this merging of art and industry was also to be represented spatially on a new campus with an integrated shopping and entertainment center.

After Disney’s death in 1966, however, the original architectural vision was reduced by his heirs to a single building without spatial connections to entertainment facilities. Moreover, Corrigan, who had been appointed by the board of trustees in 1968 and who had won various avant-garde faculty for the institute, transformed the original corporate idea of economically profitable interdisciplinarity into a space for the counterculture. For Herbert Blau, for example, places of collective learning such as the Bauhaus or Joseph and Anni Albers’s Black Mountain College served as role models. However, the protagonists of the new generation of the 1960s and 1970s turned away from a modernist understanding of creativity that had material production as its goal and instead aimed to develop a critical, self-determined attitude.

Screenshot of Walt Disney’s promotional video of his CalArts vision in 1964 © CalArts Institute Archives
Screenshot of Walt Disney promotion video of his CalArts vision 1964 © CalArts Institute Archives
Judy Chicago (left) and Miriam Schapiro (right) initiators of the Feminist Arts Programme at CalArts 1972. © CalArts Institute Archives
John Baldessari, List of Art Ideas for 1st Class at the Post Studio of CalArts © John Baldessari
Happening “Publicity” with Allan Kaprow and students at Vasquez Rock 1970 © CalArts Institute Archives
Happening “Publicity” with Allan Kaprow and students at Vasquez Rock 1970 © CalArts Institute Archives
Victor Papanek’s, dean of School of Design of the California Institute of Arts in its early phase Tooling Tomorrow poster 1971 © CalArts Institute Archives
Womanhouse installation in Los Angeles, featuring Robin Weltsch’s Kitchen and Vicki Hodgetts’s Eggs to Breasts Sponsored by Feminist Art Program at CalArts), 1972. © The Getty Research Institute, 2000.M.43.1. Photo courtesy Lloyd Hamrol
Production phase of the “Womanhouse“ project of the Feminist Art Programme at CalArts 1971, top to bottom: Janice Lester, Robin Schiff, Miriam Schapiro, Susan Fraser, standing in front: Christine Rush and Faith Wilding on the right. © Rutgers University, New Jersey
Invitation to the collaborative Womanhouse project of the CalArts Feminist Art Program 1974