After a month of impassioned protest from students, faculty, and alumni—both online and off—Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, confirmed yesterday that its president, Richard Koshalek, will not have his contract renewed when it expires at the end of 2009. His departure has stirred uncertainty over the institution’s $150 million expansion plan, for which Koshalek had raised $80 million over the last decade, and includes what is widely being called his legacy project: a $50 million building designed by Frank Gehry.
A former director of both the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers, Koshalek has been at the school since 1999. During his tenure, Art Center expanded its focus on graphic, industrial, and transportation design education and became a cultural force with multiple campuses and high-profile initiatives such as its biennial design conference.
“Over the last nine years, Richard Koshalek has exhibited dynamic and original leadership of Art Center, and we look forward to and support his continuing leadership,” said board of trustees president John Puerner in a statement. “Importantly, leadership must continue to evolve to meet future challenges. Therefore, the board has decided to start the search for a new president.” Art Center hopes to find a replacement for Koshalek by the end of the year.
“Upon my departure, after ten years as president of the college, I look forward with the greatest optimism to developing a series of international ideas and initiatives,” said Koshalek in a separate statement. “Above all, I will continue to be unwavering in my support of and enthusiasm for the future of Art Center.”
On June 18, students and organizers of an online petition named Education First presented the trustees with a letter—signed by over 1,400 students, faculty, and alumni, a number roughly the size of the undergrad student body—demanding that work on the Gehry building be halted. The group called for funds to be devoted instead to the improvement of existing facilities, faculty support, rising tuition costs, scholarships, and recruitment. Another petition, Honesty First, in support of the building and Koshalek, had only 400 signatures.
In Puerner’s statement, he acknowledged the students’ demands. “Significant concerns have also been expressed about the balance between investment in current facilities, future projects, and near-term educational needs,” he said, noting that the Gehry plan, among other projects, will be “reevaluated and reprioritized by the facilities and finance committees of the Board.” Edwin Chan, design architect for the project at Gehry Partners, did not respond to requests for comment.
Koshalek is known as a charismatic leader who came to the school in 1999 after 17 years as director of MOCA. He immediately embarked upon a global fundraising mission for a new master plan that included Gehry’s Design Research Complex (DRC) as a centerpiece of the program. (Alvaro Siza was also attached at one point, but was dismissed when the plan was scaled down.) According to Patricia Oliver, senior vice president of architecture and education planning, the Design Research Complex would contain a technology center with meeting places for students, as well as studio and workshop space.
“The students seem to think we can solve these needs in this existing building,” said Oliver of Craig Ellwood’s iconic, 1975 black steel box, which straddles an arroyo high above the Rose Bowl. “We cannot solve their needs within the confines of this current structure.”
AMONG KOSHALEK'S HIGH-PROFILE ART CENTER PROJECTS, DALY GENIK RENOVATED THE WIND TUNNEL BUILDING AS A SLEEK NEW CENTER FOR SCHOOL PROGRAMS. BENNY CHAN/FOTOWORKS
In 2004, a former supersonic testing facility known as the Wind Tunnel was renovated by Daly Genik for $15 million as a center for graduate and public programs. A $35 million privately-funded student housing building near the Wind Tunnel, also by Daly Genik, should break ground this year. Art Center has also secured a large power plant near the Wind Tunnel, which they’re leasing from the city of Pasadena for $1 per year.
One area of misconception, according to Puerner’s statement, was that the DRC had been approved by the school’s board. In fact, only an initial phase including cost analysis and fundraising efforts was approved. The DRC proposal is currently in the environmental impact report stage, with a meeting scheduled for July 23, and could go before the Pasadena City Council as soon as August.
The Gehry building is not universally supported by neighbors, who have bemoaned the school’s excessive traffic and overcrowded parking lots. Oliver hopes to address the concerns of angry homeowners with more details in the future. “They are afraid of the Gehry building because they see it as Disney Hall on the hillside,” said Oliver, who once worked in Gehry’s office. “We are trying to assuage their fears and explain that the building isn’t designed yet.”
A past president of the Linda Vista–Annandale Association, Sharon Yonashiro, agreed that the Ellwood building was difficult for neighbors to accept. “Here comes the next generation of people who want to leave an imprint, and suddenly there’s a 90-foot building in a single-family residential neighborhood,” said Yonashiro of the proposed design. “Had there been a dialogue that had been meaningful with the neighborhood, they wouldn’t have this building,” she added. “We feel it’s out-of-character and an extremely insensitive project.”
That lack of communication has also frustrated those on campus, says Robert Quintero, an industrial design student who graduated this spring. He attended an environmental impact hearing on May 29 that was not advertised to students. Even though he’s been at the school since 2003, he said this was the first time he had heard many details about the proposal, which had been called a library to avoid confusion. “Before I went to this meeting I had no idea what was going into that building,” he said. “I thought it was a real library for books.” (Oliver said a website was provided for feedback about the Gehry building, and argued that most students at the school weren’t there when the last version came around for approval in October 2006.)
And then there is the issue of Koshalek’s own longstanding friendship with Gehry. Koshalek hired Gehry to design MOCA’s temporary building, now the Geffen Contemporary, and he was also co-chair of the committee that picked Gehry for the Walt Disney Concert Hall. This relationship seems to peeve some—mostly anonymous—critics who are demanding to know how much Art Center has already paid Gehry for the project and accusing Koshalek of cronyism and empire-building.
Kevin Daly of Daly Genik, who designed the two structures for the South Campus and worked for Gehry in the 1980s, said he’s surprised by the whole fracas. “It’s enormously frustrating,” said Daly. “Frank Gehry is someone who made his career by doing these simple industrial-inspired buildings made for artists. To imagine he doesn’t have the same credentials to do this for Art Center is ridiculous.”
A faculty member who has been at the school for over five years, but only agreed to speak anonymously, cautioned that it’s not all about buildings. Several key faculty members, including chief academic officer Nate Young and two chief financial officers, have resigned or been fired.
No matter how supporters and detractors feel about Koshalek’s mission now, it was clear in 1999 that he was hired to raise the center’s profile in the design community and beyond.
“If anyone thought when they brought in Richard Koshalek that Art Center would remain quiet and self-contained on a suburban hill, they hired the wrong man,” said Chee Pearlman, who served as director of Art Center’s three conferences. “Richard is about breaking down provincialism in all forms and acting on big ideas.”