As AAU parts with cars at Broad Arrow Monterey, it still looks ahead
Ever since its founding in 1929, the Academy of Art University has championed the premise that nothing should preclude a student from developing their artistic skills. “When my grandfather established the school, he believed that regardless of a student’s race, socioeconomic class, country of origin, or anything else that might qualify a student as diverse, they should be given the opportunity to explore and grow their talents,” explains Dr. Elisa Stephens, the president of the Academy of Art University.
“His philosophy was that the world benefits by allowing all to become creative leaders. My dad, who succeeded my grandfather in leading the school, built on that philosophy by creating strong ties to the creative industry. We believe that working professionals are the best instructors for a student population wishing to turn their creative dreams into creative success. Our students build their skills and portfolios instructed by those who practice the skills that they teach, which includes professional artists, car designers, and auto restorers.”
Of the 126 different programs the Academy offers, the automotive-design program distinguishes itself by being one of only three such curricula in the country. Located in the heart of San Francisco and with a total enrollment of 10,000, students enjoy a cosmopolitan, larger-school experience not found at other institutions.
“San Francisco is so culturally rich, and artists love San Francisco because she’s so beautiful,” enthuses Dr. Stephens. “Every place you look, you’re inspired. We believe that it’s important to inspire the creative person into action and into working, and to keep them inspired. The environment in San Francisco does that.”
In addition to the design program, the Academy offers a degree in automotive restoration. Academy of Art University is the only professional art and design university to offer both design and restoration programs.
Wayne Barnes, the Academy’s automotive advisor, adds, “Most important for students in our automotive programs, we are surrounded by car culture. Everybody thinks of Los Angeles as the center of California’s car culture, but in San Francisco, we drive everywhere. We have great collectors in Silicon Valley. We’ve got great collectors in the North Bay, great collectors in the South Bay. We host the Hillsborough Concours d’Elegance, which is fabulous. We have a tremendous car culture here, and one of the reasons we started the car design program and the museum is that we felt San Francisco deserved it.”
The Academy of Art University Automotive Museum was founded in 2005 by Dr. Stephens’s father, Dr. Richard A. Stephens, to give students a design perspective that they would not be able to receive anywhere else. With access to a museum of rare and classic vehicles totaling more than 120 cars, students can study design and apply that sense of craftsmanship to their own artistic pursuits. Cars in the collection include design icons from Bugatti, Cadillac, Duesenberg, Packard, and more.
“Bringing in these classics helps train the eye of the students in car design and restoration,” says Dr. Stephens. “Students can see where automotive design originated and how it evolved. We live in a three-dimensional world, so it’s important that students can feel the car, walk around it, and not be constrained to the two-dimensional world of drawing, essential as that may be. The older cars expose the students to craftsmanship and design elements that we want them to realize and then improve upon for their own designs.” The museum is open to the public; to book a tour with a docent, please visit https://academyautomuseum.org/visit/.
The collection is constantly seeking new paths and as such, must constantly evolve. “As time marches forward, newer, more recent cars are now becoming classics,” says Dr. Stephens. “We want to diversify the collection to bring in cars that our students admired when they were young. For example, we get a lot of requests for the Datsun 240Z. We get requests for the first-gen Mazda Miata. Wayne and I want to broaden the collection and add these newer cars before they disappear.”
To realize this vision, the difficult decision was made to bring several of the collection’s cars to the Broad Arrow auction at Monterey in August. “It’s been an incredibly difficult decision, because we’re so deeply attached to them,” says Dr. Stephens. “It’s not always logical, because we’re drawn to cars emotionally.”
The standout of the group is the 1930 Duesenberg Model J Murphy Convertible Sedan. Its notable early ownership includes Academy Award–winning set designer, Cedric Gibbons, the designer of the Oscar statuette. The 1937 Bugatti Type 57C Atalante, chassis no. 57557, is one of the most famous designs on the Type 57 chassis.
Equally impressive and incredibly rare is a 1932 Stutz DV-32 Weymann Super Bearcat. The “Stutz SSJ,” as it is often referred to, was built on a unique short-wheelbase chassis.
Rounding out the group is the stunning 1934 Cadillac V-16 Fleetwood Aero-Dynamic Coupe. This highly important aerodynamic design is one of just five known surviving examples on the V-16 chassis. “Finding the vehicles that will replace these is our goal now,” says Barnes. “That’s a major focus for us, so that the students feel that there is forward motion.”
Aiding the Academy’s forward motion is its integration of artificial intelligence (AI) in its curricula. “We use AI across many departments, including advertising, industrial design, and game design,” notes Dr. Stephens. “We look at AI as an important tool in processing a vast amount of data to analyze consumer trends. But it won’t ever replace this creative spark necessary to design a pair of shoes for a woman that she falls in love with, or a chair that you want to dive into.”
Tom Matano, the creator of the Mazda Miata and head of the Academy’s industrial design program, agrees. “The thing about design is that humans are illogical, and our emotional attachment to the products that we use, the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, can’t be created by a machine.”
Another important aspect of the Academy’s mission is ensuring that the widest diversity of students has access to a creative education. “We do that by offering free pre-college art and design classes, starting with teens as young as 14, and regardless of prior experience,” says Dr. Stephens. “That allows everybody an opportunity, no matter their budget, to explore their artistic potential. We offer courses both online and onsite and make it easy for them to access us online.
“People always ask me, ‘What does the future of creative art and design look like?’” concludes Dr. Stephens. “My answer is that everything changes all the time, but it’s the emotional connections created by great works of art and design that are most significant. At the Academy of Art University, we are building on the strong foundation established by my father and grandfather to carry us into the twenty-first century.”