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Millard Sheets And the Creation of 3 Major SoCal Arts Programs

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It's Sheets Week and we're celebrating Millard Sheets, the artist and architectural designer who dotted Southern California with beautiful modern Home Savings bank branches. Throughout the week we'll be looking at some particularly interesting points in his biography.

Millard Sheets started teaching before he'd even graduated art school and he played major roles in the development and/or creation of three of Los Angeles's most prominent programs--the art department Scripps College, the Otis Art Institute, and CalArts.

Scripps College
In 1932, when he was just 25, he was appointed head of the art department at Scripps; he had attended the Chouinard art school and, in his UCLA oral history interview, called the Scripps experience "a great, new, wide adventure into the far beyond for me, never having been to college — as they say, being one of the unwashed."

He found the facilities lacking, though, and asked the president for $3,300 to build an art barn. The president suggested instead that Sheets set up a Scripps College Fine Arts Foundation and charge members to attend exhibitions and lectures. At a Foundation event in Pasadena, a woman from Montclair, New Jersey asked if she could visit the school; when she came, she said

"My, you do need this first unit, as you call it. What is it going to cost?" Well, we had no plans. We hadn't had any estimates ? I swallowed very hard and I said, "I think around $37,500." (Because I figured if we could build a good barn for $3,300, we ought to get a fairly decent building for $37,500.) She smiled in a nice way and looked out the window, and she said, "Well, I would like to do this. I will send you a check. I'm leaving in the morning, but I will send you a check." A check arrived the next morning and Sheets responded asking if she had any input on the building: "The only letter she ever wrote me was a return letter in which she indignantly said she was fairly sorry that she had given me the money, that she felt that I had no right to ask anyone if I didn't want to stick my neck on the block and take full responsibility for the decisions, that she thought maybe she'd made a mistake." When the building was finished, he sent the woman photographs, but heard nothing back. After two and a half years, she showed up again and said "My, but we are crowded ? I guess it's about time for the second unit." That time, she agreed to give $180,000. To finish up the arts complex (at a cost of about $700,000), she offered to match any funds raised; after Sheets made a request at the Foundation, the money came in in under two weeks. Meanwhile, the Foundation had grown to about 500 members. The arts facilities at Scripps are now called the Millard Sheets Art Center.

Otis Art Institute
In 1953, Otis (founded by LA Times publisher Harrison Gray Otis and also known as the LA County Art Insitute) was a mess--according to Renaissance Man, "There were no academic standards, no criteria of competency among staff members, no discipline, and no philosophy." LA County Supe John Anson Ford and the president of the Otis board visited Sheets about finding a new director and he told them "I felt it would be difficult to get a director for the Otis Art Institute. The institute had slowly run down to the point that there were students that had been there for twelve years." He gave them his opinions on how Otis ought to be set up; they asked him to present his ideas to the school's board:

I remember we met at the California Club, and I outlined what I felt was a solid, major institute of art, where students could go in any direction they wanted if they were sufficiently trained in the total aspect of art. In other words, I felt that they needed not only to draw and to paint if they wished to be painters, but they should have adequate training in design and sculpture, some in architecture, so that these people would be able to roll with the punch ? I said I felt that unless the Otis Art Institute was this type of school, I didn't see any reason for it to exist. I thought it should go out of business ? I made the point that the tremendous growth in industry here, the tremendous need for redesigning our whole city and surroundings, both from an ecological point of view and from an aesthetic point of view, we needed artists who were trained as people who could work with business people, with industry, with politicians, who could stand on their own feet and hold their ground in a way that I think an educated person can. The board loved it and asked him to become Otis's director. Once he'd secured a promise that the County would really let him radically reinvent the school, Sheets took a leave from Scripps and spent a few years reinventing Otis--he removed "the majority of the old faculty" and "95 percent of the students," and, he said, "we planned the building, we planned all the new courses." At one point, the chairman of the board wanted to give Otis to USC for a dollar a year "and let them take it over and take it off of the county support roll." Sheets fought the takeover and the board was split; he ended up asking Howard Ahmanson (the head of Home Savings, "the man I was working for primarily on the outside") and Buff Chandler (who he'd asked to join the board in the first place), along with two other USC-supporting members, to resign from the board.

Walt Disney was a major supporter of Sheets's alma mater Chouinard (and a major employer of its graduates); in the 1960s he got the idea for Cal Arts--he saw it as a kind of interdisciplinary training ground where dancers, actors, filmmakers, etc. could learn how each other worked. But he never got to see it happen, as explained by Sheets in an oral history for the Archives of American Art:

He called me up one day and said he wanted to talk to me, and would I come in and have lunch with him. I went in and he told me this whole—because he had the most beautifully related set of ideas about this school. And I said, "I want you to be one of my advisors and be on the board when we form the board." And it was a wonderful meeting, and I had lunch with him about four times after that. And that suddenly, he died. The death inspired Walt's older brother Roy to get to work on the school immediately. Sheets was one of the few non-Hollywood people on the board and he disagreed with Roy's approach, he thought he was building the school up too quickly and without focus (Roy and the board also spent the majority of the $20 million Walt had left for the project almost immediately). Sheets resigned after eights years with CalArts. In his UCLA interview, taped in the 1970s, he said "I think if Walt were alive today, he would be shocked as hell at what the institute is doing."
· Sheets Week [Curbed LA]