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The Art of the Deal 

The Academy of Art College may be questionable as a school, but it's a hell of a business

Wednesday, Apr 4 2001
Desperation has no actual smell, despite what people say; but it might as well. One would think, for example, that there would be no finer dining experience than at a struggling restaurant: There are spotless surroundings, eager waitstaff, extra-careful chefs, and all the best tables free for the taking. But somehow the waiters' muted panic makes their attention seem cloying. The cleanliness feels sterile, the doted-on food overdone. Similarly, there theoretically should be no better lover than a thrice-scorned man, what with the weekly flowers, daily phone calls, and courtesy in spades. But somehow unseemly neediness putrefies every exaggerated act of grace.

So it was with First Congregational Church, the huge, 86-year-old Romanesque sanctuary at Post and Mason streets. It was once the largest Protestant church in San Francisco and the site of the 1949 service creating the United Nations. But by early this year its 1,300-seat, balconied sanctuary was home to only 55 members; about 50 attended any given Sunday. Thanks to this desperate state its grand interior felt old and musty. New visitors were met by a fervently attentive congregation whose members, after the service, escorted them to punch and cookies, then begged for a return visit. Still, the congregants couldn't stanch their own decline. In January the church was sold to a local art school. The tiny congregation planned to use the money to build a new, humbler church elsewhere.

Desperation's opposite, depredation, is likewise odorless yet corrosive. But where desperation's quenchless neediness broadcasts itself immediately, depredation, or needless plunder, reveals itself in more subtle ways.

Such is the case of the Academy of Art College, a dubious trade-school operation whose owners have assembled a family real estate empire by taking advantage of society's most desperate prey: those who dream of someday becoming artists.

By nature, the desperate and the predatory are drawn to each other. And so it was that on Jan. 22, the Academy of Art College bought the First Congregational Church building. The school will use the structure to expand its motion picture and television and acting departments.

The Academy of Art College has managed to insinuate itself into the consciousness of San Franciscans as a legitimate art school through advertising (its spots have appeared on MTV and elsewhere), prominent campuses (the Stephens family, which owns the college, has accumulated downtown buildings appraised at $36 million, each prominently displaying AAC signs), and a fleet of logoed, navy blue buses that endlessly plies the downtown area.

But there's rot within. In the space of a day of putting word out in the San Francisco art community that I was doing a story on the Academy of Art College, I began getting telephone calls from current and former employees.

"Basically, I would hope it becomes common knowledge that the quality of education there is poor," said one employee.

"What a crazy bunch of loons who run the Academy of Art College," said another.

"It was creepy and bad and horrible," said a former faculty member.

Students attending the Academy of Art College obtain more than $22 million a year in federal grants and loans, plus another $2.1 million in state grants, to pay for AAC tuition and other expenses. Money not milked from the government comes from the pockets of ingenuous students: The school charges $34,650 for a typical MFA degree. The academy has failed to gain accreditation from the most prominent regional accrediting institution, the Western Association of Schools & Colleges. Instead, it is listed with the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, the Foundation for Interior Design Education Research, and the National Association of Schools of Art and Design.

The school applied for accreditation with the Western Association in 1982 and obtained several extensions for consideration before it was finally rejected in 1989. AAC President Elisa Stephens was quoted three years ago saying she would reapply, but the Western Association has no record of her having done so.

"In terms of having a fourth accreditation -- we considered it, but now it's not critical," Stephens says.

It's possible to look at the Academy of Art College, see the Stephens' growing real estate portfolio, and imagine a cash-flow machine that allows the family of AAC founder and board chairman Richard A. Stephens to accumulate mountains of property. In the case of the First Congregational Church building, Elisa Stephens, who is Richard's daughter, along with her brother, Scott, bought the church for $7.5 million, then turned around and leased the building to the school. The family owns buildings all around the Financial District, SOMA, and Nob Hill through entities such as the Stephens Institute, the Stephens Family Trust, and the Elisa Stephens Trust. Essentially, the college appears to be, at heart, a real estate investment firm.

But Elisa Stephens counters that if she were a real estate speculator, she wouldn't be holding her properties. Unlike San Francisco buy-and-hold real estate players such as Clint Reilly and Walter Shorenstein, she'd be selling, Stephens says.

"All the facilities that the school owned or leases actually house the university. In today's market, a school is a low-end user. So if that were true, I think I'd be selling, or the school would be selling, its real estate," says Stephens. "Our challenges are the same as any academic institution. The only difference is that we've met them better than anybody else. That's why we're the largest art education institution in the country."

However, employees at the Academy of Art College describe an institution where Elisa Stephens fires employees at whim -- then forgets they're gone. (In one case, faculty members kept a fired employee on staff by hiding him whenever Stephens happened by.)

Stephens says she takes pains to retain staff in the tight Bay Area job market.

Yet staffers say they're so ill-paid that faculty loyalty is veneer-thin -- so thin, in fact, that one former employee says she was paid to visit classrooms to make sure teachers were actually teaching the courses they claimed to be.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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