Dr. Elisa Stephens - Academy of Art University

Dr. Elisa Stephens discusses Academy of Art University & her family legacy

Academy of Art University is as a private school for arts and design based in San Francisco, California

Academic institutions have evolved tremendously over the past few decades. With advancements in technology, changes in how education material is delivered, and the constant and rapid changes within our economies, education institutes have adapted to the times and the goals of the next generation learner.

Academy of Art University – based out of San Francisco, California – is one such organization that has tried to develop a suite of programs to cater to those wishing to pursue a career in the arts.

The institute was founded in 1929 by Richard S. Stephens, a fine art painter and a creative director for a magazine. He began the institute in a rented loft with the support of his wife, focusing around advertising art. In 1951, his son Dr. Richard A. Stephens took on the presidency of the school. Dr. Elisa Stephens is the third in the family to take on the Presidency, which she did in 1992.

The school is one of the largest private for-profit schools for art and design in the United States. We got an opportunity to interview Dr. Stephens on her family legacy, her memorable achievements over the years, and what she still hopes to achieve in the year’s to come.



1. How does it feel to be a part of a family legacy that has contributed to the development of the next generation of creative professionals?

My grandfather started the Academy of Art University to improve the lives of people facing barriers to education in the arts. I am proud of what I, as President of the Academy, have done to further this goal; it makes me feel that I have done something worthwhile with my life. When you improve people’s lives, you are improving the entire world. Very few people are lucky enough to be able to say they have been given the opportunity to go to work every day to make the world a better place.


2. The institute is known for its wide array of programs, from acting to advertising. Where did the institute first begin, and how has the addition of new programs since amplified the institute’s vision of being the first choice to study the arts?

My grandfather and grandmother started the Academy as a small mom-and-pop school. He taught, and she kept the books. It was named after the Academy’ in Paris, where he studied art. It was initially called the Academy of Advertising Art, and its purpose was to teach people how to become graphic artists and find work in advertising. As more and more people started to look for an arts education, we expanded the areas in which we offered programming.

I was an early adopter of the computer as a valuable tool in arts education. So early, that I had to flee a conference room full of art educators at a presentation I gave when they rebelled against the concept.

Today all design art has converged in the use of the computer. By rooting ourselves at the inception of this movement, we are way ahead of the curve in offering a curriculum tailored to allow an artist’s creative mind to thrive and be enhanced by the tools and power that computers provide.


A class in progress at Academy of Art University | Photo courtesy of Academy of Art University
Class in progress at Academy of Art University | Photo courtesy of Academy of Art University


3. What has helped the University compete in an ever-growing world of distance and digital University training? Has being a private institute helped in any way?

Being a private university is a boon to our ability to swiftly and constantly evolve and adapt to change in art and design. Although I answer to a board of directors, the buck stops at my door. When the COVID shut down occurred, we were ready; we moved from classroom to Zoom in literally a day. Our students didn’t miss a class. Our online program has been in place for over twenty years and is able to offer virtually through Zoom the same courses and industry-leading professors as our onsite program.

When a new technological innovation appears that may benefit our students, I can push the button and test it out without going through multiple levels of approval. As a result, we are always one step ahead of other arts institutions.


4. What can aspiring arts and creative professionals expect from the University, beyond its programs and degrees?

Our students leave the Academy with a portfolio of work that opens doors to a career. My grandfather recognized that a portfolio was vital when he started the Academy as a school dedicated to getting students working in advertising. Today, we still acknowledge the body of artistic work students generate as the pinnacle of their success at the Academy.

We have students at the Academy from over 100 countries. Beyond their portfolio, what students can expect from the Academy is exposure to collaboration with other students across the barriers of nationality, socioeconomic levels, and areas of interest.

With the advent of our virtual programs, students in San Francisco are in the same classroom as students in Beijing, London, and other cities across the globe. This cross-pollination of thought and artistic sensibilities affords our students a worldview as artists that will allow them to compete in the borderless 21st century workplace.

No one at the Academy will ever guarantee a student-artist employment upon graduation. However, the goal of all our programs is that our students have the ability to become working artists. Each of our schools has classes that coach students on how to seek work, market themselves, and conduct themselves in the workforce. It’s not enough to educate artists and say good luck finding work. Our duty is to prepare them, hence our emphasis on a professional quality portfolio.

On another note, as educators, we recognize the realities of today’s world. Our students come in all shapes and sizes; some are traditional high school students entering college, others are returning to us for degrees after years away from education, some have come to us mid-career to gain new skills, and there are others who are looking for skills but not a college degree. For each of these groups, we offer a tailored educational experience that will fit their needs, with the flexibility to move from one delivery modality to another.


An art class in progress at Academy of Art University | Photo courtesy of Academy of Art University
An art class at Academy of Art University | Photo courtesy of Academy of Art University


5. How does the University foster its ever-growing alumni network to engage back with the school and its students?

We are fortunate that so many of our alums have gone on to great success in their chosen fields. We have alumni employed at the highest levels in auto manufacturing and design firms, studios and networks, game companies, technology companies, and many other enterprises. Most of them are incredibly generous with their time and come back to the Academy to speak, mentor students, judge competitions, offer internships, and interview for positions in their enterprises at our annual Spring Show.


6. Since taking over from your father in 1992, what do you feel is your proudest achievement within your capacity as President?

My proudest achievement is ensuring that we instruct our students in the time-honored fundamental principles of art and design while providing a 21st century technologically enhanced education.

Artists need to know how to draw. They need to understand color and composition. We ensure they have a broad understanding of all the fundamental principles in our first-year foundation classes. Then we show them how to apply these essential skills when working as an artist using technology as a tool. I am proud of the fact that we remain on top of current trends without being trendy. In doing so, we ensure that our students can graduate and go immediately into the workforce without having to be trained.

While these are my proudest achievements as a programmatic educator, my proudest achievement as the President of a private university is my ability to consistently break down the barriers that make access to an art education difficult for so many people. With our free high school classes in the arts programs, we can reach students in underrepresented and lower socioeconomic communities who might not be able to realize their dreams of becoming a sculptor, game developer, screenwriter, or various other types of artists. We offer university scholarships to many of the graduates of our high school program so that they can continue their arts education and secure a BA.

Far too many aspiring artists have to abandon their dreams to “make a living” instead of turning their dreams into a living. We at the Academy of Art University want to level the playing field so that budding artists from everywhere can become working artists.


7. What are some of the goals you wish to achieve in the future or take the institution towards?

My goals are to continue to grow the Academy’s reach by employing flexible delivery systems. This means that we will be available wherever a student is, whatever modality they want to learn through, at any time of the day, anywhere in the world.

In this post-COVID era where hybrid has become the word-of-the-day, we want to ensure that students who want to attend class in-person in San Francisco exclusively will have world-class facilities to work, live and create in. For students who want a virtual experience, we want to bring the in-person classroom to them so they can collaborate with other students in San Francisco. This is the true meaning of the word hybrid, where both on-campus and online classes can be taken simultaneously. Finally, we will continue to grow our online offerings for those who want an asynchronous on-demand education.

We are also going to grow our free high school programs over the next few years. We strongly believe that people’s lives are positively influenced by their access to art classes. We are at the beginning stages of a programmatic redesign to attract even more high school student artists. Removing existing barriers to an education in the arts for these young students and showing their parents that there is a healthy living to be made in the arts is one of our highest priorities.



Note: Our interview is not an endorsement of the school or its programs. Students should carefully evaluate their options, what their commitments would be, and what they hope to gain out of their education before selecting a school to attend. 

Images: Courtesy of Dr. Elisa Stephens and Academy of Art University