The Pittsburgh landmark blended the creative arts with the skilled trades and, at its peak, enrolled 100,000 students nationwide.
Art Institute of Pittsburgh leaves a century of art and hard work
The Pittsburgh landmark blended the creative arts with the skilled trades and, at its peak, enrolled 100,000 students nationwide.Art Institute of Pittsburgh: 1921-2019
It started with a small newspaper ad. The owner of a letterhead design and printing business was proposing to open a two-year art school in Pittsburgh — in part because he needed help in his offices on Second Avenue.
The next day, the flood of people hit. They streamed into his fifth-floor office, arriving in a freight elevator manually pulled by a rope “from early in the morning until after six o’clock,” Willis D. Shook, the business owner and freelance artist, later recalled. “I had no lunch.”
Mr. Shook launched his Art Institute of Pittsburgh in October 1921. The school grew over the decades into a nationwide college chain enrolling 100,000 students at its peak in the 2000s.
The passion once felt by the Art Institute community has now manifested in sadness: After years of declining enrollment, the Strip District school abruptly shuttered on March 8, derailing plans to mark the legacy of the historic Pittsburgh landmark that offered courses in animation, graphic design, interior design, culinary arts and fashion.
The school “had this unbelievable reputation.”
Former president, Art Institute of Pittsburgh
With little time for public mourning, dozens of former students, faculty and staff, and alumni said in interviews they are now grappling with how to honor the school that helped launch careers blending the creative arts with the skilled trades.
Endless stories, mementos and memories had been compiled, stacked and saved — all waiting for a grand 100th anniversary celebration for the Art Institute of Pittsburgh in 2021.
The bounty of work by students and graduates is expansive. Colorful brochures, event posters, mural designs, commemorative napkins. An album cover done for mega-rock group Queen; a Mad Magazine cartoon; DC and Marvel comics; an award-winning postage stamp of Elvis Presley.
Graduates would travel to archive the South Pole, serve as premier of Bermuda, win the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography, design surreal Mexican folk art for the Mad Mex restaurants in Pittsburgh.
Many said the school gave them courage to pursue careers doing what could have been just hobbies. Faculty and administrators felt the school was embedded in the fabric of Pittsburgh.
The school “had this unbelievable reputation,” said George Pry, who retired as president of the Art Institute of Pittsburgh in 2010 after a 33-year career building the brand from four schools to several dozen campuses.
Mark Stutzman, a 1979 Art Institute of Pittsburgh graduate, won a national competition that captivated the country in 1992. Casting more than 1.2 million ballots, the American public voted for Mr. Stutzman’s postage stamp design of a young Elvis Presley. The U.S. Postal Service dedicated the stamp at Graceland the following year. The Elvis stamp hangs in the Postal Museum in Washington, D.C. and is considered “one of the most talked-about stamps ever issued by the Postal Service — and the most popular U.S. commemorative stamp of all time,” according to the Postal Museum’s website.
A 500-square-foot room
Perhaps surprising in the wake of the school’s cacophonous ending, the Art Institute of Pittsburgh began as the singular vision of a quiet, austere, introverted young artist and designer who spent most of his childhood drawing.
Mr. Shook grew up in Wilkinsburg and, by his own accounts, felt rather listless, especially after the death of two siblings in infancy. “He was uneasy around people,” recalled his grandson, Willis D. Shook III, a cosmetic surgeon at UPMC Mercy. “So that kind of personality would lend one to sit in a corner, drawing, creating.”
In October 1921, he founded the Artist’s League of Pittsburgh, renamed the Art Institute of Pittsburgh two years later. Nine students enrolled in his first class, held in a 500-square-foot room of the Fulton Building, now the Renaissance Hotel.
In the early days, any controversy was almost sitcom-esque.
One evening, a nude model was spotted posing near a window during a life drawing class. Police burst in to the shock of students and declared the woman as “evidence” before cooler heads prevailed. Reporters with the “Press, Leader, D(i)spatch, Telegraph, Sun and Gazette had a field day,” Mr. Shook wrote in a detailed 1972 history of the school.
“What a night that turned out to be!!!!!” he wrote.
A teacher with little business instincts, Mr. Shook struggled to keep the school going in the early years. He borrowed against his house in Glenshaw and against his wife’s diamond ring. WWII veterans, using the GI Bill to go to college, became a boon to the school, which moved around the city into bigger spaces.
By 1946, it sprawled across eight floors of 635 Smithfield St., which had 40 studios to accommodate 800 students. In 1950, Mr. Shook bought a home with 50 acres in Lawrence County and invited students to come paint the pastoral natural scenes.
Mr. Shook directed the school until the late 1960s.
Around that time, Education Management Corp. formed with a vision of exporting the Art Institute of Pittsburgh model to the rest of the country. Mr. Shook died in 1983.
Drew Geraci learned to draw at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh without the comfort of a pencil he could erase. In this mid-1980s drawing for one of his classes, Mr. Geraci said, the professor encouraged them to draw a model in front of a Pittsburgh landmark – in this case, PPG Plaza. He now has a career as a comic book artist who has drawn for DC Comics and Marvel Comics. “For those who want to make a living out of it, the school helped us make the transition from hobbyist to commercial artist,” he said.
A buying spree
After EDMC purchased the Art Institute in 1969, the brand grew. At its peak in the 2000s, it enrolled 100,000 students at 60 campuses nationwide.
When Mr. Pry joined the Art Institute in 1978, the school had four other campuses: Dallas, Houston, Seattle and Philadelphia. Through the 1980s, it grew to add Colorado, Atlanta, Fort Lauderdale and Denver.
In 1980, Mr. Pry was named president of the Houston campus, formerly the Houston School of Commercial Art. In three years, enrollment there grew from 37 students to almost 1,000.
He then went to Seattle, where EDMC had bought the Burnley School of Art and Design, growing enrollment from 95 students to 1,400 in five years. The head of graphic design at the Pittsburgh campus became vice president of education there.
In 1989, Mr. Pry was called back to Pittsburgh. As director of operations, he put together an acquisitions group that bought more than a dozen other campuses. In 1999, he was named president of the Art Institute of Pittsburgh.
For years, he said, the expansion was well-intentioned. The company picked schools that shared the Art Institute’s values and invested in facilities and equipment, adding faculty and student services and academic programs.
“We were trying to take the seed of what we had here and build that elsewhere,” Mr. Pry said. “We were not out to put a cookie-cutter school in. We were out to put a major arts center in each of these cities.”
Rick Bach’s colorful, surreal paintings have long defined Pittsburgh murals, event posters and public art. He creates massive steel sculptures, furniture and light fixtures. One of his most visible creations adorn the walls of Mad Mex restaurants: a “wild mural of animals in anthropomorphic form — vibrant or garish, you decide,” the Post-Gazette wrote in 2014. Mr. Bach drew this illustration to mark the 2018 closing of the Beehive, a legendary coffee shop on the South Side.
The Art Institute’s height
Locally, the Pittsburgh school held its own as a part of the academic corridor of universities stretching from Point Park University through Oakland and Shadyside where University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon and others were located.
During the years when the school was on the Boulevard of the Allies, student and alumni artwork spanned two floors of galleries with display cases hundreds of feet long — the responsibility of Dave DiBella, director of alumni relations until he retired in 2009. Mr. DiBella said he managed an alumni network of at least 20,000 names with mailing addresses he would use to send print newsletters.
Mr. DiBella and Carrie Butler, former director of public relations, created a foldout brochure that illustrated examples of the average Pittsburgher encountering products touched by Art Institute graduates. The scene showed newspapers, coffee cups, advertising, Pirates game animations, murals, the Pittsburgh Zoo and Aquarium.
The school continually upgraded its computers and bought 3D printers before most places had even heard of them, said Steve Butler, former director of curriculum development and learning resources who was laid off in January after 22 years with the school.
And the recruitment machine that was later part of EDMC’s downfall reached into underserved areas.
In 1996, Josh Sager saw the school’s booth at a job fair in Charleston, W.Va. A creative person in an area dominated by the coal and chemical industries, he was hooked.
“For the first time, there was something I could identify with,” said Mr. Sager, who is now a web developer and professor at Pittsburgh Technical College.
Growing up in Bermuda, Dame Jennifer Meredith Smith, 72, saw the Pittsburgh school advertised in a magazine. She was determined to be an artist, but she hesitated when a teacher suggested she go to New York City.
“I was a girl from a small island,” she said in a phone interview. “And I was not ready for someplace so big.”
Earning a degree in fashion illustration from the institute, Ms. Smith ended up using her art school background at the Bermuda Recorder newspaper — then broke barriers in politics.
In 1998, she was elected the first progressive premier of Bermuda, marking a watershed moment for the tiny island country by breaking the conservative party’s 30-year hold on power. In 2005, she was given the honorific title of “dame.”
“Art can be found in all kinds of ways,” Ms. Smith said. “People who are cultured, the way they approach things are different.”
In 2009, the school hosted a gala to launch a book on its history. In 127 pages of photographs and student art, the book is the most extensive written record that exists today.
Hilary Henderson always liked to cook but thought she was destined for basketball. After an injury sidelined her from her college team in North Carolina, she searched for culinary schools. The Art Institute of Pittsburgh, with expansive kitchen facilities and a student-run restaurant called “A Taste of Art” on the ninth floor of the Boulevard of the Allies building, was a perfect fit. Ms. Henderson entered the world of fine dining, working at The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia, Martha’s Vineyard and now works as the chef de cuisine of CUT Beverly Hills, a high-end steakhouse in Los Angeles. This is one of her creations, razor clams and spring garlic.
Too big to fail?
The pursuit of growth was cemented when EDMC decided to become a publicly traded company, putting its shares on the New York Stock Exchange in 1996 and raising about $45 million.
As investors watched the quarterly earnings reports, profits and enrollment, EDMC bought other chains — Argosy University, Brown Mackie College and South University. Art Institute campuses built branch campuses within the same city and started more schools from scratch.
In 2006, a group of private equity groups bought the company to enable it to buy still more schools, and the company went public again in 2008. EDMC amassed more than 100 locations nationwide across all brands.
The personal touch of the Pittsburgh campuses became more difficult to replicate. EDMC’s resources were stretched thin, as some professors and staff in Pittsburgh were asked to relocate across the country, said Melinda Hallett, former director of human resources at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh.
Meanwhile, the online divison — housed within the Art Institute of Pittsburgh — boomed. In place of advertising, EDMC bought lists of names and phone numbers from third-party vendors.
“I was in disbelief seeing how things were changing,” said Lee Colker, EDMC’s former vice president of admissions tasked with training all the ground campus recruiters nationwide.
“The emphasis became: Get the students into the classes. Way beyond any other message they were getting,” Mr. Colker said. “The pressure they were under was horrendous.”
At one point, more than 700 admissions personnel in Pittsburgh were seeking hundreds of thousands of leads across the country, Mr. Pry said.
That led to a whistleblower lawsuit filed in 2011 by the U.S. Department of Justice and dozens of state attorneys general accusing the school of illegally recruiting students through deceptive marketing practices. In 2015, EDMC settled that suit for $100 million, admitting no wrongdoing.
But a generation of students were left with debt and little to show for it. Today, posts from graduates on the “I Am AI” Facebook page, with more than 9,000 members, vent frustration at the schools for failing to help them in their careers.
Mr. Pry left in 2010, he said, in part because EDMC had “lost the family touch” and growth had become a “science formula.” At that time, the Art Institute enrolled nearly 3,000 students at the Downtown campus and about 15,000 more across the country in online courses.
“I never to this day thought we were going to be sitting around a table talking about the demise of AiP,” Mr. Pry said. “I almost get to tears.”
Marcel Lamont Walker, a 1988 Art Institute of Pittsburgh graduate, is perhaps best known for his work on the CHUTZ-POW! comic book with The Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh. The Pittsburgh-based cartoonist is also president of The ToonSeum, Pittsburgh’s Museum of the Comic and Cartoon Arts. Mr. Walker drew this food-themed t-shirt design for The Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank’s Pittsburgh Marathon.
The final chapter
In 2017, Dream Center Education Holdings bought 31 Art Institutes from EDMC, which is liquidating in bankruptcy. But the Los Angeles-based nonprofit, which had no experience in higher education, also struggled. An Ohio court placed the Art Institute of Pittsburgh and several former EDMC schools in federal receivership in January.
The federal receiver — after discovering Dream Center had spent millions in financial aid money on operating expenses — abruptly shuttered the Pittsburgh school last month. There was not enough money to pay stipends to students, and faculty are still waiting for final paychecks.
The school had just 200 students on campus when it closed.
It is unclear what has happened to some of the most important pieces of the school’s legacy. Mr. DiBella is not sure what happened to the alumni network of 20,000 people he cultivated.
“I said, ‘Let’s use this as a beginning point and try to preserve the history.' Well, that fell on deaf ears. Who would care now?”
Willis D. Shook III
Grandson of Art Institute of Pittsburgh founder
Within days of the closing announcement, students hauled out art, books and anything that wasn’t electronic. The electronics are selling on Facebook.
Mr. Shook, the founder’s grandson, sitting in an examination room at his offices in UPMC Mercy, recalled speaking at the 2009 gala and urging the school’s administration to take care of the artifacts.
“I said, ‘Let’s use this as a beginning point and try to preserve the history,’” Mr. Shook said. “Well, that fell on deaf ears.”
“Who would care now?” he said with a shrug.
A century after Willis D. Shook looked around and saw a need for art education, a former film and video production professor is following a similar path — with modern twists.
Bill Moore is gathering those who want to continue learning art in Pittsburgh. Mr. Moore, whose father taught film at the school and who got a degree in the same discipline, is organizing students on a Facebook page to advertise monthly workshops.
“I have a lot of former students who are optimistic,” Mr. Moore said.
Design & Development Zack Tanner