Education to be Radical, Relentless, & Radiant

To view the original post by Mitchell Sipus, Art Academy alumnus, click here.

I was deeply honored to give the commencement speech to the graduating class of 2017 at the Art Academy of Cincinnati. These last few days, I am now continually reflecting upon the unique and powerful proposition this school makes to the world. There is no other school like it.

The only other college to which I can compare it is the mythical Black Mountain College of the 1960s that produced revolutionary minds such as John Cage. To plagiarize someone else’s story, the Art Academy (AAC) doesn’t merely graduate artists or designers, it graduates the critical but hard to find team member of every successful business:

“there are three kinds of people you want to launch a business: the person with the idea, the person with the financial sense, and the person who makes you say ‘what the fuck?’ The last is the person who can rip ideas apart, remix them, and flip everything upside down to generate breakthroughs that no one else can see.” 

The last kind of person is particularly hard to find. Many schools can teach people to become accountants or to be entrepreneurs but no school teaches students to be intellectually rebellious and operationally radical. Except for the Art Academy of Cincinnati. No joke. It is even in their mission statement.

Everyday books about Innovation, Design, and Economic Disruption churn through billions of dollars in annual publishing sales. Parallel to the publishing industry, countless institutions argue they offer an education that will transform students into innovators who will change our world. But do these industries actually generate the change-makers we seek?

In the last ten years, I’ve been fortunate to spend time at the world’s best universities as a speaker, student, or instructor including Oxford University, MIT, Harvard, Cornell, and Carnegie Mellon University – and these are indeed great schools. Their students are brilliant and the faculty are more than competent. The programs are well funded and the students are nearly guaranteed the security of a well-paying job upon graduation. These schools also attract people who already have a history of success – when Elon Musk attended Stanford, he had already earned degrees in Physics and Economics. Yet I have never encountered another school that transforms unknown students into true innovators. In fact, when I recently taught Design Thinking at an East Coast top-tier MBA program, my students complained the entire time about the lack of clear directions and the constantly shifting parameters within the course requirements. I have since learned that this complaint is exceedingly common within MBA Design degrees. These programs are forcing square people through intellectual circles and many graduates come out very little changed.

Do all art schools impact students to think so differently? I’m not sure… there are many art schools in the world. My sister is a student at SCAD. I have friends as RISD. When I was a teenager, I lusted for the attention of the San Francisco Institute of Art (SFAI) and the School of the Chicago Institute of Art (SCIA). Unfortunately, in 1999, I had so little money for college, I did not even have the 50 dollars to apply to any of those programs let alone all of them. With little hope to attend any college, I drove my broken-down ‘91 Geo Prism to the Art Academy of Cincinnati for a Portfolio Review Day in mid-October, to present my high school artwork to various colleges. San Francisco was there, as was Chicago, and at least a dozen others. Chicago offered a partial scholarship on the spot, which was incredible… yet, as I did not have the money to apply, let alone to live in Chicago, it held more symbolic meaning than opportunity. I was nonetheless motivated at that moment to find a way to go to art school.

Weeks later I happened to cross paths with some artists, Aaron Butler and Christopher Daniel. Aaron worked at the Art Academy of Cincinnati and pioneered the experimental music group, Dark Audio Project, while Chris was a metal sculptor who went on to found the extraordinary and thriving Blue Hell Studio. They both held Art Academy ties, and with their encouragement, I decided to do everything possible to earn a scholarship. I applied only minutes before the deadline, in person, submitting my application in a massive wooden box crafted from an old PA system pulled from a dumpster in Kentucky (at Aaron’s suggestion that I make the physical application somehow stand out). As a mediocre student in high school, I had only applied to one other school at the time – the globally exceptional design school of the University of Cincinnati, DAAP – and I was not accepted. The Art Academy took a chance on me, offered a scholarship to cover more than half of tuition, and I will be forever grateful. Notably, after later graduating from the Art Academy, I received a full scholarship to DAAP for graduate school.

Visiting AAC this (in May) was not only nostalgic – it was inspirational. The Art Academy is a weird place. It consistently takes chances on people like me. It is a community of outsiders. It pushes them to build expertise on the ability to make something new – which is not typical, considering most degree programs demand students acquire knowledge on a longstanding subject or methodology. It pushes students to invent new models of production, new identities as artists, and to take life to the frontier of possibility. Graduates of the Art Academy of Cincinnati do not need books on creative problem solving, they need wicked problems where all others have failed. If the Art Academy has a flaw, it is a simple fact that they do little marketing or high-profile partnering, and consequently, the world knows little about this school amid an insatiable demand. The Art Academy of Cincinnati is not a diamond in the rough – it is a silent A-bomb in the exosphere.

My life has changed much since I attended the Art Academy. I am writing this blog entry while on a flight to San Francisco. Tomorrow morning, I will run a series of design strategy workshops for a Venture Capital firm in Silicon Valley to explore new investment models for Artificial Intelligence. Since attending the Art Academy, I have lived in multiple countries, built companies, and am fortunate that my abilities to tackle entrenched problems in new ways are continually in demand. When I think of the year I started college, 2000, my life is now very different from the future that was most likely ahead. Though I have my fair share of life challenges, I have a wonderfully creative and satisfying life. It has been a hard journey, but I credit the faculty and students of the Art Academy of Cincinnati. While most colleges chart a path for your future, the Art Academy provided a compass to guide me through the deep woods of the unknown.

Mitchell Sipus
Class of 2004