The Art Academy of Cincinnati - Education to be Radical, Relentless, & Radiant



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 second-hand 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 them upside down to generate breakthrough opportunities."  
Blackmoutain College w/ Buckminster Fuller
The last kind of person is particularly hard to find because 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.

In the meanwhile, books about Innovation, Design, and Economic Disruption, churn through billions of dollars in annual publishing sales. Parallel to publishing, countless institutions argue they offer students an education that will transform students into such innovators who will advance the break-through ideas to reinvent our notion of the future.  But do they?

2017 Commencement Address
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.  Yet I have never encountered another school that transforms students into 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 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.

Art Academy of Cincinnati
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 as the application fee was only $20. I applied only minutes before the deadline, in person, submitting my application in a massive wooden box I crafted from an old PA system pulled from a dumpster in Kentucky (at Aaron’s suggestion to make the application stand out somehow). 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 and I will be forever grateful.  Notably, I later received a full scholarship to DAAP for graduate school.

Visiting AAC this last weekend 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 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 in its curriculum, it is the simple fact that 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 an 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 strategy workshops for a Venture Capital firm in Silicon Valley concerning exploratory 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.  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 for showing me the path.