THERE is no exact moment when the cultural epicenter of the country shifted from New York to Los Angeles, just a series of progressive baby steps to the left. You could start with the movie men who fled the East's gray skies and tax collectors for the world's greatest outdoor set, or the kids who screwed the wheels from their roller skates to bits of wood and began slaloming in empty Los Angeles swimming pools. Or you could start in 1961, when Walt Disney cemented his plans for, arguably, the most interesting and salutary piece of his legacy, the California Institute of the Arts (commonly called CalArts), perhaps not the happiest place on earth, but certainly among the grooviest.
J J Villard
Works by CalArts alumni on view during MoMA's Tomorrowland program include "Son of Satan" by JJ Villard.
"The Lady and the Lamp" by John Lasseter.
You can get a sense of just how groovy with Tomorrowland: CalArts in Moving Pictures, a hugely ambitious program that opens Thursday at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan and runs to Aug. 13. Organized by Joshua Siegel, an assistant curator in the museum's film and media department, the series showcases some of the knockout film and video work to emerge over the last 30 years from a school generally better known for nurturing artists like David Salle and Mike Kelley than filmmakers. More than 200 current and former students, including Mr. Salle, are represented in 37 programs for an eye-straining, brain-tickling 52-plus hours of animated punks and trembling squiggles, live-action feminist high jinks and political outrage, along with an early on-camera appearance by Paul Rubenfeld, better known as Pee-wee Herman.
CalArts was born from the merger of two well-established institutions, the Los Angeles Conservancy of Music and the Chouinard Art Institute, a small art school. Disney's big, bold idea was an arts school modeled along the lines of the CalTech; it would be an institute of higher learning that would grant degrees for the performing and visual arts. Although it's often assumed that Disney was merely looking for a way to stock his own studio reserves, Mr. Siegel said by e-mail that he believed Disney "ardently felt that first it was important for the students to be immersed in all the arts, like Black Mountain, like Nova Scotia School of the Arts, and important not to force them into a particular mold or turn the school into an assembly line."
"Their talent would become apparent, their interests more far-ranging, if you encouraged them to experiment, tinker and even fail," he added.
Despite the Disney imprimatur, evident throughout the pleasant campus — the Sharon Disney Lund Dance Theater — located some 30 miles north of downtown Los Angeles, CalArts seems miraculously untainted by the movie industry, perhaps because of its freewheeling early history (courses in joint rolling and witchcraft). Or because its campus is at a geographic remove from the Disney studio in Burbank. Or because the school's trustees have been a lot more enlightened than thought possible.