Queen of Arts

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Rosemary told me Christine would not attend any showing of her work unless the gallery sent a limousine to the airport and picked her up. My mother also told me about the conversation she had with Christine from the Getty mansion where she was spending the night,

“Mother, I have it all. I am calling your from the Getty mansion where I am spending the night. But, I don’t know who I am anymore.”

When Christine, drowned at high tide while tide-pooling, the Pinecone published an article with a photo showing Christine and Jacci Belford getting out of a limo. After Jacci told me she made an offer to purchase the Rosamond estate, and learned she was close with the writer of this article, I wonder if she chose that photo. Then, I heard about the movie. Who would be getting out of a limo at the premiere?

Elisa Stephens owns a fleet of classic cars. She is the president of an art school and has become extremely wealthy from Government grants, tax payers money used to make loans to students who want to become famous artists – just like Christine Rosamond Benton! But, the real money was made in real estate investments – with that Poor Artist money! Consider Lawrence Chazen, the Getty family, Gavin Newsom. Elisa is tight with San Francisco politicians. There is a scandal brewing!

Alas, I own the vehicle to move my novel ‘Capturing Beauty’ over a powerful cartel of rich people who have exploited the Arts and Artists. Consider Christine’s and my Muse, and the old Dodge I drove her around in. Consider Michael Harkin’s Bently that we considered driving to Nebraska, and make a film about our search for Rena Easton. Consider the Queen of Hearts and the Queen of Arts, and the sleeping beauty princess, Rosamond!

It’s all here, even the ancient Japanese warriors who owned castles in Japan. Thanks, Mr. Tokugawa for adding to the Rosamond Cult. Mr. Harkins drove his Bently to Los Angeles to meet with rich Japanese businessmen who bought his Samurai swords he happened upon. While there, he stayed with his good friend, Jim Morrison. Michael went to Pebble Beach with me to investigate Christine’s death. Elisa has a home there. His good friend was the smuggler, Bruce Perlowin, the ‘King of Pot’.

What we got here is a modern Jack London tale. How about Brett Harte and his Chinese?

I let go humorous laugh, like Chinese gambler because I am holding all the cards.

“It is fate who writes my novel! Along with the Great Muse!”

Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all! Is there any doubt who my main villain is going to be? A wealthy and powerful woman makes a killing on the beautiful dreams of poor artists. Elisa is the Empress of the Non-Artists who have all but destroyed me so they can ride around in Rosamond’s Limo – after she is dead! Consider the movie ‘Christine’ the Ghost Limo. How many ghost writers have Pierrot and Mark Presco, hired?

Ghost Samurai of the Lone Pine come out of the fog and menace the young man standing before his easel. A woman’s hand rises out of the sea!


Fighting to a standoff, the young artist is bid to come visit the Great Goddess Muse of Arts whose headquarters in a old Romanesque church in San Francisco. Empress Elisa claims she inspired the muralist, Garth Benton, when he worked on the murals at the Getty Villa.

“If you are the Great Muse, why am I not inspired to – paint you? Aha! What have you done with the real Great Muse?” the errant young artist cries out!”

“Off with his head!”

Jon Presco

Copyright 2015


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“Such is the case of the Academy of Art College, a dubious trade-school operation whose owners have assembled a family real estate empire by taking advantage of society’s most desperate prey: those who dream of someday becoming artists.”

“Hayato Tokugawa, a former San Francisco police officer, is a well-known journalist, editor of books on Japan, author, artist, and photographer. He and his wife, noted illustrator and writer Aoi Tokugawa make their home in both San Francisco and in Japan.”

 The Stephens family of San Francisco is best known for its for-profit Academy of Art University (see main story, “Black Arts”), but the bulk of their estimated $800 million fortune is in real estate. Over the last two decades, the family has quietly become one of the city’s largest property owners, gobbling up 40-plus buildings in prime locations and leasing most of them to the family-owned university. In the process, 31 of the buildings have racked up planning code violations, some dating back a decade (see map). How has one of San Francisco’s biggest institutions gotten away with flouting land-use laws for years?

“Basically, I would hope it becomes common knowledge that the quality of education there is poor,” said one employee.

“What a crazy bunch of loons who run the Academy of Art College,” said another.

“It was creepy and bad and horrible,” said a former faculty member.

Students attending the Academy of Art College obtain more than $22 million a year in federal grants and loans, plus another $2.1 million in state grants, to pay for AAC tuition and other expenses. Money not milked from the government comes from the pockets of ingenuous students:

One afternoon in April, dozens of concerned residents filed into a wood-paneled room in San Francisco’s City Hall to demand an answer. This was the latest of more than 20 hearings the city planning commission has held since 2007 about AAU’s violations, which mainly involve converting buildings – including rent-controlled housing – for school use without proper permits. AAU President Elisa Stephens, who owns the properties with her parents and brother through family-controlled companies, didn’t attend. But Mike Petricca, AAU’s director of campus safety, an ex-police chief who wore a beige suit and tinted glasses, silently kept an eye on the proceedings from the back row.

When the floor opened for public comment, the first to speak was Ron Miguel, a former San Francisco planning commissioner. “When I was sitting back there as a commissioner, I referred to Elisa Stephens as a scofflaw. Nothing has changed,” he said.

Jake McGoldrick, a gruff former city supervisor, soon followed. “They’re breaking the law every day…What for? For greed,” he barked.

Stephens has plenty to celebrate. Since taking over as president of the family-owned Academy of Art University more than two decades ago, she’s transformed the 86-year-old for-profit institution from a regional operation into America’s largest private art university. Under her watch enrollment has skyrocketed from 2,200 to 16,000, generating an estimated $300 million in annual revenues, heavily subsidized by federal student loans. The Stephens family has turned that pile of art-school tuition into one of the largest real estate empires in San Francisco, with more than 40 properties in prime areas, including a historic former cannery on Fisherman’s Wharf and a 138,000-square-foot office building steps from City Hall. In all, the real estate is worth an estimated $420 million, net of debt, and the family pulls in tens of millions of dollars each year leasing these buildings back to the Academy of Art for classrooms and dorms.

Thanks to the university’s financial success, Stephens, her younger brother, Scott, and her parents, Richard and Susanne, are worth an estimated $800 million. A fixture in San Francisco’s society pages, Elisa, her husband, Ed Conlon, a vice president at a California construction firm, and their 10-year-old son live in a five-story $6.1 million home nicknamed the “Jewel Box” in ritzy Nob Hill. Recently she paid $3.3 million in cash to expand her estate in a gated Phoenix golf community. The family also owns a $13.4 million mansion in a posh San Francisco suburb, getaways in Pebble Beach and Lake Tahoe, a corporate jet and a yacht named Elisa. Plus a collection of 250 classic cars worth around $70 million, which Elisa often drives in city parades, to the opera or when heading to lunch.


Today the school, which is owned by the Stephens Institute, a California corporation controlled by family trusts, is worth an estimated $300 million, much less than a decade ago, according to analysts and to trends among publicly traded competitors. When for-profit colleges were in their heyday in the 2000s, the school likely had profit margins north of 15%, though such margins have since fallen to high single digits across the sector.

“This industry was the darling of Wall Street,” says Trace Urdan, a research analyst for Credit Suisse. “But you have a federal government that for the last six and a half years has been very hostile to this sector. The re-regulation of this space has depressed valuations.”

The Obama Administration removed loopholes that let for-profit colleges base recruiters’ salaries on enrollment figures, and it required states to approve online programs. In July revised “gainful employment” regulations, meant to improve the quality of degrees, went into effect. Now for programs to stay eligible for government aid graduates of for-profit schools can spend no more than 20% of discretionary income or 8% of total annual income paying federal loans. The rules are an “existential threat” to for-profit colleges, particularly art schools, says Urdan.

At AAU up to 13 programs–out of 16 for which data were available–wouldn’t meet the new standards, based on preliminary rates the Department of Education calculated in 2012. An AAU spokesperson points out that official rates, which will come out in 2016, could differ from the earlier figures. “Many of our students do not use financial aid, so it would not affect those students. Students affected can transfer to another program or use alternative funding,” the spokesperson says. Time will tell if other funding is really available–or if AAU can make up the difference with foreign students and affluent recruits.

The feds aren’t the only ones taking a hard look at AAU. A review team from the school’s accreditor, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, concluded last year that AAU’s low graduation rates “may indicate that students are not aware of or are not realistic about what it will take to be successful. … This is an expensive proposition when these same students are unsuccessful.” Despite its anemic graduation rates, AAU keeps an entire semester’s tuition if a student is enrolled for at least four weeks, as is typical for art schools. Although WASC reaffirmed AAU’s accreditation for another seven years in July 2014, it issued a “formal notice of concern,” largely because of the low graduation rate, and scheduled a special visit for 2016 to review the school’s progress.

Stephens insists that graduation rates are a “red herring” at a place like AAU. “If a student can get that portfolio built before they finish all their requirements, and they get a job in their field of study, then we don’t want to keep them here,” she says. “The diploma won’t make one bit of difference.”

But exactly how many of AAU’s grads actually land a job in their field of study is a bit of a state secret.

AAU has also run into trouble on the ground. The Stephens family–who owns nearly all of the university’s buildings–has outstanding planning-code violations on 31 of their 40-plus properties, some dating back to 2005. The violations chiefly involve unlawfully converting offices into classrooms or transforming hotels and apartments–including rent-controlled housing–into dorms. AAU illegally operated for years without an Institutional Master Plan, and it has spent seven years drafting an environmental impact report that typically takes three years. AAU blames the delay on the city’s timetable.

“It’s an operation of lawlessness never seen in an otherwise reasonably operating city,” says San Francisco Planning Commissioner Kathrin Moore.

Still, AAU has faced fines of just $420,000 for violations on a single property, which it hasn’t paid, according to a planning department spokesperson. It has paid some $50,000 in fees for permit violations on multiple buildings. Aaron Peskin, a former city supervisor running for reelection this year, accused Mayor Ed Lee of running interference on behalf of AAU. Stephens is frequently photographed with Lee. She and the planning department spokesperson deny that Lee has stepped in; Lee’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Stephens sounds baffled by the groundswell of negative attention: “I don’t know what prompted somebody to wake up and see us finally,” she says. “We’ve been here, and we haven’t been hiding out.”

That much is certainly true. Even the most preoccupied visitor to San Francisco can’t help but notice the multitude of bright red Academy of Art banners fluttering from some of the city’s most desirable addresses, all selling the promise of turning anyone with a fat wallet–or a federal loan–into a working artist … or failing that, helping to pay for Elisa Stephens’ latest classic automobile.



So it was with First Congregational Church, the huge, 86-year-old Romanesque sanctuary at Post and Mason streets. It was once the largest Protestant church in San Francisco and the site of the 1949 service creating the United Nations. But by early this year its 1,300-seat, balconied sanctuary was home to only 55 members; about 50 attended any given Sunday. Thanks to this desperate state its grand interior felt old and musty. New visitors were met by a fervently attentive congregation whose members, after the service, escorted them to punch and cookies, then begged for a return visit. Still, the congregants couldn’t stanch their own decline. In January the church was sold to a local art school. The tiny congregation planned to use the money to build a new, humbler church elsewhere.

Desperation’s opposite, depredation, is likewise odorless yet corrosive. But where desperation’s quenchless neediness broadcasts itself immediately, depredation, or needless plunder, reveals itself in more subtle ways.

Such is the case of the Academy of Art College, a dubious trade-school operation whose owners have assembled a family real estate empire by taking advantage of society’s most desperate prey: those who dream of someday becoming artists.

By nature, the desperate and the predatory are drawn to each other. And so it was that on Jan. 22, the Academy of Art College bought the First Congregational Church building. The school will use the structure to expand its motion picture and television and acting departments.

The Academy of Art College has managed to insinuate itself into the consciousness of San Franciscans as a legitimate art school through advertising (its spots have appeared on MTV and elsewhere), prominent campuses (the Stephens family, which owns the college, has accumulated downtown buildings appraised at $36 million, each prominently displaying AAC signs), and a fleet of logoed, navy blue buses that endlessly plies the downtown area.

But there’s rot within. In the space of a day of putting word out in the San Francisco art community that I was doing a story on the Academy of Art College, I began getting telephone calls from current and former employees.

“Basically, I would hope it becomes common knowledge that the quality of education there is poor,” said one employee.

“What a crazy bunch of loons who run the Academy of Art College,” said another.

“It was creepy and bad and horrible,” said a former faculty member.

Students attending the Academy of Art College obtain more than $22 million a year in federal grants and loans, plus another $2.1 million in state grants, to pay for AAC tuition and other expenses. Money not milked from the government comes from the pockets of ingenuous students: The school charges $34,650 for a typical MFA degree. The academy has failed to gain accreditation from the most prominent regional accrediting institution, the Western Association of Schools & Colleges. Instead, it is listed with the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, the Foundation for Interior Design Education Research, and the National Association of Schools of Art and Design.

The school applied for accreditation with the Western Association in 1982 and obtained several extensions for consideration before it was finally rejected in 1989. AAC President Elisa Stephens was quoted three years ago saying she would reapply, but the Western Association has no record of her having done so.

“In terms of having a fourth accreditation — we considered it, but now it’s not critical,” Stephens says.

It’s possible to look at the Academy of Art College, see the Stephens’ growing real estate portfolio, and imagine a cash-flow machine that allows the family of AAC founder and board chairman Richard A. Stephens to accumulate mountains of property. In the case of the First Congregational Church building, Elisa Stephens, who is Richard’s daughter, along with her brother, Scott, bought the church for $7.5 million, then turned around and leased the building to the school. The family owns buildings all around the Financial District, SOMA, and Nob Hill through entities such as the Stephens Institute, the Stephens Family Trust, and the Elisa Stephens Trust. Essentially, the college appears to be, at heart, a real estate investment firm.

But Elisa Stephens counters that if she were a real estate speculator, she wouldn’t be holding her properties. Unlike San Francisco buy-and-hold real estate players such as Clint Reilly and Walter Shorenstein, she’d be selling, Stephens says.

“All the facilities that the school owned or leases actually house the university. In today’s market, a school is a low-end user. So if that were true, I think I’d be selling, or the school would be selling, its real estate,” says Stephens. “Our challenges are the same as any academic institution. The only difference is that we’ve met them better than anybody else. That’s why we’re the largest art education institution in the country.”

However, employees at the Academy of Art College describe an institution where Elisa Stephens fires employees at whim — then forgets they’re gone. (In one case, faculty members kept a fired employee on staff by hiding him whenever Stephens happened by.)

Stephens says she takes pains to retain staff in the tight Bay Area job market.

Yet staffers say they’re so ill-paid that faculty loyalty is veneer-thin — so thin, in fact, that one former employee says she was paid to visit classrooms to make sure teachers were actually teaching the courses they claimed to be.


http://www.sfgate.com/politics/article/NEWSOM-S-PORTFOLIO-Mayoral-hopeful-has-parlayed-2632672.php .


Members of Gavin Newsom’s wine, restaurant, bar, resort and real estate partnerships since 1991:

Kevin & Bronwyn Brunner, John Burton, Casey and Michelle Cadwell, Bob and Barbara Callan, Frank Caufield, Donna Chazen, Lawrence Chazen, Joe & Victoria Cotchett, Michael & Hilary Decesare, Philip DeLimur, Don Dianda, Gretchen Dianda, Edward Everett, Richard Freemon, James Fuller, Stanlee Gatti, Robert Gerry, Andrew Getty, Ann Getty, Anna Getty, Chris Getty, Gordon Getty, Mark Getty, Peter Getty, Ronald Getty, Tara Getty, William “Billy” Getty, Robert Goldberg, Florianne Gordon, Stu Gordon, Gordon Goletto, David Goodman, Arthur Groza, Richard & Martha Guggenhime, Tony and Anthony Guilfoyle, Shelly Guyer, James & Shea Halligan, Bob & Jill Hamer, Erin Howard, Thomas Huntington, Isolep Enterprises (Paul and Nancy Pelosi family personal investment company), Peter Jacobi, Gaye Jenkins, Jeffrey Kanbar, Chad Kawai, David Lamonde, John Larson, Rob Lavoie, Leavitt/Weaver interior designers, Marc Leland, Maryon Davies Lewis, Anne McCutcheon, Chris McCutcheon, Ross McGowan, Rich McNally, Robert & Carole McNeil, Paul Mohun, Robert Mohun, Jeff Morin, Sara Moughan, Terry Moughan, Brian Mueth, Bob Naify, Marshall Naify, John Nees, Barbara Newsom, Brennan Newsom, Catherine & David Newsom, Gavin Newsom, Patrick Newsom,

Tessa Newsom, William Newsom, John O’Hara, Jack Owsley, Pacific Design, Matt Pelosi, Robynne Piggott, James Samuel Powers, Elizabeth Rice, Jeremy Scherer, Paul Scherer, Gary Schnitzer, Steve & Theresa Selover, Steve Siino, Trevor Traina, Chris Vietor, Francesca Vietor, Kenneth Weeman, Nicki West, Justin & Aridne Williams, Kevin Williams, Thomas & Kiyoko Woodhouse.


Dr. Elisa Stephens, president of Academy of Art University, has been appointed to serve on the Smithsonian National Board beginning Oct. 1, 2014. Her appointment comes at the direction of the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents. “I am appreciative of this honor and opportunity to contribute to such an outstanding organization as the Smithsonian,” she said.

Dr. Stephens became president of the Academy of Art University in 1992, the third-generation Stephens to lead the university since its founding by her grandfather in 1929. Under her leadership, the Academy of Art University has become the largest private university of art and design in the United States, with approximately 18,000 undergraduate and graduate students on a unique urban campus in downtown San Francisco, and throughout the world online


About Royal Rosamond Press

I am an artist, a writer, and a theologian.
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