By Michael Sullivan
Brooks Institute makes bold move to Downtown Ventura
With the sale of Brooks Institute in June 2015 to gphomestay, a leading Massachusetts-based company specializing in international education, came Edward Clift, the school’s new president. As Clift settles in, he is preparing to make a major change for the school: Move the entire campus to Downtown Ventura.
Clift is a man with a vision. He is also a man who values history. Calling Savannah [Georgia] College of Art and Design (SCAD) his alma mater goes beyond just his education. Clift is taking cues from SCAD’s bilateral success in restoring and reinvigorating Savannah’s downtown while becoming one of the most prestigious private art schools in the country, maybe the world. Applying this model to Brooks Institute, as City Councilwoman Cheryl Heitmann put it, is a win-win for the school and for downtown. (Heitmann was mayor at the time city officials and Clift began discussing the possible move.)
If there is anything to be said of the potential success of Brooks coupled with this unusual move to create a campus out of an existing urban environment, look no further than SCAD: “A renewed focus on the ‘creative class’ and Savannah College of Art and Design’s unorthodox growth strategy have led to a downtown renaissance,” according to an Atlanta Journal Constitution 2012 story entitled, “Savannah’s surging downtown defies downturn.”
On Monday, Feb. 22, Brooks Institute and the Ventura City Council at the regular Council meeting publicly cemented a public/private partnership with a short term, one-year lease renewable only up to five years for Brooks Institute to occupy approximately 16,800 square feet total on the fourth and fifth floors of City Hall North, the five-story building behind City Hall. (The city’s tech incubator, Ventura Ventures Technology Center is located on the third floor.) This partnership essentially paved the way for Brooks’ official move to downtown.
You were hired as the president of Brooks Institute in July 2015. Tell us about yourself and what brought you here?
I have a photographic background actually. I’m a graduate of the Tisch School of the Arts, NYU, and also Savannah College of Art and Design [with a master’s degree in fine arts] and a Ph.D. in communication from University of Utah with specialties in mass media and new technologies. Then I became the founding dean in 2007 for the School of Media, Culture and Design at Woodbury University in Burbank and I was originally hired as a communications professor there.
What brought me here was the historic reputation of Brooks; it is really quite tremendous. Brooks has been around for 70 years; and during that time it’s made a name for itself as a top school for photographic education and then expanded into other forms of media, including film, graphic design, digital journalism. They even had fine-arts programs at one time. It had a very good historic reputation but I sense it had gone through some identity challenges over the last 10 or 15 years.
I thought it was an interesting challenge to rebuild that sense of identity. I like to call myself an “educational entrepreneur” because education is so fascinating; it connects diverse fields. It’s kind of a magical enterprise because you’re helping students and families and communities transform themselves through learning, and that can be a very exciting process. And as the president, I felt it was a good opportunity to lead that process for our whole institution.
What was it like at Woodbury and starting a school focused on media?
I started at Woodbury in 2004, and we started that school in 2007 and it did very well. It is oriented to the same idea of connecting with the media companies in Burbank and recognizing that colleges and universities have a responsibility to educate the workforce in a region; and Burbank is the media capital of the world so the idea was, we wanted to educate top talent to go work at the large media companies. And it’s not just a matter of putting a film camera in somebody’s hands; you actually have to educate them about the history of the medium, critical understanding of the medium — it’s about culture because in a lot of ways you’re creating not just an artistic product but a cultural message.
It seems nowadays that anyone with a smartphone thinks of himself or herself as a professional photographer.
Well, it’s been like that ever since the days of Kodak. You know, Kodak had the motto where “You press the button and we do the rest.” But the idea is — to really be a professional photographer or filmmaker or whatever at a high level, you have to attain so much mastery of all the technology, the equipment and storyline, all sorts of things that are not necessarily visible in the final product. Most amateurs have to get lucky in order to succeed whereas the Brooks graduate is prepared because they can plan for success.
How have you changed the way the school is being marketed?
We’ve actually gone to a more in-person marketing strategy so more high school visits and community outreach nationwide. We’re trying to be open and active in the community. There are a lot of high schools realize that media is an economic engine, and there’s lots of jobs in media, especially in LA. I think it’s one of the vocational pathways even.
Brooks Institute recently closed its Santa Barbara locations and has fully relocated to Ventura. How has that transition been?
Brooks sort of started in the founder’s mansion in Montecito. It was turned into classrooms and people had deep affection for that location, and at one point I think we had six or so facilities in Santa Barbara. As they grew they also realized they needed more room for their film students and non-photography programs. We outgrew Santa Barbara and that’s when they rented this facility here on North Ventura Avenue [a parcel in unincorporated Ventura County].
When was that?
2002, though the listed company bought this school in 1999; and you should recognize, when the school was founded in 1945 by Mr. Ernest Brooks Sr., he was a war photographer and he had been a photographer in WWII. He recognized photography needed instruction because it was a technological medium, and the first class was largely composed of vets from WWII and we’ve had a history of educating vets in these areas for a long time. Even now, I think it’s 10 percent of our class.
Brooks Institute was family owned for over 50 years when it was sold to Career Education Corporation in 1999. For the next 16 years, Brooks went through a lot of changes.
They [Career Education Corporation] had just a different business model that they were applying. I think it did scale up, they were able to successfully bring in more students and add more campuses, but I think maybe it grew too fast. Over the last seven or eight years, the enrollment began to decline and so then they sort of got out of some of the leases in Santa Barbara and made the decision to consolidate all of the programs here on this campus.
But now you are here and things, mainly the location of Brooks, are about to change.
Yes. When I first got out there I realized it’s a little bit remote for modern millennial students who want to be in an urban [environment] or at least have more restaurants nearby, coffee shops and things to do, more housing options, maybe the ability to do more location-shooting work and so that started to sink in. Then I started to realize that we’re also on a canyon with a lot of flooding issues [on North Ventura Avenue]. With El Niño approaching, I realized, “Wow, maybe this isn’t the best location for Brooks actually.” (Brooks Institute has an annual six-figure flood insurance policy). And historically, Brooks Institute was always in an urban environment with multiple buildings serving the needs of the students, and so then I said maybe we should consider that model again and mentioned it a couple of times to people involved with the city, and then the city suggested that we actually consider moving Brooks to downtown Ventura.
That’s quite a move. What are the details?
When our five-year lease expires at the end of this year — we have chosen not to renew it — we would take advantage of that as an opportunity to move our operations to multiple spaces downtown so that we could locate the best facility for different needs instead of trying to put everything in one place. We could say “OK, we need a gallery, let’s put a gallery there. We need something for photography and photography education and that would be great in this area; or maybe we need classes that overlap and the students from one major will work with students from another major. What kind of learning space would be best-suited for that?”
You said that you were discussing moving downtown with people at City Hall.
They realize that we’re a pretty big employer and we would be bringing around 80 employees, and you add in a large number of students, about 340, which interestingly enough is about the same number as when Brooks was sold to the large company.
Following City Council approval (Monday, Feb. 22) of the lease of two floors in the back building of City Hall (City Hall North, 505 Poli St.) and the additional leases we have with private landlords, we now have enough space to meet our education needs and will continue to explore additional opportunities as we grow. Their idea is, they want to help incubate Brooks as a downtown campus.
I have to applaud the city of Ventura for being so progressive in their thinking when it comes to this kind of a partnership.
What is your ideal enrollment?
I think if we were to reach somewhere between 600 and a 1,000, that would be a manageable — we believe in manageable growth. We want to make sure that we are always providing the best education we can to the students and stay on mission because our mission is to educate people, really from around the world, to pursue that visual talent. Our international students are probably about 10 percent of our student body, so about 35 students or so. If you look at our alumni rolls, we’ve educated people from all over the world.
What are some of the new programs you are implementing?
We have a master’s program in fine arts in photography and master’s of science in scientific and technical imaging. We have some in the pipeline that we’re going to be developing. We have settled through a lot of the past identity challenges and now we can start to think about what programs we can add that will maybe serve the Ventura community more and still be connected to the other Brooks programs but maybe appeal to a wider audience.
Does easy publication to the Internet via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc., make it harder to compete for Brooks students?
The more images the better, really. I mean, the more we live in a visual world, I think there’s more opportunity, more outlets for students to be creative in different ways and so we welcome all these different platforms. I think quality will always shine.
What is your long-term vision for Brooks?
We want to stay on track with our mission and I think the first step is to integrate more fully with the community as we become Ventura’s visual arts and media school, and then we want to grow in a sustainable fashion as we seek to educate an international set of students seeking to become creative media professionals.
DOWNTOWN VENTURA LEASES
Short term one-year lease agreement renewable up to five years of approximately 16,800 square feet with the city of Ventura in the fourth and fifth floors in City Hall North (behind City Hall); escalating rent schedule as follows:
Fifth floor, City Hall North
(8,400 square feet)
a) Year 1 2016 (partial) March 14-Dec. 31 $0.65 per square foot
b) Year 2 2017 $0.80 per square foot
c) Years 3-5 Jan. 1, 2018-June 30, 2021 $1.25 per square foot
Fourth floor, City Hall North
(8,400 square feet)
a) Year 1 2016 (partial) June 1-Dec. 31 $0.55 per square foot
b) Year 2 2017 $0.65 per square foot
c) Years 3-5 Jan. 1, 2018-June 30, 2021 $0.80 per square foot
Note: The fourth floor does not have air conditioning and is considered outdated, with Brooks making and paying for improvements.
City rent projections for third, fourth and fifth floors of 505 Poli St., City Hall North
With Brooks As is
Year 1 $136,997 $23,285
Year 2 $213,312 $29,412
Years 3-5 $960,792 $102,942
Total $1,311,101 $155,369
Note: these projections do not factor in any rent changes (inflation, etc.) for current tenants (incubator and nonprofits), nor do they account for tenants coming and going.
10,000 square feet of the Erle Stanley Gardner building, 21 California St. (bottom two floors). The ground floor will be the flagship welcome center with display and store area while the second floor will house key administration and admissions
Majority of the bank building at 101 S. Chestnut St. (13,000 square feet); probably for a darkroom, library and MFA studio/exhibition area
Large room/meeting space in the senior center at 420 E. Santa Clara Ave. (through a sublease with the Downtown Ventura Partners; no formal agreement has been made by publication date) for scientific and food photography and potentially an innovation center
71 Palm, former French restaurant, around 4,000 square feet — potentially a dual-use function as an alumni house (for meetings and mentorship program) and as a location setting for a permanent set
Another 20,000 square feet will also be leased.
This total square footage will meet Brooks Institute needs for the next several years.
BROOKS INSTITUTE THROUGH THE YEARS
1945: Brooks Institute is founded by Ernest Brooks Sr.
1952: The Grayholm Estate is acquired, adding a new campus location in Montecito.
1960s: Underwater photography and motion picture production classes are introduced. These courses allowed students to study and practice film or photography aboard a dive boat specifically equipped for the needs of underwater photography/film. Ernie Brooks was unabashed in his passion for this project, a milestone for Brooks. He was known for sometimes exchanging his title of president for that of captain in order to lead the oceangoing expeditions.
1971: Ernest Brooks Sr. steps down and turns leadership of college over to his son, Ernest Brooks II.
1970s: Brooks Institute plays an integral part in the photographic analysis of the fabled Shroud of Turin, a religious relic purported to be the burial cloth of Jesus Christ. The custodians of the shroud permitted a scientific study of the shroud; and a Brooks team, led by Professor Vernon Miller, head of the school’s industrial/scientific department, was responsible for visual documentation and analysis.
1988: Brooks Institute begins providing the official ship’s photographer/teacher for the Semester at Sea program, an arrangement that continued into the early 2000s.
1992: Brooks Institute takes its first documentary trip, sending a student class to China to document the local life. Subsequent trips followed, with destinations including India, the Mekong River, West Africa, Mexico, Cuba, the Czech Republic, Australia and Vietnam among many others.
1999: Brooks Institute is acquired by Career Education Corporation, one of the world’s largest providers of proprietary education.
2002: The Ventura campus opens in a former motion picture studio.
2004: Enrollment peaks at 2,432.
2005: The California Bureau for Private Postsecondary and Vocational Education accused Brooks Institute of Photography and its then parent corporation Career Education Corporation of “willfully misleading” prospective students over job placement dating back to 1999, plus other accusations over graduation and enrollment rates. Career Education Corporation is named in and settles a few class action lawsuits over the course of the next several years.
The Cota Street campus opens in Santa Barbara to provide a public gallery and additional classrooms.
2008: Brooks Institute partners with the Marriott Beach Hotel in Ventura to develop Visions Gallery to exhibit work from students, faculty and alumni.
Roger Anderson is hired as president in January after serving as interim president since June 2007. Restructuring begins.
2010: Susan Kirkman is hired as president in September. Roger Anderson leaves post as president.
2011: Brooks Institute moves out of Jefferson Campus to take over the Mason campus in the Funk Zone in Santa Barbara.
2013: Brooks Institute moves continuing students to the Cota campus and begins a two-year phased move to the Ventura Campus with the expectation that all programs will be offered in Ventura by 2015.
2013: Brooks Institute closes its Mason campus in Santa Barbara in December 2013, moving the remaining students in Pro Photo to Cota and placing all new-starts on the Ventura campus beginning in September of 2013.
2014: Tim Gramling is hired as president in September. Susan Kirkman retires.
2015: Brooks Institute is sold in June to gphomepstay, a leading Massachusetts-based homestay agency specializing in international education. Edward Clift is hired as president in July.
Note: Names of presidents between 1999 and 2007 could not be confirmed by deadline.
“The agreement between the city and Brooks is a significant step forward for both Ventura and its downtown. It will bring more than 400 students and staff into the city’s core shopping and dining center and will strengthen the city’s image as a major arts center for the region. I am thankful to the Council for approving the contract, and I look forward to working with Brooks to continue to expand Ventura’s visual arts and
— Ventura Mayor Erik Nasarenko
“With Brooks’ commitment to partnering with downtown, we’ll see a whole new level of energy and excitement. Getting students and faculty more engaged will create some incredible opportunities for local businesses, residents and visitors.”
— Dave Armstrong, board chair of Downtown Ventura Partners
“We were trying to compete with a compelling concession package from their current landlord and so we established an escalating rent schedule that gets them [Brooks] to market rate in years three through five. … When we started this conversation, we didn’t know their end game and they didn’t know either. We [Leigh Eisen, Kevin Clerici of Downtown Ventura Partners and then-Mayor Cheryl Heitmann] essentially went out to Brooks and put together presentation of an urban campus model. We were trying to convince their board to make a good business decision as well as a prudent financial decision.”
— Leigh Eisen, Ventura’s economic development manager, on forming a public/private partnership with Brooks Institute
Nonprofits to be relocated within City Hall North
With the lease finally signed and sealed for Brooks Institute’ move into the fourth and fifth floors of City Hall North, 10 nonprofits will have to relocate from the fourth floor within the next 90 days — all have been offered space on the third floor. Leigh Eisen Ventura’s Economic Development Director, said that all the details have yet to be finalized as it was contingent on the outcome of the Feb. 22 City Council meeting, but she said that the nonprofits will have a similar amount of space at the same rate ($0.50 per square foot) for at least the next year with more amenities and access to incubator programming, which includes of business resources, consultation and networking events. While some nonprofit owners said they wanted assurance on the rate for the next five years, all 10 nonprofits are currently on month-to-month rental agreements.