Around the time San José Junior College was rebranded as the San José City College we know today, a golden era for arts and culture began on campus. During the two decades following the 1958 renaming, artists like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Dizzy Gillespie performed at 2100 Moorpark Avenue.
That same year marked the arrival of Darrell Johnston, Professor of Music and Director of Bands, who founded the San José Wind Symphony, taught for 35 years, and led SJCC’s championship marching band. Thanks to a thriving music department and regular concerts and lectures, for years SJCC was known as a vibrant center for arts and culture.
The construction of a few larger auditoriums, like the San José Performing Arts Center, and some key faculty retirements changed that, but SJCC arts programs are on the rise again. Much like the school’s name has transformed over the last century to better represent its community, so have its offerings in the arts.
Campus Updates Herald a New Era in the Arts
The completion of the Carmen Castellano Fine Arts Center & Multi-Disciplinary Complex in 2012 was a landmark moment for the arts community at SJCC.
It provides a space for fine arts departments that include art, dance, digital media, music, and theatre. The building is made up of over 45,000 square feet of studios, music rehearsal rooms, classrooms, a state-of-the-art ceramics lab, and even an art gallery. Its design encourages creativity as well as connection.
“The dedicated art gallery in the Carmen Castellano Building provides an exciting opportunity for interdisciplinary collaboration with other departments,” said arts faculty, Michelle Gregor. The center has also hosted gallery showings, an annual ceramics show, and guest artists for public lectures.
The name of this dynamic new building is also noteworthy because it carries profound meaning. Carmen Castellano, who spent three decades serving the SJCC community, propelled remarkable progress through her work as an activist and philanthropist. Her impact was deeply felt throughout the San José art scene, the Latinx community, and beyond.
“She was an advocate. She pushed hard, and she fought,” said faculty member Jesús Covarrubias in an interview. “She established the Castellano Family Foundation that has supported Latinx Arts & Culture throughout the Bay Area. It has contributed millions to student scholarships and cultural programming in San José.”
Surely, Castellano would be proud that once again, artists from all over the Bay Area gravitate to San José City College.
Art Programs Expand and Modernize Across the Board
The SJCC campus has experienced radical transformations in infrastructure over the past few decades (sprouting and demolishing buildings at a rapid pace from 2001 to 2007) and so have many of its fine arts programs. Thanks to passionate faculty, these days change and expansion go hand in hand.
Full-time faculty member, Jonali Bhattacharyya (also an accomplished Game Industry animator and CEO & Founder of Bits Bytes and Pixels), spearheaded the founding of the Digital Media Arts (DMA) Department. The new department is planning for a strong launch.
In fall of 2022 it will debut degree offerings in Graphic Design, Motion Graphics Design, User Experience (UX) and Interaction Design. Bhattacharyya spoke of its inherent connection to traditional art and the essential support she received from the Art Department. “We worked together. We felt the need for this new department, we felt the need for these new programs,” she said. Bhattacharyya is also working to update curriculum for SJCC’s photography courses, which are housed in the new DMA Department.
In the last five years, led by Amber McCall, the Dance Department has also made strides, adding Hip-Hop, Choreography, and Pedagogy to its repertoire of courses. Theatre Arts has expanded its Work-Study Program and enjoyed success with its Children’s Theatre Tour under seasoned theatre arts educator, Anita Reyes.
As a working contemporary artist, Gregor brings her students into today’s art world, introducing them to the galleries, museums, and street art that can inform their creative practices, cultural context, and self-expression. Judith Bell is a working artist and full-time art department faculty, teaching drawing and painting fundamentals, focusing on improving student equity and success.
Covarrubias, who transitioned from being full-time in the Ethnic Studies Department to full-time in the Music Department, has begun to build the program back up to its former stature. He created new courses in Chicanx/Latinx, organized a Day of the Dead ensemble performance, and established a Music Technology and Recording Arts Program (MTRAP).
Naturally, SJCC constantly changes with its community but it has also transformed for the community.
SJCC Art Education Gives Artists Safe Spaces
SJCC is committed to creating affordable and accessible pathways to education and careers in the arts while staying true to its driving principle of excellence.
Financial aid and inexpensive classes greatly alleviate the number one barrier for many art students (private art school can be quite costly), as does sheer availability for students who cannot commute to specialized art programs. But accessibility can be more subtle too.
It can look like inclusivity. For this reason, the Dance Department does not require an audition for new students who want to take a dance class and the Music Department is creating courses that go beyond the traditional, eurocentric view.
“For students who may not come from privilege, finding their own creative voices can be a profoundly validating and empowering experience,” Gregor said. Reyes commented on how we must mindfully and intentionally cultivate these spaces. “My dream is for the campus community to find a second home in the theatre department,” Reyes said. “If you are looking for a place to build friendships and build community — come to the theatre.”
McCall, dance faculty, also echoed the sentiment. “It has always been a priority of mine to build a dance department which is inviting, supportive and inclusive,” she said. A safe and inclusive space for creativity is essential for every artist and therefore every community.
Thriving Art Programs Make the SJCC Campus a Cultural Hub
SJCC’s growing arts programs have already shown their immense potential to bring together the broader San José community through student-driven celebrations, art shows, and even theatre productions. Once the virtual days are behind us, acclaimed speakers like iconic playwright Luis Valdez will surely continue to visit the campus.
With the Carmen Castellano Fine Arts Center serving as a natural hub and an inspired group of faculty leading the way, SJCC is no doubt at the beginning of a new and marvelous era for the arts.
*** Note: An abbreviated version of this article was originally published in the SJCC Centennial insert that appeared in the Sept. 24, 2021 edition of the Silicon Valley Business Journal.