Irene Scholl-Tatevosyan – California Institute of the Arts
Irene Scholl-Tatevosyan didn’t aspire to be an attorney as she grew up. She didn’t expect to wield her pen to write briefs, motions or contracts because she wanted to be an animator.
“I love to draw,” she says. “Art is a beautiful way of storytelling, and I enjoy storytelling in a visual medium.”
While a career in the arts has yet to come to fruition, Scholl-Tatevosyan is enjoying the next best thing—she’s general counsel for the California Institute of the Arts, better known as CalArts, since November 2022. At its Santa Clarita campus and beyond, CalArts offers education in art, critical studies, dance, film and video, music, and theater.
In some ways, managing legal affairs for the school has given Scholl-Tatevosyan a tabula rasa for practicing law after she’d served in private practice.
“Through artistic practice, we transform ourselves, each other and the world,” she says. “I’m attuned to applying the practice of law to a flexible and creative audience.”
Entrenched in the arts
Located about 30 miles north of Los Angeles, CalArts was incorporated in 1961 with the merger of Chouinard Art Institute and the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music. Walt Disney, who was close friends with the founder of Chouinard Art Institute and the chair of the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music, was among the Institute’s benefactors.
CalArts opened its campus in 1970, and REDCAT, a performance and exhibition space in downtown Los Angeles, in 2003. The acronym stands for the Roy and Edna Disney CalArts Theater. In 2013, the John Baldessari Art Studios opened. The Institute currently has an enrollment of about 1,500 students, nearly 500 of them graduate students and about 400 faculty members.
Scholl-Tatevosyan has spent her first year refining the CalArts’ policies and procedures while helping reaffirm its commitment to attracting diverse students and staff.
She’s been working with staff, faculty and administration members to revise handbooks and policies to reflect some post-COVID-19 pandemic changes in the world and make them more accessible and easily understood.
The effort is a work in progress, but Scholl-Tatevosyan says one intent is to emphasize the importance of community on campus and for artists—meaning students and faculty— to have the safe and collaborative spaces essential to creativity.
“We have an amazing community of artists, and we want them engaging and feeling connected,” she says.
Her work is also being colored by the emergence of technology, especially artificial intelligence, which can be a boon and bane to artists. AI holds great potential as a source of creativity, but it’s also bringing questions about protecting intellectual property and artists’ work.
“There is a general worry that AI can be exploited without people getting permission to use someone else’s work,” Scholl-Tatevosyan says.
AI also affects classroom and studio instruction, specifically through voice transcription programs used to record faculty members—by California state law, that can be done only with the consent of the person being recorded on the expectation of their privacy.
Protecting IP and an artist’s work is a crucial area Scholl-Tatevosyan likes to educate the CalArts community about, too. She says while the Institute doesn’t retain any share of rights for art its students and faculty create, they also need to be aware of ownership rights and contract terms when they sell or exhibit their work elsewhere.
“Artists need to know what to look for in contracts that may dictate artistic expression,” she cautions.
Art is diverse
While the June U.S. Supreme Court decision that bans considering race as a basis for admission is a current focus in higher education, Scholl-Tatevosyan says CalArts is generally unaffected because race wasn’t a factor in its admission practices. Nor does CalArts use SAT scores, as applicants are evaluated on their artistic work by submitting an artist statement and letters of recommendation along with a portfolio of work or audition.
With those requirements, CalArts does consider an applicant’s background because diversity of viewpoints and experiences is crucial for creativity and artistic expression. To further promote diversity and inclusion in admissions, the Institute is the first in the nation to develop a partnership with the New York-based Posse Foundation and its Posse Arts Program.
The nonprofit Posse Foundation was established in 1989 with the mission of identifying, recruiting, and training future leaders in various fields. It has partnered with 64 colleges and universities in its programs and those partners have awarded more than 10,000 Posse Scholars $1.6 billion in scholarships. CalArts welcomed 11 students in 2022 in the inaugural Posse Arts cohort and 10 students were admitted this year.
While those students were admitted before Scholl-Tatevosyan joined CalArts, she says she’s also helping the Institute expand and grow scholarship and grant programs.
Legal and art stars aligning
Diversity also resonates personally for Scholl-Tatevosyan—her parents emigrated from Armenia when she was young. While she did aspire to become an animator, she also has an enduring love for reading and writing that are the foundation of her legal career.
After earning her bachelor’s degree in political science, society and genetics from UCLA in 2010, Scholl-Tatevosyan crossed town to study law at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law.
“I liked the challenging nature of legal writing where you have to persuade someone in a limited number of pages,” she says. “In its purest form, it’s storytelling. But it has to be in an easily digestible form given the highly complex legal language and precedents.”
Scholl-Tatevosyan earned her J.D. in 2014 and joined the firm of Nixon Peabody LLP, where she’d also been a summer associate in 2013. As a trial attorney, she litigated mostly labor and employment and contract disputes. She is also vice president of the Esports Bar Association. Coming in-house was an easy decision for her because of the opportunity.
“When I saw the open position, I felt like I should be here,” she says. “The Institute’s mission represents what I believe in, it feels like the stars are aligning.”
View this feature in the Vanguard Winter I 2024 Edition here.
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