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Business Observer Friday, Oct. 31, 2014 7 years ago

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Students at a leading art and design college are taught to think and act like entrepreneurs. They might soon get more chances to do that.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

College administrator and professor Jeff Bellantoni had a pretty plum post at the Pratt Institute in New York City for six years.

Bellantoni ran the nationally ranked graduate communications design department at Pratt, one of the top ranked architecture and design schools in the country. Now Bellantoni has bolder ambitions: to help lead Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, another nationally known school, into a new growth era.

His goals at Ringling range from boosting student enrollment by at least 50% to expanding curriculum and degree options in multiple directions. Ringling, founded in 1931 by circus magnate John Ringling, has an annual operating budget of $61 million. Its campus is just north of downtown Sarasota, spread through more than 110 buildings on 48 acres.

“I was tracking this place like nobody's business,” says Bellantoni. “There are so many things going on here, and I really wanted to be a part of it.”

Named vice president for academic affairs in June after a nationwide search, Bellantoni has quickly become a big part of things at Ringling. A main aspect of his job is to oversee the faculty, more than 150 professors, in addition to the school's curriculum.

On the curriculum, Bellantoni aims to take a page from the business world and diversify the school's course list. The idea there is not to over-rely on the school's main draw for prospective students, animation/game art and design classes. “Quite frankly,” says Bellantoni, “if the animation department collapsed, we would be going 'uh-oh.'”

Potential new offerings, which will likely be introduced over the next two years, include courses in entrepreneurship; software coding for apps and websites; product design; fashion and apparel design including wearable technology devices; service design; and creative writing.

Two new degree options are also on the way. One is a bachelor's of fine arts in content development and the other is a liberal arts degree that Bellantoni says is a “cross-disciplined, individualized degree for the creative, entrepreneurial and self-directed student.”

Bellantoni hopes the new programs, combined with some other big-picture initiatives, will lead to an increase in enrollment of at least 800 students in the next few years. That would give the school more than 2,000 students, a number Bellantoni considers a tipping point for an arts and design college. Other initiatives include a new digital filmmaking complex and post-production studio in the early planning stages.

Ringling College has lived under the motto of shattering the myth of the starving artist for the past decade. That means the school, in terms of return on investment, puts students in a position to land a well-paying job after graduation. Bellantoni believes in that mission, but he seeks to go deeper.

“It's not just about careers, but also purpose in life,” he says. “We are educating the next generation of thought leaders, entrepreneurs and social visionaries.”

And all of these advancements, says Bellantoni, are the school's armor against competition and other threats. “A lot of what keeps me up at night is being able to build resistance,” says Bellantoni. “You want to build an enrollment that gives you a sense of sustainability.”

This story was updated to reflect credit for an artist's portrait in the picture.

Follow Mark Gordon on Twitter @markigordon

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