In downtown Riverside, on the third floor of the UCR/California Museum of Photography, there sits a silver cage that sets people free.
This magical place is cordoned off from the rest of the museum by a fence-like room divider, bending gently around a space called the Digital Studio.
With $45,000 in grant money from the National Endowment for the Arts, Ted Fisher, the curator, has created a place where anyone can come in and learn how to be a digital filmmaker or a web designer, using the latest cameras, software and computers.
It is a place to frolic for free in the world of the digital arts.
It also happens to be ground zero for UCR’s entrance into the quickly advancing digital world, and the working model for the future of the digital arts on the larger campus.
“The UCR/CMP model has inspired us,” said Philip Brett, associate dean in the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences. He is working with the Bourns College of Engineering on a plan to create an undergraduate major in digital arts by next fall.
“It will be a project-oriented major, a digital university of sorts,” Brett said. A history major with an idea about remodeling time would fit into the concept. Other students might be headed into computer animation or movie making. Double majors will be common.
“The digital arts are the tool to express ideas in any field imaginable,” said Brett. “We’re getting really excited about it.”
That sounds intriguing to Nick Rice, a 28-year-old pony-tailed business major at Riverside Community College. He has become a regular at the Digital Studio, where he edits video footage as a museum intern and where he is working on a virtual tour of the museum collections.
“I visited the museum one day last March and saw the cage,” recalled the Riverside resident. “I put my fingers on the metal and just started drooling.”
Curator Fisher invited him inside, and Rice has been a regular since. He said he might be interested in transferring to UCR to major in digital arts next year.
Fisher said he knows of other people who have been attracted to UCR specifically to stay near the Digital Studio. But college students are not the only ones taking advantage of the resource. Fisher estimates that 1,000 people have used the facility at least once in the last year, and about 200 worked on longer-term projects. And, he has taken the studio to the community, with a program at Riverside’s Arlington High School funded by the Maxwell H. Gluck Foundation.
He posts completed digital films on the museum’s well traveled website. Subjects include interpretations of Riverside’s Main Street from students working with the Community Digital Initiative in Riverside’s Eastside and an “Intern Yearbook” by Kelly Lane Kooser, a recent graduate of Riverside Poly High School. Almost anyone might show up on the Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday afternoons that the Digital Studio is open to the public.
Sanford Reed, one of the museum’s newer interns, comes from Canyon Lake, a 45-minute drive, to take advantage of the opportunity he found, almost by accident. “I was walking through the museum,” he said, “and I saw the cage … I thought, ‘What’s going on there?’” He is now working on two website projects, one on photographer Philip Brigandi who made stereograph images for the Keystone View Co. in the late 1800s.
Just behind Reed on one recent afternoon sits Eloisa M. De Leon, an artist in residence with UC MEXUS (UC Institute on Mexico and the United States), which is headquartered at UCR. A documentary videomaker who holds a Master of Fine Arts degree from UC San Diego, De Leon is learning digital editing techniques as well as web design. She said she was surprised to find a resource so perfect for her and so nearby.
“I was at a coffee shop reading the calendar of events for the museum, and I saw something about the Digital Studio,” she said. “I almost dropped my cup of coffee. I called Ted right away. It’s one of those things that you want to run out and tell all your friends, but you also want to keep it quiet, so it doesn’t get too crowded.”
Next month, she said, she will begin work on a photo essay of the U.S.-Mexico border done in 3D and requiring special glasses. She plans to take full advantage of the equipment at the Digital Studio, as well as the technical expertise and artistic advice of the museum staff and interns. “And it’s all for free,” she said. “That’s the most amazing aspect of it. For some of the people here, this will make a big difference in what jobs they end up taking.”
Just across the aisle from De Leon sat Heather Carawan, a photographer with a degree from Mills College. She moved to Riverside a year ago to care for her grandmother. She is now editing a documentary about her parents, Guy and Candie Carawan, musicians who were active in the civil rights movement.
Always interested in photography and film, Carawan didn’t think she was as fond of computers until she tried it. “It has turned my life around,” she said about finding the Digital Studio on a walk downtown. She signed on as an intern, learned the ropes, bought a digital camera, and took hours of footage of her parents and their friends at a reunion of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. Now she is editing the footage, while she seriously considers applying to film school.
“This has put me back on a path of photography, video and film,” Carawan said. She said the artists she has met inside the museum walls, including the woman sitting next to her, giving her advice, have inspired her.
Deborah Lefkowitz, sitting beside her, is a documentary filmmaker who came to Riverside in 1994 with her husband, Georg Michels, an associate professor of history. “Ted did a great job of recruiting me for this,” said Lefkowitz, who worked as an independent filmmaker in Boston. She not only is learning the ropes of digital media herself, but she shares her expertise in film editing and pacing with people who have less experience in the field.
“It’s wonderful to see what is essentially a media art center growing up here in the community,” she said. “It’s the best thing in Riverside.”