The design for the new Visual Design and Arts Academy (VADA) design lab and studio. | Credit: Courtesy

Ben Weininger, an alum of the Visual Arts and Design Academy (VADA) at Santa Barbara High, recalled the program as being the “underdog of the academies.” Though the academy changed his life and steered him in the right direction to build a successful company of his own, it was underfunded, he said, and many didn’t take the academy as seriously because of its arts focus.

The underdog is finally coming out on top. VADA, a school within a school that combines core academic work with project-based art and design, is launching a $6.5 million capital campaign to build a new design lab and art studio for future generations of Santa Barbara youth.

“We’ve been dreaming about this for quite a long time,” said Daniel Barnett, VADA director. “The footprint of the building is going to be on top of two nasty, old portable buildings. It’s going to totally revitalize a whole section of this historic campus — it’s sort of a very peripheral afterthought right now.”

The issue with the current classroom space — besides the fact that it’s outdated and is too cramped — is that it isn’t set up for the hands-on learning that VADA teaches. The new building would nearly double the classroom capacity and provide new technology and designated areas for students to design with tools like laser cutters and 3D printers. It would also function as an indoor-outdoor space with roll-up doors leading to outside.

“I think Dan’s design for the studio is spot-on,” Weininger said of the plans. “The previous space was so limited. It was just desks and canvasses, really.”

Weininger graduated from VADA in 2015 and went to an art school in London called Central Saint Martins. While a student in 2017, he and a few of his classmates founded Makers Cabinet, a company that develops and sells tools and accessories for drafting and design. Weininger attributes much of his success with industrial design to his experiences at VADA. 

Pond: A piece by recently graduated VADA alumna Brianna Bajonero Robledo.

Though some students like Weininger found a successful career in creative design, Barnett made it clear that most students do not continue on to arts school or an arts career after VADA. However, the academy has a 97 percent rate of its students continuing onto college. Brianna Bajonero Robledo graduated and left VADA last month. She’s heading to UC Davis not to pursue art, but rather to pursue Japanese translation. Despite the fact that she is not continuing art professionally, VADA impacted her life.

“I felt very alone freshman year, and I didn’t know anyone,” Bajonero Robledo said. “I feel like a large reason why I’m still here today — because I honestly didn’t think that I’d make it this far in life — and the reason I have a future to even look forward to is because of how genuine and how caring the VADA staff and the students are. It feels like a community.”

Bajonero Robledo said that although she doesn’t want to pursue art professionally, she will still continue it as a hobby.

Though it’s just beginning the public portion of the campaign, most of the $6.5 million has already been raised. Jeff Speer, president of Friends of VADA and the co-chair of the capital campaign, said that more than $4.7 million has already been raised through partnership with the Santa Barbara Unified School District, a matching grant from the California Department of Education, and private donations.

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