Famous Artists School Draws NY Times’ Attention

Today’s New York Times Arts & Leisure section includes a long look back at popular arts correspondence courses of the 1950s and ’60s.

Writer Randy Kennedy says “the most prominent” — Famous Artists School of Westport — “became a cultural phenomenon, a highly profitable business operating out of a gleaming Modernist office complex along the Saugatuck River.”

(Newbies, take note: that “gleaming” complex turned into the sterile, soon-to-be-vacated Save the Children headquarters on Wilton Road.)

Describing Famous Artists’ talent test, Kennedy notes: “No one, of course, failed.” Instead, they were used “to dispatch a salesman to the door, with a big leatherette binder touting the benefits of a job in art.” Some were real. Others? “A bit far-fetched.”

Norman Rockwell (center, bow tie), with some of the Famous Artists School's faculty.

Norman Rockwell (center, bow tie), with some of the Famous Artists School’s faculty. (Photo courtesy of Norman Rockwell Museum)

At its peak, FAS had more than 40,000 students. At $300 per course, that was real money pouring in. (And real postage pouring out. Famous Artists — and its offshoots, Famous Writers and Famous Photographers Schools — placed heavy demands on our post office.)

Kennedy describes another reason FAS was financially successful: “Few students ever persevered through the entire course, freeing up manpower and saving the school money.” Far fewer students ever became famous artists — let alone capitalized  ones (in both senses of the word).

Famous Artists over-expanded, and went bankrupt in 1972. Its assets were bought in 1981 by Cortina Learning International, which continues to run it from Wilton.

But Famous Artists remains tied to Westport today: in the memories of anyone who lived here during its heyday. And in the minds of the thousands of “students,” who “corresponded” back and forth using the prestigious Westport address.

(For more on the Famous Artists School in Westport, click here.)

An advertisement from the 1950s. Perhaps Famous Artists could have hired a famous agency to create a more compelling ad.

An advertisement from the 1950s. Perhaps Famous Artists could have hired a famous agency to create a more compelling ad.

15 responses to “Famous Artists School Draws NY Times’ Attention

  1. This is a wonderful “origin” business story, of which I find really interesting because it seems to be a pioneer of something we take for granted as ubiquitous without thinking of how it got started, in this case direct marketing (which became a huge part of Westport’s community)

    I’d love to how others came into being and grew, such as Glendinning (and their amazing office building) or Tauck (was it really from selling coin sorters to to banks?). I’m sure there are others that would be fascinating.

    – Chris Woods

    • The Tauck story is a fantastic one. So is (on a smaller, but nonetheless fascinating scale) the Mitchells’ tale. I’ll be sure to tell them — and others — in the months ahead. THANKS for a great idea, Chris!

      • Hi Dan:

        I’ve long had the idea that it would be great to have an online site for collecting town histories. (I even have the URL hometownhistoryproject.org).

        This post and subsequent discussion/contributions shows exactly how cool that would be! Thanks for your work – Chris Woods

  2. J.W. Kaempfer

    Dear Dan,

    I lived in Westport during the FAS heyday and remember we were all proud of having yet another “important” connection to the Arts sitting right there on the West Bank of the Saugatuck.

    What immediately struck me as interesting in the photo was that there were no Women instructors pictured. I wonder who they thought their customer was, or from whom their customer would be comfortable taking art lessons. It was certainly a different era.



  3. Holly Wheeler

    They’re lucky they sold any courses with that ad! Looks like a Chas. Addams character.
    Would love to read stories of other Westport companies. Even the ‘no longer’ ones like Fairpress.

  4. Michael R Tingley

    My mother worked as a secretary at FAS for a while in the 60s, so I have some of the course materials that I have referenced a few times in my teaching, as they were quite good. An earlier, and also still active, correspondence course, “Art Instruction School” originated in Minneapolis in the 1940s and I think they were some of the inspiration for FAS. My Dad, William, took that course in the early fifties and learned enough to have a side career as an architectural illustrator. I still have the instruction manuals from that course as well, and have always given credit to them for providing inspiration and lots of valuable information. The techniques and critiques of at least those two correspondence courses are still relevant for figuring out how to make art, especially since art education has become emaciated almost everywhere. I know they are businesses with sometimes questionable motives, but I don’t denigrate the potential for real instruction and, hey, I’m an artist who got something out of it!

  5. Tom Allen '66

    to Joe Kaempfer (you were “Joey” back in the day; my sister Suzy was in your ’65 Staples class): My mother, a NY fashion illustrator, was an FAS instructor in the mid-late 60s. There were plenty of women instructors by then but the FAS leadership was always all male. My mother called FAS “the WPA for illustrators” who were all freelance and thrilled to have an additional source of income. Mike Tingley Staples ’69, above, has been a productive and superb artist for many years in NYC, Westport and in recent years, Indiana. He also lived across the hall from me in college and provided the art for our “underground” magazine.

  6. Cathy Smith Barnett '66

    My first job, although I was in and out of college at the time, was at Famous Artists. I began working in the Photo School building (now Hawley Lane Shoes) on the Post Road in Norwalk in 1969. I was a dictaphone transcriber in the student accounts dept. and typed letters to students who simply couldn’t pay their bills for the courses that they bought. Sample letter: “Letter to Miss Joan Fitt: Dear Miss Fitt.” There were about 10 correspondents dictating letters, many inserted with pre-written paragraphs about every possible reason a student might want to quit. At the other end of the building were the crazies, the photo instructors who were also very talented and creative. When the student accounts division started to lay off people, I worked in other departments in the Wilton Road facility until the big layoff in 1972. Never will there ever be a place like FAS. I was only a cog in the great big machine but I sure loved working there! I read the article in the NYT yesterday, but thanks Dan for writing about it on 06880!

  7. Eric William Buchroeder SHS '70

    My late uncle, Al Parker, was one of the FAS founding faculty all of whom stayed on the ship until it went down. One of the byproducts of the Artist’s colony that once was Westport.

    • Tom Allen '66

      Bucky, I didn’t know Al Parker was your uncle. He was an all-star illustrator.

      • Eric William Buchroeder SHS '70

        TA: Al married my dad’s oldest sister, my Aunt Evelyn in the 1920’s if you can believe it. They met as art students in St. Louis and lived a long and happy life together but both passed on in the 1980’s. My mother and father posed for numerous magazine illustrations of Uncle Al’s back in the glory days. I’ve posted a couple of the originals on my FB page (which hang in our study in OH).

  8. James Holmes

    Looks like a classic pyramid scheme to me….

    • Eric William Buchroeder SHS '70

      Not a pyramid scheme. A typical 1950’s era “you can leave the rat-race and live the life of your dreams like I did” value proposition that convinced people to ignore reality and pushed the “get rich quick” button that is the cornerstone of the American psyche both then and now. All artists are starving at one time or another; some when they start and some never stop. FAS was a little light on pointing that out to its prospective students.

  9. Betty Lou Cummings

    My husband, Tom, was a corresponding student to the Famous Artist School while we lived in Texas many years ago,..Tom was in the Air Force. there. We still have the books etc. that they sent of course…they are our treasures. And to think we decided to live in Westport,,,47 years ago….because of artist community …but much, much more…Westport has it all…Sincerely, Betty Lou Cummings