My first brush with the Art Institute of Indianapolis loomed large one evening last fall as I drove north on Keystone Avenue. Emblazoned on a billboard for the Pyramids — a city icon — were the words “The Art Institute of Indianapolis.” I rubbed my eyes to make sure I read it right. A few months later, I’m touring the same Pyramids — or rather, one of them — as the home of said Art Institute of Indianapolis; a reality, I learned, not some crazy joke. I mean, we already have Herron, right? And what about the University of Indianapolis? The Art Institute of Indianapolis, part of a national chain (with one school in Canada) comprising 72 higher-learning institutions in 24 states owned by the publicly traded Education Management Corporation (EMDC), is indeed for real. Classes officially began on Jan. 9. Students were actually in those classes — I saw them myself. Having covered the art scene here for more years than I care to count, I was taken aback that a “chain store,” for-profit approach to teaching college-level art was in our midst. But after touring the sleek corporate-style facilities and meeting with Art Institute of Indy President Tony Mediate and his PR representative from Synergy, Cheryl Reed, I was largely reassured. “We’re not really quote unquote an art school,” Mediate told me. “We’re not teaching people to be the next Vincent Van Gogh or Salvador Dali.” That, he suggests, is Herron’s job — and U of I farther south. Whether those institutions’ graduates find gainful employment post-graduation or not, or become the proverbial “starving artist,” it’s a mandate of sorts for Art Institute schools. And Mediate sports some statistics to prove it. The Art Institute of Atlanta, for instance, reported that 344 out of 393 students who were “available for employment” within six months of graduation found gainful employment at an average salary of $29,176 — one assumes in their field of study. Similar statistics, in the 85-93 percent range, were reported by other Art Institutes in the EMDC collective, of which there are 32. But it’s decidedly the Indianapolis market that AI is out to serve, both coming and going — a market that, Mediate believes, is ready for trained graduates. Specifically, Indianapolis-area high school students and recent high school graduates are being marketed to, and they’re offered four different degree options (although these may expand in coming years): bachelor of science degrees in interior design, interactive media design and graphic design, plus a two-year’s associate’s degree in graphic design. While there are admission standards, they’re not as rigorous as Herron or U of I; Art Institute applicants are required to have graduated from high school, but no entrance exams are required, and there’s no minimum high school GPA requirement either. That doesn’t mean it’s a shoe-in. Students “interview,” and they have to write an essay and take a skills assessment test. And the tuition is nothing to sniff at either. At a hefty $353 per credit hour, that’s $67,776 for a four-year degree — significantly higher than Herron. Other Art Institutes in the country also offer programs in game art and design and the culinary arts — a potential for this market, Mediate says. “There’s not a lot of competition” for degree programs in culinary arts in Central Indiana, Mediate says, while certificate programs and classes do exist here. So what sets the Art Institute of Indianapolis apart? “We do have requirements,” Mediate assures. “We do want people who are serious — without a portfolio [upon graduation] no one will hire you.” In addition, Mediate says, “Our programs are scrutinized at our own request by the industry.” Program Advisory Committees, or PACs, review the school’s curriculum and methodology, and often serve as guest lecturers. These same entities are potential employers for AI graduates, of course; and Mediate feels there’s a strong need for educated design professionals — and so do many in the design community. Mediate has connected with representatives of the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) and International Interior Design Association (ISID) local chapters to get their seal of approval. Mediate quotes Myron Cromer, associate of the Corporate Studio at CSO Schenkel Shultz and president of the Indiana Chapter of IIDA: “Professional interior designers add more than embellishment to spaces, they protect the health, safety and welfare of the public by enhancing the places where we live, work and play.” AI’s spin has been that not anyone can be an interior designer. Reality TV celebrity Ty Pennington of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition is not just a former carpenter who looks good making interiors look good; even if he makes it look easy, he is experienced: He was educated at the Art Institute of Atlanta and the Atlanta College of Art. In fact, the success of such “celebrity” designers is credited for the upsurge in interest in the field — and it’s this wave that Mediate sees the Art Institute of Indianapolis riding on. “Just because we like it internally, we have to make sure there’s a market out there for it,” Mediate says. And so they did their homework: “field-testing” the concept of a skills-oriented design school — as distinct from a fine art school — and those in the field gave it the thumbs up. “We liked this market when we looked at it … there are no programs just like this.” To see for yourself what it’s all about, the Art Institute of Indianapolis will hold a community open house on Wednesday, Jan. 25, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the lobby of Building 1 at the Pyramids Office Complex at 3500 Depauw Blvd. Deputy Mayor Steve Campbell is promised to be in attendance, as well as other city “dignitaries.” The event is free and open to the public. For more information, visit www.aii.edu/indianapolis or call 317-613-4800.