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Sunday, February 5, 2023

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The cast of "Admetus" poses for a photograph in front of the Normal School main building in 1914. (Credit: SDSU Special Collections) The cast of "Admetus" poses for a photograph in front of the Normal School main building in 1914. (Credit: SDSU Special Collections)

120 Years of Leadership in the Arts

SDSU's commitment to excellence in the arts dates back to the founding of the school.
By Mara Parker, Teresa Monaco and Anna Waletzko

This year, San Diego State University celebrates the 120th anniversary of its founding as a teacher training school. Now a top public research university, SDSU is an economic driver of San Diego, a source of the region's workforce and a community of faculty, staff and students committed to serving the city.

San Diego State University’s commitment to excellence in the arts dates back to 1897 and the decision by President Samuel Black to include music professor Florence Derby among the school’s original faculty. That commitment continues today with three schools dedicated to the creative and performing arts as well as the campus-wide initiative, Arts Alive SDSU.


The School of Art and Design was officially dedicated in 1928, three years after San Diego State College hired its first drawing instructor, Sallie Crock Stocker. Well-known progressive artist Everett Gee Jackson became the first department chair and served in the position for three decades, from 1933 to 1963. Jackson drew upon Depression-era funds for relief and recovery to hire Donal Hord, considered San Diego’s most influential sculptor at the time, to create an Aztec warrior, which would become the symbol of the college. The statue was dedicated on Founder’s Day in 1937.

Over the past 120 years, many alumni from the school have carved out impressive careers in the art world. John Baldessari, Deborah Butterfield and Andrea Zittel have showcased their work at the opening of SDSU’s Downtown Gallery in 2009. The gallery, located in the historic Electra Building in downtown, has served as an exhibition space for contemporary art and design by artists from around the world.

Dramatic Art

Construction of the Little Theatre (now used as a large lecture hall) was completed in 1930 as part of San Diego State College’s new campus on Montezuma Mesa. The Gold and White yearbook described the theatre’s dedication saying, “Attention was diverted from studies and focused on the Alumni play which dedicated the Little Workshop Theatre. Older students hailed the return of veteran actors in Arms and the Man and new members found the play entertainingly presented.”

Notable alumni from what is now called the School of Theatre, Television, and Film include Gregory Peck (American actor), Art Linkletter (Canadian-born American radio and television personality), Kathleen Kennedy (Oscar-nominated film producer), Cleavon Little (American stage, film, and television actor) and Marion Ross (American actress from the television show "Happy Days").

Music and Dance

The School of Music and Dance was created in 1993 with the merger of what had been two separate departments. Throughout SDSU’s history, music majors have composed the university’s various alma maters or school songs. Many music teachers and band directors in San Diego are alumni of the school. For decades, a dance degree from SDSU was a degree in physical education. In the 1980s, the faculty obtained approval for the Bachelor of Arts in Dance, and in 2003, the BFA in dance was put in place, resulting in the university's first full undergraduate degree program in dance. The SDSU Marching Band has a colorful history stretching as far back as the school’s football team. At the groundbreaking ceremony on Montezuma Mesa in 1929, the band played a new march by Band Director Fred Beidleman. He composed the piece especially for the occasion, and its title became the band’s official name—“The Marching Aztecs.”

An arts-rich future

The rich foundation in the arts created at the inception of the university continues to serve students today. What began as one music teacher in a small classroom 120 years ago, has grown to include a campus-wide initiative—Arts Alive SDSU—which provides opportunities for students, faculty and staff to engage in transformational arts interactions as part of an arts-rich, robust educational community. In 2016-17, more than 133,000 people engaged in the arts at SDSU, continuing its legacy as a crucial part of the university.