Former School of Rock CEO Wants Making Art to Be Like Taking Guitar Lessons

Casey Lesser
Aug 9, 2017 10:22PM

Courtesy of One River School.

On August 1st, it was announced that New York gallerists James and Jane Cohan, along with business leaders Steve Cohan and Jim Karr, would be spearheading the first Chicago franchise location of One River School of Art + Design. Founded by former School of Rock CEO Matt Ross in 2012, One River is a New Jersey-based art education corporation with an ambitious mission to transform art education in America.

Following the initial success of the School of Rock, a chain of suburban music schools that grew from five locations to 55 under Ross’s leadership, the entrepreneur set out to make art classes as accessible and desirable as music lessons, particularly among affluent families in suburban communities across the U.S. One River aims to support and inspire new generations of artists, as well as to create employment opportunities in the arts.

The organization currently exists in just two states: as two corporate-owned schools in New Jersey, and a franchise in Frisco, Texas. The schools offer a variety of classes for all ages—from Pre-K children through to adults—and covers various mediums of studio art and digital technology. Students can enroll on a month-to-month basis, or sign up for camps and attend in-house art exhibitions that the school hosts.

One River’s teaching philosophy seeks to enable and motivate individuals, no matter their skill or experience level, and, importantly, to make artmaking fun.

Matt Ross, Founder and CEO. Courtesy of One River School.


“Not everyone who walks in our school has to want to go to art university; we think artmaking could be like playing the guitar,” Ross says. “I didn’t study music in college, but I still pick up my guitar all the time—and I don’t think we promote that enough when it comes to art education, that it should be fun and it should be personal.” The goal is for students to want to continue to create art and refine their skills, primarily as a hobby rather than a career.

Ross is an avid collector of work by emerging artists, and it was this passion for art that led him to begin researching the landscape of art education, including the various models that exist outside of public schools and universities—from classes at nonprofits and museums to mom-and-pop storefronts and lessons taught out of people’s homes. He saw room for a new source of consistent, high-quality art education to enter the picture, particularly outside of major art cities, and sought to build a school that would deliver that.

The first school was opened in Englewood, New Jersey, in 2012, and the name originated with the site—it’s located “one river” west of New York City. “It’s actually a metaphor for the cultural gap that exists in the city and suburbia,” Ross says.

Central to filling that gap, he decided, was developing innovative methods for teaching art. Ross hired art educators with expertise in the field and charged them with developing a curriculum that could be adopted and implemented in new art schools across the country.

The core class, Art Shuffle, is offered in various iterations to children, teens, and adults. It requires students to focus on a specific project for a month, before “shuffling” to something new each month thereafter. “Really simply, it’s a journey,” Ross says. “Every month there’s a new project, new reference artist, new goals and intended outcomes, new subject matter and materials. It doesn’t get boring.”

Courtesy of One River School.

Courtesy of One River School.

So far, Ross’s strategy is paying off. The program has seen considerable success, with students regularly returning for more classes, and testifying to feeling inspired to create art. This achievement is due in part to data gathered from students’ feedback, which is used to shape the evolving format and focus of these classes—factors like how much painting or drawing should take place in a given class.

But there are certain standards maintained across the classes. They are heavily grounded in contemporary art, for instance, and whereas traditional art classes might offer up Michelangelo or Picasso as examples, at One River, students are more likely to learn about John Currin and Kara Walker.

“Imagine studying music, but having zero information about the last 50 years of music. You can study jazz, big band, classical—that’s fine—but wouldn’t you be lacking a little something if you didn’t know about The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, or even Jack White?” Ross offers. “One of the key attributes to what we’re doing is focusing on teaching art through the lens of living artists.”

Part and parcel of this are the contemporary exhibitions that the schools host, which are meant to inspire students and give them exposure to the current art world. Past shows have included major artists like Mary Heilmann, Chris Martin, and Christian Marclay, as well as more emerging names like Daniel Rios Rodriguez, Shara Hughes, and Austin Eddy.

And many of the teachers at the schools are practicing artists themselves. “We’ve got a nice profiling tool that allows us to understand who would work well within the context of our environment,” Ross explains. “It gets right down to the individual person and what their traits and approach to artmaking are like.”

Strategic tools like this one are central to One River’s operations, particularly to the school’s emphasis on evaluating students’ satisfaction. “I know it’s not easy to build and run an art school, and frankly we’re really good on the business and customer service and marketing side, and I want to make sure that people are having a great experience in the classroom too,” Ross explains.

A scientific approach has also guided the price tags for classes, which include the cost of materials. Weekly adult classes like Intro to Studio Art cost $180 per month, while the Kids Art Shuffle costs $155 per month. They’re not cheap but the price points, Ross notes, are on par with industry standards, and are necessary to meet operational expenses and to offer fair pay to teachers.

Courtesy of One River School.

And students have shown a willingness to invest in artmaking, driving increasing demand for One River’s classes. After finding his footing in Englewood—where the student pool is primarily mothers and children—Ross opened a second, corporate-owned location in Allendale, New Jersey, in January 2017. Though One River doesn’t share student admissions figures, it reports that, to date, its enrollees number is in the thousands.

In April 2017, the first One River franchise opened in Frisco, Texas. Partners looking to open franchises are given what Ross calls a “toolkit.” It includes everything ranging from curriculum to facility design, marketing materials to e-commerce. The organization also plays an instrumental role in identifying advantageous locations and communities for future franchises.

With esteemed gallerists James and Jane Cohan now joining One River as partners for its first Chicago space (with plans for more schools to come), Ross has earned a strong vote of confidence from the art world. The Cohans were already investors in One River, and had met Ross while he was purchasing art from their New York gallery.

“His vision for arts education, using contemporary art practices to engage Pre-K through seniors in artmaking, is powerful,” James Cohan said over email. “Arts education is too often left out of school curricula due to budgetary constraints. One River is serving a real need.”

Ross has high hopes of building as many as 100 schools over the next five years, though he’s choosing his partners wisely. Ideal franchise owners must have a passion for bringing art education to their community, but also the means, and the business chops.

At the time of writing, new schools are slated to open in January 2018 in Westchester and Millburn, New Jersey, and One River will soon announce franchises in Houston, Dallas, and Portland, Oregon.

While Ross has already discovered that he can keep American students engaged with One River over a course of years, there’s still a way to go. For one, the prices of classes and the locations of schools, in affluent neighborhoods, pose limits in terms of the audience that One River can reach. And for those who can afford these classes, artmaking is still nowhere near as ubiquitous as it could be.

“People spend so much time on nutrition and exercise, but what are they doing to broaden their horizons in their creative sensibility?” Ross asks. “It’s not just about making cool objects, it’s also about stretching yourself and and investing in your creative potential—which I think everyone needs today. I mean, we live in crazy times.”

Casey Lesser
Casey Lesser is Artsy’s Director of Content.