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One River School wants to help you find your inner Bob Ross


Formerly the CEO of School of Rock, One River Founder Matt Ross is betting people of all ages across the country want a place to be creative and to try new artistic techniques and media.

Bob Ross, the late curly-haired PBS painter, is back in vogue in recent years. Most everyone has watched him paint at some point, and if you did, he encouraged you to cast off your fears and try it for yourself. “Talent is a pursued interest,” he reminded viewers, and the idea was that you—yes, even you—could become an artist. All you had to do was begin.

Perhaps you were inspired to the point of driving to the nearest art supply store to stock up. Going it alone on a lark is one way of investigating midlife creative sparks. Another is going into a studio stocked with everything you need, plus instructors who will help you develop your primary interests, while encouraging you to try new techniques and media along the way.

This artsy commune is a New Jersey-based franchise called One River School of Art + Design, founded by a former School of Rock CEO who aims to give Rossers of all ages the skills, supplies and space to develop their artistic abilities in a no-pressure atmosphere.

Bringing art to Main Street

One River’s Matt Ross (no relation to the afroed Ross) has an unusual resume, having spent 20 years in media and the radio business before becoming an early investor and CEO of School of Rock in 2005, taking the franchised music education chain up to 55 units. While he left the School of Rock frontman spot in 2010, he remains the owner-operator of three of the brand’s music schools in New Jersey.

This Ross left the music school for a stint as a consultant. Approaching 50, he felt the weight of the half-century mark barreling down on him, which led to questioning what he was going to do next. After some introspection and realizing he wanted to explore his budding interest in modern art, he launched One River School of Art + Design in 2012. As the brand’s growth accelerates, the CEO is hoping that, just like music, there are scores of kids and adults who want to learn more about art and technique in a low-key environment.

Having grown up with a father who was an untrained painter, Ross always had an interest in visual arts. After his time at School of Rock he took six art-focused classes at NYU to put some structure around his latest passion. His idea was originally to open a gallery, but he gravitated back to a familiar business plan that hewed to his experience on the musical end of the artistic spectrum.

“The art world was so much more misunderstood than the music space,” Ross said, noting that sentiment was especially true in the fine art world. “I started to think a little bit and reflect on, how come there are no cool art schools in my community?”

Now up to 12 units in the U.S., One River School of Art + Design is growing up and gaining the stature to move the franchise beyond the dabbling phase. The company has five franchisees, and thus far no locations have closed. The latest school will be in Port Jefferson, on Long Island in New York. Ross said additional units are in development in and around the New York City metro area.

“I describe what we’re doing as Thai food,” Ross said. “There was that one cool Thai restaurant in your community” years ago “and now they’re everywhere.” He extends that analogy to recent research linking things like artistic expression and time spent in nature with concrete health benefits, echoing how society is beginning to prioritize eating well and exercising.

While the first schools were around 4,000 square feet, One River is learning that smaller boxes in the 2,000- to 3,500-square-foot range is a sweet spot that produces better unit-level economics than more expensive spaces. That intermediate template has allowed some of the brand’s franchisees to get better deals on spaces from downsizing retailers and restaurants.

Experience has also shown that Main and Main visibility is vital with most consumers traveling the same routes day in and out, which makes it easy to add to a person’s routine. Even though a school concept isn’t a daily stop like grocery stores or gyms, Ross said that it’s worth it to keep the concept top of mind for residents of a given trade area—which underscores the brand’s wider goal of elevating art education.

“I have this belief that there’s a lot of pent-up demand and interest in doing creative things” for “people of all ages,” Ross said of the concept. “I have that left-brain, right-brain thing where I’m a business guy, but I also really understand visual art … it’s sort of like songwriting to me, and I guess I’m a creative type at the root.”

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