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Rockin’ the art world at One River School


One River School of Art + Design

One River School of Art + Design brings out the creativity in students from kindergartners through adults. Classes range from painting to digital to sculpture.

Matt Ross wants to rock the art world. The founding CEO of the School of Rock believes anyone can learn to draw, just as he believed anyone could learn to play music. “It’s the time people are willing to put into it,” he says. “There’s a process, a technique. You don’t learn it all in a day.”

That said, the art collector, lover of art history and pragmatist admits not all students are going to go on to get a gallery showing. But his latest project, One River School of Art + Design, isn’t looking to give Picasso—the first artist to become a rock star in his lifetime—a run for the money, any more than all his former students at the School of Rock went on to become the next Prince or Eric Clapton.

“A lot of people make art in solitude, not looking for accolades,” he points out. Taking art classes offers a welcome respite from the overscheduled lives that afflict both children and adults, he adds.

While most people understand the value of music lessons, art is more outside the mainstream, especially now that school funding for art programs is as dried up as leftover oil paints. Art instruction is more readily available in large cities where there’s an abundance of museums and colleges, but classes for older children and adults are harder to find in the suburbs, Ross contends.

“We’re not sit-and-draw or drink-and-draw programs,” he says, referring to the popular franchises where groups follow instructions on how to complete a painting while sipping wine.  

What they are, he explains, is an art school for a range of art lovers from high school students who want to create a portfolio for college to aspirational artists to kids exploring different mediums. The mix for the prototype is 65 percent kindergarten through 12th grade and 35 percent adults, but Ross thinks the newer schools will be closer to 50/50. “Parents spend so much time making sure their kids have learnings, they neglect their own creativity,” he says.

The only school open is in Englewood, New Jersey (one river from the thriving art scene in NYC, thus the name.) The two-story, 3,000-plus square-foot building houses about 45 classes a week taught by professional artists, many with master’s degrees.

It’s a subscription program, where students pay an average of $120 to $230 a month depending on the class. Materials are provided, but supplies can also be purchased in the retail gallery, another profit center for the franchise. Classes range from drawing fundamentals to digital art, cartooning to ceramics. “We wind up with a license to take students in a direction that they don’t see coming,” he says.

Class content rotates so students can join at any time. They offer one-month classes as a rule, he says, which is not as intimidating as signing up for a semester. Unlike public programs, there are no subsidies at One River, therefore he stresses to his staff, “we have to have great service.”

The décor is state-of-the-art: “cool, but not too cool,” Ross describes it. “It’s not cutesy kid.” The buildout was designed by Lee Skolnick, a “world-class architect” who has designed museums.  The curriculum is proprietary and interactive.

A second corporate-operated school is coming soon to Allentown, and the first franchisee is building one in Frisco, Texas.

Matt Ross

Matt Ross, founder, with one of his aspiring artists. Ross, also the founding CEO of School of Rock, believes anyone can learn to draw, just like anyone can learn to play music.

Signing on for six

A longtime acquaintance of Ross’s, Dean Tarpley saw what he was doing with One River and wanted in. “I’m not an artist, but I loved what Matt was building,” he says. He signed on for six schools, the first currently under construction. “We have the money to do 20 locations,” he says about his company Tarpley Capital.

He chose Frisco, outside of Dallas-Ft. Worth, because its accolades include Best Place to Live (Money magazine), Best Places to Relocate (Forbes) and Best Place to Raise an Athlete (Men’s Journal). Toyota has its headquarters there, as well as the Dallas Cowboys.

“In Texas so much emphasis is on sports, there’s an arts void and those kids get left out,” Tarpley says. (Good luck getting Men’s Journal to praise it for Best Place to Raise an Artist).

Tarpley, who started out owning video stores before Blockbuster put him and his peers out of business, thinks he’s found the perfect location for the first school, a strip mall with “lots of foot traffic.” Neighbors include a destination ice cream store, a Mathnasium and a popular workout facility for moms.

“If we come out of the gate strong, I could see opening two to three simultaneously,” he says.

The schools cost $185,000 to $288,000 to open, including the franchise fee of $45,000, with an 8 percent royalty and 1 percent brand fund. Technology, such as iPads and LED screens, adds costs on the front end, as well as the need for adequate square-footage. In addition to classrooms, space is devoted to a gallery to show students’ and local artists’ work, plus a retail space.

While he focuses on the visual arts, Ross isn’t giving up on music, just stimulating another one of his senses. He is still a partner in School of Rock and has an investment in three franchises. His goal for One River is 10 schools by the end of 2017. He’s not looking for artists with an eye for color and design, just investors with their eyes wide open. “It’s for the entrepreneur who wants the coolest, creative business in their towns,” he says.

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