MONTANA AVE — Malissa Feruzzi Shriver is a Santa Monica superwoman.
Any given day you can find her taking tennis lessons, spending time with her family or lobbying for change in Washington, D.C. But, the 49-year-old wife of former Santa Monica Mayor Bobby Shriver wasn’t always part of the state’s social elite.
“I’m not a Shriver, I married someone with that name,” she said. “I thought if I can make a difference and leverage that name I would.”
Born Malissa Feruzzi to Italian parents, the California native realized at an early age the paramount importance of art and expression.
“I think art was in my blood, I love art,” she said.
So important was art that it became her life’s mission to protect it and insure that it has a place in society for future generations.
“All the things I thought would disqualify me from being an effective advocate made me perfect for the job,” said Feruzzi Shriver, who retired as chair of the California Arts Council this year and feels art advocates have done a poor job in this country. “It’s sad, a lot of these kids don’t have an advocate, the future of this country is at risk.”
While at UCLA, Shriver earned a degree in women’s studies in 1989. Shriver’s parents pressured her to earn a practical degree that would keep her financially secure.
She chose a different route.
“I was an artist, I never thought I would be a politician,” she said.
Later in life, Feruzzi Shriver was appointed by her brother-in-law, then Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, as chair of the council in 2005 and served two terms.
Feruzzi Shriver has tirelessly defended the arts, having been involved with myriad advocacy groups such as the California Alliance for Arts Education, the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, and the Western States Art Federation.
More impressive than her resume is the fact that during her career as a vanguard of the arts, she has never been paid for her work, sacrificing her own happiness and leisure time to tackle the problem of ineffective and outdated education.
“I know it will take some time away from my kids and my painting, but it’s worth it,” she admits.
Her efforts have not gone unnoticed by those in her field.
“I cannot emphasize enough the incredible work that Malissa has done on behalf of the arts and for arts education in the state of California,” said California Arts Council Director Craig Watson. “Her dedication, passion, and extraordinary effort in this unpaid position is unprecedented.”
To Feruzzi Shriver, art education is disappearing from California schools in an alarming manner.
“If I see that threatened it riles me up,” she said.
Since the benefits of art are easily felt but hard to quantify, decisive action must be taken to insure its future.
“I don’t know why people, as citizens, don’t feel an obligation to protect art,” she asked. “I would not be considered a successful student without painting, drawing, and arts and crafts.”
A fallacy found when reasoning against art is that only artists and those seeking art degrees benefit from learning how to sculpt, or play an instrument. Aside from promoting creativity, it teaches your mind the process of inquiry. Studying art is training your mind to think critically, she believes.
“What art is and how important it is, is misunderstood and undervalued,” Feruzzi Shriver said. “It’s about values, you don’t invest in what you don’t value.”
Although art programs have been universally cut around the nation, the downtrodden subject is still a college requirement and necessary for transfer.
“If it weren’t important curriculum it wouldn’t be in schools,” she said.
Having grown up around artists and her father a sculptor, the mother of two now encourages artful thinking around the house and among her own family. Bobby Shriver plays guitar in his spare time. The former mayor also has a passion for photography, and the Shriver’s eldest daughter Natasha is a singer and songwriter.
“I have to do it, as my duty,” said Feruzzi Shriver.
This sense of devotion is what distinguishes Shriver from other advocates. The conviction can be felt in her words and echoed in her actions, the moral imperative to act is inescapable.
“That’s the ineffable thing about art, you feel it, but you don’t know why you feel it.”
Feruzzi Shriver’s contributions to California’s arts education have been meaningful and numerous as she continues to be a champion for creativity. Look for her this year to start a new ad campaign with famed architect Frank Gehry in her ongoing effort to spark interest in art.
“People react and respond to beautiful things,” she said. “They’re attracted to it, it’s sexy and young. It’s art.”