After outcry and with clock ticking, art college board weighs options

Rally at College of VIsual Arts
Ben Levitz, left, an alumnus of the College of Visual Arts and president of CVA Action, speaks to supporters at a rally to protest the planned closing of the college in St. Paul, Minn., on Tuesday, April 2, 2013.
MPR Photo/Marianne Combs

The College of Visual Arts in St. Paul is set to close in June because of declining enrollment in a tough economy. But a group called CVA Action is trying to mount a rescue mission.

It has been a pivotal week for the 90-year-old institution. A recent gathering of about a hundred College of Visual Arts alumni, faculty and students took on the air of a 1960s-style demonstration. Drummers, chanters and sign holders occupied the lawn of the CVA administrative building on Summit Avenue.

But it wasn't a protest: They were showing support for a plan to bring the school back from the brink of extinction. Considering the student body of CVA is only 170 students, it was a sizable turnout.

Ben Levitz, an alumnus of CVA and president of the recently established group CVA Action, said that a small and unrepresentative board decided to close the school.

"It is unconscionable to us that a board of record low numbers made this decision," Levitz said. "Traditionally, the board has been in the 17-person range, and this board that made this decision was six people."

Levitz wants the CVA to more than double its board and to include alumni and faculty. His group recommends selling several college properties to increase the school's immediate cash reserves. CVA Action's plan will put the school back in the black within three years, Levitz said.

Senior Tara Shaffer, who supports the plan, said that other, larger art schools simply cannot offer the same education that CVA does.

Jim Rubenstein
Jim Rubenstein, chairman of the board at the College of Visual Arts in St. Paul, Minn., says that after efforts to increase the enrollment and endowment, the board decided that the college was no longer a sustainable model. He says he's not surprised by the emotional response of many people connected to the school, and the effort to keep it open.
MPR Photo/Marianne Combs

"The personal care provided by teachers is unimaginable," Shaffer said. "Every teacher I've ever had still knows me on a first-name basis. Some of them call me or email me. And that amount of community is so rare anywhere, not just in college, but anywhere."

Shaffer said the current board must allow newcomers to join and make way for a new vision.

So far CVA Action has raised about $70,000 toward saving the college. But according to the board, the school needs $3 million to $5 million if it is to stay open.

Chairman Jim Rubenstein said that after several efforts to increase the school's enrollment and endowment, the board decided that the College of Visual Arts was no longer a sustainable model.

"We had had several years of financial struggling," Rubenstein said. "For about three out of the last five years, we had to cut or postpone payments to our faculty and staff and make other serious budget cuts -- we were running in the red."

In addition, the school enrollment dropped suddenly in the fall of 2012, just when the college was counting on an increase.

The board decided its greatest responsibility was to find a way to close the school in an orderly and dignified way; to complete the current school year and allow seniors to graduate; give full credits to underclass students; and have enough money to provide severance for faculty and staff, as well as scholarships for students who transferred.

CVA Action
At a rally on Tuesday, April 2, 2013, members of CVA Action include current and former students and faculty members of the College of Visual Arts in St. Paul, Minn. The group was protesting the planned closing of the 90-year-old college in June.
MPR Photo/Marianne Combs

"That's the reasoning for what we did," he said. "We didn't want to come to a situation where we kept trying other things and kept running out of cash and have to close the doors in the middle of a semester."

Rubenstein said he was not surprised by the emotional response of many people connected to the school and the effort to keep it open. He, too, wishes it could stay open.

The CVA Action plan is optimistic, Rubenstein said, especially given that CVA has always had a difficult time raising money from alumni.

"Over the years, we've had many alumni give in-kind contributions, but the real cash donations that help sustain and build an endowment have been very minimal," he said.

Levitz of CVA Action countered that for 90 years the College of Visual Arts has managed to get by on a shoestring budget. He hoped the effort to save the school will galvanize enough support to keep it open for another 90.

The college board will meet Tuesday night to review the proposed action plan. It will also vote on whether to allow new members to join just three months before the school is slated to close.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.