Art school supporters seeking reprieve for St. Paul college

An ad hoc group will ask for expansion of the College of Visual Arts board to consider its rescue plan for the St. Paul school.

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The 89-year-old College of Visual Arts in St. Paul announced in January that it will close its doors at the end this semester because of falling enrollment and rising costs.

Photo: GLEN STUBBE , Star Tribune

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The board of trustees said the College of Visual Arts will close at the end of the semester. But a group of alumni and friends of the small St. Paul art and design school aren’t ready to throw in the towel just yet.

They’ve developed what they call a turnaround plan to keep the nonprofit school open — a three-pronged proposal to streamline academic offerings, unload some of the college’s Ramsey Hill property and beef up fundraising and marketing.

And on Tuesday, they’re going to ask the six-member board to appoint a slate of seven to nine additional trustees to give their turnaround plan full consideration.

“The real question for the board is, do you want to fight to close the school or fight to keep it open?” said Rob Fowler, an attorney (and spouse of a school alumnus) who is working with CVA Action, an ad hoc group that has been working on alternatives to closing the school since midwinter.

CVA President Ann Ledy stunned students and faculty when she announced Jan. 16 that the 89-year-old college would be closing because of falling enrollment and rising costs.

She said the school, which has about 170 full- and part-time students, lacked the endowment necessary to punch through the aftershocks of the recession.

Ledy compounded the surprise a week later when she abruptly resigned. Taking her place was Susan Short, the school’s vice president and general counsel, who said Friday that it was hard to see how CVA could remain open.

“We’ll have to see what they present Tuesday,” Short said. “We haven’t seen anything from them yet that presents a viable plan, but we don’t want to prejudge it. What the college needs is a very large endowment that would help us supplement our tuition income.”

Ben Levitz, president of CVA Action, disagreed. Levitz, who owns Studio on Fire, a Minneapolis design and letterpress business, said the school didn’t have to close. Seeing the school’s books, which he agreed not to disclose, didn’t change his mind.

“It’s as much reflective of an administration that didn’t have the vision, combined with a poor marketing effort, that left it in the place where it was,” he said.

CVA Action had hoped to raise $3 million by summer but so far has collected about $70,000, not enough to save the school but helpful in hiring professionals to get the word out and develop the turnaround plan. Fowler said that plan is based on a smaller initial enrollment of 100 and is designed to have the school break even in three years.

Programs and classes that don’t attract many students would be axed and some positions cut, with the core curriculum of fine arts and design classes kept intact. The school could explore options besides a four-year degree, such as two-year or summer programs.

CVA owns three buildings and leases two, which Fowler called “a surplus.” He said the school could use real estate equity to change its financials, perhaps hanging onto only the Summit Building mansion and the gallery at Selby and Western Avenues.

The school could enlist a professional fundraiser and form community and business partnerships to build its endowment as a hedge against hard times, Fowler said. The college name could be changed to reflect its roots, he said: “It’s a uniquely St. Paul institution and we’re proud of that.”

CVA Action has expressed its concerns to Joe Spencer, Mayor Chris Coleman’s arts liaison. Levitz said he’s hoping for a letter of support from the city, which has made an appeal to artists a development priority.

The faculty is “wholeheartedly behind CVA Action’s efforts to keep the school alive,” said Julie L’Enfant, an art history professor who chairs the school’s Liberal Arts Department. She said the faculty had lost confidence in Ledy’s management and told her so last fall, but didn’t think it necessary to close the school.

“CVA has always been tuition-dependent,” she said. “We’ve never had a really robust enrollment. We’re very small and we’ve always wanted to be small, so that we can offer a lot of individual attention.”

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