Why So Many Independent Art Colleges are Shutting Their Doors

The closure of independent art colleges and their absorption by larger institutions tracks with national trends, but there's more going on than meets the eye.

“It has been a challenging time for art and design colleges,” Deborah Obalil, executive director of the Rhode Island-based Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design (AICAD), told Observer. That’s putting it mildly.

Sign Up For Our Daily Newsletter

By clicking submit, you agree to our <a href="http://observermedia.com/terms">terms of service</a> and acknowledge we may use your information to send you emails, product samples, and promotions on this website and other properties. You can opt out anytime.

See all of our newsletters
a group of people standing in a well-lit, empty room
Members of “Save The Corcoran” and students/alumni of The Corcoran College of Art and Design at The Corcoran Gallery of Art in 2014. Photo by Yue Wu/The Washington Post via Getty Images

In the past decade, several AICAD schools have closed, including the San Francisco Art Institute (currently up for sale after foreclosure), Lyme Academy College of Art in Connecticut, Oregon College of Art and Craft in Portland and Memphis College of Art in Tennessee, as well as most of the roughly forty for-profit Art Institutes. Some were saved—often through association with another institution. The Corcoran College of Art and Design, for example, was taken over by George Washington University in 2014. Watkins College of Art & Design in Nashville, Tennessee was absorbed by nearby Belmont University in 2020. And the School of the Museum of Fine Arts of Boston became part of Tufts.

AICAD had forty-two member institutions at its peak but now has thirty-nine, and only because the organization began admitting schools not focused on traditional art and design programs, such as the New York School of Interior Design and Woodbury University in Burbank, which is focused primarily on business administration and architecture.

SEE ALSO: When Is an Art Sale Simply Unfair and When Is It Fraud?

“We expect that we will see more closures and mergers in the future,” Obalil said. “Sometimes closing is the better option if you can’t find an appropriate merger partner, as we’ve certainly seen with some less successful mergers. In some ways, it might have been better if they just closed.”

Some mergers, such as that of Watkins College of Art & Design with the Christian church-affiliated Belmont University, are not without controversy. On the positive side, Obalil noted that “the [Watkins] merger did maintain some opportunity for studying art and design in Tennessee, which was shrinking fast with the closure of Memphis College of Art.”

Another merger—that of Tufts University and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston—was perhaps less jarring, as the two institutions had an established combined degree program harkening back to the 1980s in which students from one school could take courses at the other. However, each school had its own culture, which according to Nate Harrison, dean of academic affairs at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University, caused some “bumps in the road. It’s a work in progress.” Tufts applicants tend to be at the top of their high school classes academically, while art school applicants are more focused on the quality of their portfolios than GPAs and SAT scores.

“Our admissions have gotten more rigorous,” Harrison said, which affects art students more than traditional academic applicants. Additionally, BFA students at Tufts do not receive grades for arts courses (in favor of a pass or no pass assessment) while academic classes are graded traditionally. Academic students at Tufts who take studio art courses sometimes find this disconcerting. It’s a work in progress.

Financial pressures led to many of the closures and mergers, Obalil said. Several now-shuttered institutions pursued large, capital-intensive building projects. “Oftentimes, when this happens, it’s with the expectation that with investment in physical infrastructure, there will be increased enrollment, so they think they need to expand their physical footprint.” When projections do not come to pass, the institutions are faced with an excessive debt load, threatening their survival.

Ron Jones, one of the last presidents of Memphis College of Art, admitted that the school wracked up significant debt in the early part of the new millennium in the same way many Americans did—”purchasing real estate at top dollar with the expectation that it would continue to increase in value, provide financial security and a source of future income. Instead, real estate prices plummeted by the end of the decade, leaving the art school with debts it could not pay and an endowment that was shrinking markedly.”

Keeping up with the latest trends and technologies in a variety of disciplines also presents a challenge for already cash-strapped institutions. This is most critical, Obalil explained, in “design fields,” where technological advances keep moving the minimum requirements for professionals entering those fields. For example, 3-D modeling was a nice-to-have skill in many design fields not that long ago—you could get an entry-level job without it. Now it’s a must-have entry-level skill recent graduates are expected to have. Institutions with relevant programs must update the curriculum so students can compete in rapidly changing job markets.

Yet another factor in the demise of art colleges, Obalil said, is that “many began as community-based arts organizations before they became higher ed institutions, and that culture seems to have maintained at the board level.” In other words, their elevation to colleges from community centers seldom involved bringing in different board and trustee members with “a depth of understanding of higher education.” This accurately describes the rise and fall of Lyme Academy College of Arts, which launched as a non-degree community art school in 1976 and developed a BFA program that earned it entry into the AICAD in the 1990s but ran out of money and energy when its principal financial backer, Elizabeth Gordon Chandler, died in 2006.

The closure of independent art colleges and their absorption by larger institutions also tracks with national trends affecting liberal arts colleges and state universities in the U.S. Fewer people are applying to pursue higher education (referred to in the education field as the “enrollment cliff”) as the cost of earning a diploma continues to rise, and more high school age students are questioning the value of a degree—particularly if all that degree guarantees is years of paying off student loans. And when college degrees in general are viewed as being too expensive with a low ROI, a studio art degree—e.g., a Bachelor of Fine Arts—may look like even more of a luxury. “Affordability is a concern,” Obalil noted, adding that “art is part of a group of disciplines that are not remunerated well in the marketplace of jobs.”

Tuition at art colleges isn’t necessarily higher than that of other institutions, but art students may ultimately pay more than their counterparts at comparable liberal arts schools because most independent art colleges have little to no endowments and are unable to provide much aid to needy students. Additionally, art students have higher materials costs—they usually purchase their own art supplies on top of the books assigned in academic courses. But according to one U.S. Department of Education report, most of the colleges with the highest net tuition (the cost of attendance minus grants and scholarships) are art colleges, conservatories and schools of architecture. Topping the list of the twenty most expensive schools are CalArts, Ringling College of Art and Design and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and three others on that list are Pratt Institute, Otis College of Art and Design and the Art Center College of Design.

Closures and mergers at independent art colleges don’t reflect a lack of interest in art and design fields, Obalil asserted, although “we’ve seen the decline of fine arts as a major, not just in AICAD institutions, but overall in the United States over the last decade-plus, and I think the issues of affordability and higher education are certainly a part of that.” In fact, interest in these fields remains high, but that interest has to compete against the utilitarianism that we have, for better or for worse, attached to higher education.

“Art may not be a discipline that’s remunerated well, but it is necessary,” she added. “We as a society, as a government, haven’t quite figured out how to balance those two things.”

Why So Many Independent Art Colleges are Shutting Their Doors