The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

August 24, 2005 Wednesday Home Edition

SECTION: Living; Pg. 1E;
LENGTH: 1891 words
HEADLINE: Art school uproar;
Amid protests, Savannah college swallows Woodruff institution after board vote today
BYLINE: TOM SABULIS
BODY:
It's a sign of the times, as more aspiring artists pursue careers in commercial and technical arts. Or it's another blow against the classic fine arts education --- painting, sculpture --- the mainstay of small arts colleges.
Or maybe it's both. What's certain is that as Atlanta closes one chapter of its art history today, it begins another. Woodruff Arts Center trustees will vote this afternoon to merge the Atlanta College of Art with the Savannah College of Art and Design. The second-largest property owner in its hometown, the school has been credited as the savior of downtown Savannah --- even more so than John Berendt's tourism-igniting book "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil."
SCAD opened a satellite campus on Peachtree Street in March, is working to renovate the old Peters Mansion on Ponce de Leon and will lease the ACA dorm and campus space from the Woodruff.
The decision --- already approved at two ACA board meetings, although not without dissent --- effectively marks the end of a 100-year-old school that began with uppercrust ladies taking painting classes on the upstairs floor of a Midtown mansion. ACA has struggled with declining enrollment for the past three years. The school, which has 330 students and 25 full-time faculty members, will remain intact through the current academic year and then cease operations as a Woodruff division next summer. ACA students and faculty who choose to remain --- teachers have been assured jobs --- will become part of SCAD-Atlanta.
Woodruff leaders say the merger gives ACA students greater choices and flexibility at what is the largest art college in the country (6,700 students, 311 full-time faculty), one with broader curricula and impressive resources.
It also reflects a national increase in students opting for applied arts majors --- even at tiny schools like ACA, where some 60 percent major in technical fields --- as opposed to more traditional fine arts subjects such as printmaking and graphic design.
For SCAD, it means a bigger foothold in Atlanta, where it already has a gallery (called Savannah) and a technologically tricked-out facility at 1600 Peachtree St., in the former headquarters of the Internet company IXL.
Still, the merger won't have come without a messy fight.
Many ACA students, faculty and parents, along with national art-college leaders, have condemned the move, saying it "will destroy the ACA's 100-year legacy."
"Words like 'merger' are meaningless. This is a closing of the Atlanta College of Art," says Bill Barrett, executive director of the Alliance of Independent Colleges of Art and Design, a consortium of 36 schools. The alliance has sent a letter to Woodruff trustees protesting the merger.
"This reduces diversity; it does not increase it," Barrett says. "A choice is being eliminated --- the choice to attend a small, intimate art school."
Opponents (www.aca100.com) have charged the Woodruff --- the nonprofit parent company of the college, Alliance Theatre, Atlanta Symphony, High Museum and Young Audiences of Atlanta --- with secretly plotting to sell off the institution without informing administrators and families of their intentions. (Another protest is scheduled for today.)
"Everything has been done behind our backs," says Larry Anderson, head of the ACA drawing department. "That's what makes us suspicious."
Opponents have raised serious concerns about SCAD, whose contentious history includes academic censure by the American Association of University Professors over issues of unfair dismissal of faculty, among other things, and lack of accreditation from the field's established oversight organization, the National Association of Schools of Art and Design. It offers no tenure to teachers, only one-year contracts.
Like a corporation
Parents have criticized the move, too.
SCAD "is like a Wal-Mart to me," says Steven Ballas of Fairfield, Conn., whose son, Elia, transferred from SCAD to ACA more than a year ago. "They spend a lot of money on advertising. It reminded me more of a corporation."
Elizabeth Weber, 18, a sophomore from Augusta majoring in painting, says the prospect of an ACA-SCAD merger puts her college career up in the air.
"I chose to go to ACA," says Weber, "because it places a lot more emphasis on fine arts, not so much the commercial aspects."
SCAD leaders point to their large enrollment as proof of their success. It was recently named one of the 25 "hottest" colleges in the country by Newsweek magazine. "The Hollywood special-effects-company recruiters," the magazine notes, "have SCAD on their speed dials."
The school sprawls over 2 million square feet in Savannah, where its 24-hour shuttle buses are as much a part of the landscape as the moss-draped oaks. It was founded in 1978 in a Romanesque-revival, red-brick armory by Paula and Richard Rowan, a former Atlanta elementary school teacher and her husband.
It's also an unorthodox nonprofit institution that can resemble a corporation.
A review of the school's most recent tax documents, for fiscal year 2002-03, shows a family-dominated organization headed by President and co-founder Paula Wallace (formerly Rowan, born Paula Poetter), whose compensation was listed at $558,346, which is in line with what presidents of Georgia's major universities make. Her husband, Glenn Wallace, vice president of SCAD's physical plant, received more than $200,000 in total compensation. Her ex-husband, mother and sister also make top salaries.
Murky process
Money is at the heart of the issue for the Woodruff, too.
Arts Center leaders say stagnant enrollment and sagging revenues prompted the Atlanta College of Art to seek new ways to grow.
According to ACA Board Chairman John Spiegel, the board wanted to explore collaborations with SCAD once it announced last year that it was opening an Atlanta campus. Details are murky, but talks Spiegel apparently initiated quickly escalated beyond typical exchange ideas, like sharing facilities or allowing students from each school to take classes at the other.
Once a merger became a possibility, only a few people at the Woodruff other than Spiegel knew of it, including Neil Williams, chairman of the Woodruff board. Spiegel says executive committee members of the ACA board were gradually informed of the proposal as it progressed. Other board members were left in the dark.
Top administration officials, including ACA President Ellen Meyer, reportedly did not find out about the deal with SCAD until a few weeks before the board vote. Meyer has repeatedly declined to be interviewed. "We're all shocked," said Kathy Minarik, a vice president for development at the college.
Spiegel defended the secrecy.
"It wasn't clear from the very beginning of our talking that this could be worked out in a way that was advantageous for both organizations," he said. "There was a school year going on. We did not want to disrupt the organization and the school process that was in place. It was absolutely necessary to have something that was in concrete form to take to ... our constituents, rather than just an off-the-wall idea. Maybe we did it wrong, but that's how we did it. "
On July 25, the ACA board, in a 10-9 vote, stunned students, teachers and staff by voting to recommend that the college be folded into SCAD-Atlanta. A second meeting on Monday, hastily called to address concerns and include more members, resulted in a wider majority in favor.
"In 100 years, Atlanta College of Art has completed what it set out to do," says Shelton Stanfill, president of the Woodruff, "to grow and advance the visual arts community in Atlanta. It has paved the way for a larger and more diverse arts institution of higher learning, of which it will be a critical component."
Sinking enrollment
It's not difficult to see why merger talks might have perked up ears on the Woodruff board.
In November 2001, the school announced ambitious plans to boost enrollment, then at 400 students, by 25 percent within five years. That anticipated increase was factored into the building of a new residence hall, designed by superstar architect Renzo Piano, to accommodate up to 500 students.
Four years later, enrollment has fallen nearly 20 percent, to 330.
Enrollment slippage meant falling income, which hampered future growth.
The college usually breaks even, only after an infusion of millions from the Woodruff. In 2003, for example, ACA had operating revenue of $6.6 million --- $5.7 million of it from tuition and fees --- with expenses of $8.7 million.
However, once the college received its annual allocation from the Woodruff, plus investment income and an endowment distribution, it managed a surplus of $103,127.
SCAD's operating budget for the coming year, by contrast, is $180 million.
All signs indicate that the merger with SCAD-Atlanta is a done deal, even before today's vote. Woodruff and SCAD leaders talk about the future in terms of when rather than if. SCAD President Wallace says her school is already planning to rename its library in honor of ACA. And the Atlanta school's history, she says, will be detailed in future SCAD catalogs.
Meanwhile, Kevin Conlon --- SCAD's dean of undergraduate studies --- can be found these days in ACA classroom space at the Woodruff, helping with the transition.
Spiegel, former chief financial officer for SunTrust Banks, called the deal a "win-win" for the ACA, SCAD and Atlanta. The SCAD name will attract many more art students; Wallace says she has received "thousands" of inquiries about SCAD-Atlanta. And its aggressive marketing and renovation work will make for a more vibrant scene, Woodruff officials say.
"This is not viewed as closing an institution," Spiegel says. "This is viewed as bringing strengths of two educational institutions together that provides really substantial base and mass to grow from."
Says Williams, chairman of the Woodruff board: "The Atlanta College of Art is not a [financially] failing institution, but it has limited resources; that's just the truth. And greater resources allow greater opportunity."
However it's defined, the new SCAD-Atlanta has clear benefits for the Woodruff: The arts center will retain a muchdesired student presence on its expanded campus, while divesting itself of a division that has tested its bottom line for years.
SCAD teachers defend their school's commitment.
"I would want Atlanta College of Art students to know we will take care of them as much as we do SCAD students," said Sandra Reed, dean of graduate studies and a painting professor in Savannah. "We're dynamic and responsive to students' needs."
Alum Joanna Davidovich, who transferred from ACA to SCAD, agrees.
"Overall, SCAD has treated me very well," the Atlanta resident and 2005 class salutatorian says in a recent e-mail. "The facilities were top of the line. The professors I've had were industry professionals --- very knowledgeable and supportive and patient."
One SCAD teacher, Robin Beauchamp, chairman of the sound design department, concludes a tour of his facility in Savannah with an endorsement that seems to address some of the criticisms of the college.
"It's really a cool place," he says. "It's not smoke and mirrors. It's all here."
GRAPHIC: T. LEVETTE BAGWELL / Staff Savannah College of Art and Design President Paula Wallace and Atlanta College of Art Board Chairman John Spiegel say a merger will be beneficial. ; T. LEVETTE BAGWELL / Staff The Savannah School of Art and Design was founded in a building constructed in 1892. ATLANTA COLLEGE OF ART Major players: John Spiegel, board chairman; eyer, president. Students: 330 Faculty: 25 full-time Budget: $11.5 million Notable graduates: "Genius" grant recipient Kara Walker
LOAD-DATE: August 24, 2005