Can St. Paul's College of Visual Arts be saved?

On January 16, St. Paul’s College of Visual Arts (CVA) announced that due to financial difficulties, the institution, which was founded in 1924, will close its doors. The announcement spurred an outcry among students, alumni, staff, and the greater visual arts community in the Twin Cities, who wondered why such a drastic step has been taken and what can be done to save the school. While some point to missteps by CVA’s leadership—in particular to the former president Ann Ledy, who has since resigned from her position—others want to stay focused on steps that need to be taken to make sure the college can stay afloat, even if it means drastic changes.

The CVA family

CVA is known for its small, personal feel that allows students to be a part of a real community, not just a number. Tara Ellen Shaffer, a current student, loves how small the school is, with the number of student mailboxes being able to fit within the span of her arms.

Hannah Frick, who graduated from CVA in 2011 and who was employed in the admissions office for eight months in 2011-2012, was a transfer student at the school, having previously attended Normandale and Anoka Ramsey Community College. When she first started college, she didn’t know what she wanted to do, having apprehension about choosing art as a major. “I didn’t know you could do anything with an art degree.”

Jeffrey Tranberry, who graduated from CVA in 1995, feels CVA's closing is a loss to the community, especially for the many businesses that hire CVA graduates. Tranberry chose CVA in part because his high school teacher recommended it to him. He had also looked at Carnegie Mellon and MCAD, but even with scholarships, CVA was a better deal. At the time, he was looking at a difference of $8,000 for CVA versus $20,000 for MCAD, so for him, the more modest tuition allowed him to invest in some things like a computer.

If it hadn’t been for his photography teacher, Peter Martin—who introduced Photoshop at the school—he may not have switched his focus from illustration to photography.  Other new technology available at the school in the 1990s were things like inkjet printers. “The traditional darkroom was dying,” he said. “The teacher pointed us in the right direction.”

According to Tranberry, back then CVA operated like a startup—even though the school was already 70 years old. It was very small, and the people working there were very passionate, trying new things. Many students from his year ended up starting their own businesses—people such as Chris Henderson, who started the interactive department at Olson. Three classmates including Tranberry went to work for Adobe, working with Lightroom. He believes he would not have had these opportunities if it hadn’t been for CVA.

Ed Charbonneau has worked at CVA as an adjunct faculty member in the fine arts department since 2007, and also taught in the Foundation department, and was himself a student at the college in the late 1990s. He said that in many ways, the college has changed very little since he was a student. “There is a culture of learning and teaching at CVA that is very personal, and tailored individually to student/teacher learning experiences and growth,” he wrote in an e-mail. “There is an ethos that guides departments, classes, assignments, and personal interactions that are openly based on the sharing and exchanging of knowledge for the benefit of all parties.” Charbonneau doesn’t believe the quality has changed since he first walked in the doors of the Summit Avenue mansion. “Most of the full-time faculty members have been at the college continuously; they (and many other people) have fostered a unique atmosphere of learning and personal growth,” he said.

What went wrong

Because CVA has no endowment, the institution has a history of hanging by a thread. Tom Triplett, former president of CVA from 1999-2001, said that when he left the school, the college had been, as it has many times over its history, in a very fragile position—but “we were never close to the idea that we would have to close,” he said. Instead, the leadership would always make adjustments.

When Triplett was an administrator at the college, there were around 300 students enrolled. Each year “it was a toss-up of how many students would enroll,” but the staff reached out to students on a one-to-one basis. “We’d make a face-to-face pitch,” he said.

In the past 10 years, CVA has wavered at around 57 students per year, according to Michael Knight, a consultant with Alliance Management, who spoke at a recent meeting with alumni to explain the situation and answer questions. Media weren’t allowed into the meeting, but several people filmed it and posted the meeting on YouTube.

At the meeting, Knight said that though revenue had been increasing due to tuition increases, expenses were rising ahead of revenue, mostly due to competition issues, with scholarships increasing substantially. In the coming year, Knight said, the shortfall would have been $360,000. Knight said that an outside auditor’s report showed that because of the losses from 2010 and 2011, the college missed an important ratio. If they missed three years in a row, which was likely to happen, CVA risked losing federal funding.

Last summer, the college put together a business plan, anticipating 80 students coming in, because they had a good recruiting year. However, because of scholarship offers from MCAD and other competing institutions, that number went down to 50.

Andrea Specht, the vice chair of CVA's board of trustees, said at the meeting that the college has made quite a few investments in recruiting over the last couple of years, increasing visibility in enrollment fairs around the state and through the Midwest, and making investments in the overall visibility of the school. “There was an expectation that the recruiting would be different,” she said.

Leadership issues

Besides enrollment issues, which all staff were aware of, there were a number of faculty who were upset with the lack of transparency and general leadership of CVA’s president, Ann Ledy.

John DuFresne, professor and chair of graphic design at CVA, said he and all of the department chairs signed a letter of no confidence in President Ledy last September; the letter was sent to the board of directors. He said the letter expressed concerns about the current state of the college and its financial situation, saying Ledy was making unilateral decisions without reaching out to any faculty or most of the staff. Ledy was keeping the faculty out of the loop about issues such as how budgets were assembled, expenditures, and spending priorities, DuFresne said. In addition, there were programmatic changes, both within majors CVA offered and in the development of new majors. For example, the addition of a fashion major was simply announced to all department chairs without consultation, with Ledy assigning herself as the head of the department. The faculty also had concerns about how buildings were used and managed.

According to Valerie Jenkins, chair of the fine arts department, CVA, as a small institution, consistently struggles. “We are small and extremely susceptible to the impact of change in academic administrations,” she’s said. There’s been about five different presidents since Jenkins was first hired at CVA (including Ledy), and the faculty definitely feels an impact, she said.

Jenkins feels that there were management issues with Ledy. “You have to look at the fact that the school has survived on a shoestring for so many years. Why was it that this board and this one president was not able to sustain it?"

Jenkins was one of the faculty who signed the no-confidence letter last September. “We were concerned about the direction of the school, concerned about the management." The faculty were particularly concerned that Ledy held positions of academic dean as well as chief financial officer, chair of interdisciplinary art and design studies, and chair of fashion design in addition to her role as president. “That’s too many positions for one person,” she said. “It’s impossible for one person to sustain that affectively. This was a president that insisted that she do that.”

When Jenkins first started teaching at CVA, she had many students who were returning to education for their own personal purposes or were basically starting another career, or people who wanted to take part-time classes. “The structure of the curriculum didn’t allow for those types of things,” Jenkins said, and the college lost a lot of students because of the new structure.

At this point, the faculty has been told that any severance pay is questionable. “We’ve been told that is contingent of the success of the sale of the building,” she said.

Michelle McCreery, an adjunct at CVA since 1996, defends Ledy, praising the former president’s work with curriculum development, especially in its foundation programming.  McCreery also cites improvements in students’ experiences, such as through the Office of Student Life, which has enhanced the school community.

“When I started teaching there, most students were commuters,” she said. The community feel to the school has gotten much tighter in recent years, she said. There have also been exceptional design shows in the gallery as well as programming that has brought in local artists, she said.

Ledy also led the college into the latest stages of accreditation, said McCreery. Though the process began before Ledy’s arrival, it culminated during her tenure.

Paul Gaines, the director of student life at CVA from 2005 to 2008, describes Ledy as a “hard charger.” When she was hired, there were a number of financial troubles; Ledy came with a lot of ideas, he said, and she definitely pushed her agenda. “She was coming from New York City. She brought that type of energy to the Midwest. A lot of the faculty were required to change the way they did business.”

Andrew Conway, who attended CVA from 2005-2009, was at the beginning of Ledy’s tenure. He didn’t see eye-to-eye with the President, and did his best to avoid her.Before Ann Ledy's time CVA had a broader marketing scheme; people from lots of different walks of life went there, whereas towards the end of her reign CVA marketed itself to high school students, and the incoming students became a little less diverse every year. I happened to be in a class with some transfer students, and students of different ages, so it was just great to get so many different perspectives about the art you critiqued. It provided arts dialogues the likes of which I haven't been able to have since I graduated,” he said.

Hannah Frick, a recent alum, defended Ledy, saying she was responsive to student needs. For example, when she was president of the student council, there was a controversy when the college changed the building hour policy. After over 100 students signed a petition, Ledy changed the building hours back to what they had been before. “It was great that they heard our point,” she said.

Tara Ellen Shaffer, a current student, is a Ledy supporter. “Seven years ago, she completely redid the Foundation program, and improved the facilities. It’s hard for me to just turn around and blame her,” she said. 

Beth Bowman graduated from CVA in 2001 with a BFA in drawing, and has been on and off the volunteer alumni board over the years. In 2008, she was the alumni board president. Ann Ledy nominated her, and she acted as president for less than a year before she resigned. The alumni board soon dissolved, and there hasn’t been one since.

In her letter of resignation, Bowman wrote, “While I feel genuine concern, commitment and admiration for the dedicated community of CVA faculty, staff and students/future alumni, I lack confidence in the current direction of the school administration.” 

In her letter dated February 27, 2008, Bowman described a lack of transparency, poor communication, and a “refusal to be inclusive and collaborative." She described overwhelming dissatisfaction among the CVA alumni community. “My own efforts and initiatives have been ignored and dismissed, and in some cases I have been reprimanded for taking actions to promote alumni networking,” she wrote. “Even the most basic request, a copy of the strategic plan, was denied me with no explanation.”

CVA Action

At news of the school’s closing, Bowman and a few other individuals started an emergency task force, called CVA Action. They started a Facebook page, with the mission of the group being to find healthy alternatives to closing the school. They published the school’s tax reports, which show an increase in revenue. “CVA owns property, valuable property,” she said. The “neighborhood has a lot of appeal. There might be alternatives to that closing.”

Then, conflict arose when Bowman missed a CVA Action meeting where officers were elected. Bowman also, as an individual, filed a complaint about CVA with the State of Minnesota’s Attorney General’s Office. Bowman's complaint notes numerous indications of a lack of transparency, including not having an alumni board, not making policy open to the public, having a board of directors that is too small. As a result of that complaint Bowman was told to leave CVA Action, though she was one of its founders. [This paragraph has been corrected—see note below.]

Nyla Niblo, a board member of CVA Action, wrote in an e-mail that they have been working quickly to set up an infrastructure that will allow us to fundraise to save CVA. “We continue to work together to establish the materials we will need, and to gather the information we need to fundraise,” she said. “This includes meeting with faculty and staff at CVA, meeting with the CVA Board of Trustees and working with other organizations that have offered their support to CVA Action.”

Sherry Essen, a former interim president of the college and a CVA vice president for many years, is also working to save the school. She runs her own business, and was saddened by the news of the closing. Essen, along with other former leaders of the college, have been having a series of conversations about what is to be done. Essen believes it’s important not to focus on what Ledy did or did not do. “We need to get out of the blame game for why and how this happened,” she said. “Ultimately, the enrollment was declining—why was that?”  From what she can tell, Ledy did a great job making the college better, looking at curriculum and planning, but somehow there was a disconnect in making the college solvent. “Maybe it’s a business model that couldn’t sustain itself. It happened to happen on her watch.”

Essen is hopeful though, and sees the recent course of events as an opportunity. “It could potentially be very exciting,” she said. “This could be exactly what the school needs. That’s the conversation I’m interested in."

The important thing, Essen said, is to keep the school’s accreditation, but in the meantime they will have to resurrect other donors. Then, CVA needs to look at enrollment, and moving students that were enrolled back into class. “There’s a lot to consider, but it’s not undoable,” she said. In her conversations with other leaders, she describes “a collaborative hopeful, visionary conversation.”

Some options, Essen said, includes looking at some of the distressed property around the Twin Cities.

Essen wants to ask questions such as: Would there be a new entity formed? Would it be the same entity? What would the governing body look like? How would interim conversations not turn messy? What kind of leadership is needed to move through the myriad issues reasonably quickly?

No matter what happens, the school won’t look the same, said Essen. “It will have to change. But if it can—how exciting! When do colleges ever get to wipe the slate clean? We were relevant for 100 years. How can we be relevant for the next 100?”

One of Essen’s collaborators, Former president Tom Triplett, said one of the things they are trying to look at is who are the fundamental category of people who will come back and partake in the experience of the college, regardless of the situation.

Triplett said it’s not just the college community that is interested in preserving CVA; there's a tremendous interest from the nonprofit world at large. “People can’t just believe that an institution like this 85-year-old college can close without really trying to make an effort to preserve it,” he said.

Also in the Daily Planet, from our media partner "Ann Ledy, St. Paul native and Parsons School luminary, takes the helm at CVA" (December 2008)

Corrections: When originally published, this story said that Chris Henderson started the Olson agency. In fact, Henderson started the interactive division—not the entire agency. This error has been corrected.

This article also initially stated that Beth Bowman's complaint to the Secretary of State was filed after she parted ways with CVA Action. In fact, the organization writes from its e-mail account, the event sequence was the reverse:

"Beth Bowman missed several CVA Action meetings (including the one where officers were elected) although we have no problem with that, many of our members are unable to attend the meetings. THEN Beth filed the complaint about CVA with the MN Attorney General's office, which was in direct contradiction to the established mission and goals of CVA Action. It was THEN that she was asked to leave the group. She was asked to leave BECAUSE of filing that complaint, not BEFORE she filed the complaint."

Bowman confirms that corrected sequence of events, though she adds that the complaint itself was private, so others only became aware of the complaint when she shared it on her personal Facebook profile. The article has been revised to reflect the correct sequence of events.

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Sheila Regan's picture
Sheila Regan

Sheila Regan (sheila [at] tcdailyplanet [dot] net) is a Minneapolis theater artist and freelance writer.