The Southwest School of Art is located downtown at the former Ursuline Academy.
The Southwest School of Art operated independently for the last time on April 21. It will be part the University of Texas at San Antonio starting in the fall. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Even before the coronavirus pandemic temporarily cut off revenue as its popular community classes and fundraising events were canceled, the Southwest School of Art faced serious issues.

A small budget shortfall in 2018 and another potential shortfall in 2019 threatened its application for accreditation to continue as a degree-granting institution. Budget deficits are a key issue for the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools-Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) accreditation agency. The school eventually achieved a budget surplus in 2019, and was on track for a balanced budget for fiscal year 2020.

Then, the pandemic descended, causing the cancellation of all on-campus summer community classes, fundraisers, and the Fiesta Arts Fair, all major sources of revenue for the school. Annual funding from the City of San Antonio’s Department of Arts and Culture amounting to $326,350 was cut by one-third. School President Paula Owen projected total losses of about $1.2 million for fiscal year 2020.

To make up for the losses, Owen applied for and received a federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) interest-free loan of $650,000. “Most of that is going right back to employees,” she said. The amount will appear as revenue in the school’s fiscal year 2020 budget, inching it closer to the required balanced budget.

With approximately $500,000 left to cover, Owen immediately instituted 25 percent pay cuts for most staff, including herself. The remainder would come from a restructuring announced internally on June 5 that ultimately left 11 staff members without their jobs.

College courses, along with some summer community classes, were moved online. However, the popular Teen Studio Intensive program once led by artist Katie Pell was cut. The exhibition program was eliminated, costing at least two staff positions, and several planned exhibitions, including the Anti-Exhibition exhibition scheduled to open in May, were scrapped.

Conceived by Chad Dawkins, former gallery director and curator, the title and content now seems ironic, given the show’s focus on conceptual art tactics that include empty and closed galleries.

Two exhibitions planned for 2022 are still on the calendar, Owen said, indicating that Dawkins and others are “indefinitely furloughed” and could be recalled if the school regains its solid financial position post-pandemic.

Southwest School of Art President Paula Owen.
Southwest School of Art President Paula Owen. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

An Unexpected Extension

Some glimmers of light emerged during the complex process toward achieving accreditation, said Provost Kevin Conlon, who has been leading the accreditation process since his arrival in 2017. A bureaucratic “hiccup” during a site visit by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB), which every two years grants schools certificates of authority to operate, gave the school some breathing room by extending its window for achieving accreditation from October 2021 to February 2022.

Owen has pointed out that colleges can bestow degrees before achieving accreditation, thus giving the Southwest School of Art’s first graduating class of 11 students valid bachelor of fine arts degrees, though without accreditation from SACSCOC the THECB would mandate that the school would have to shut down as a four-year degree-granting college.

The 2020 graduating class comprised only three students, but Owen asserted that the total enrollment of 42 students met current goals. Thirteen 13 confirmed new student entries for the fall semester, with 11 additional applicants in the high-to-moderate interest range, reflects a strong recruiting class, Owen said.

A Long and Winding Road, With Detours

The Southwest School initially sought accreditation from the National Association of Schools of Art and Design (NASAD), but dropped the effort in 2019 because the THECB does not recognize NASAD accreditation due to a dispute between the agencies.

The school then shifted back to seeking accreditation from SACSCOC despite its more stringent budgetary requirements, mounting a focused fundraising campaign that achieved a $780,000 surplus for 2019 with philanthropic help from community donors.

Owen and Conlon kept working diligently through the process, feeling they’ve had support from SACSCOC. Even with major problems caused by the pandemic, both said they are “cautiously optimistic” about achieving a balanced budget for 2020, thus making the school eligible for SACSCOC accreditation. Meanwhile, they renewed the school’s application to NASAD to “add to the credibility factor” of the school’s goals for growth and stability, Owen said.

“Our accreditation means a lot to us. It’s been taking a while to get there, but you know, we are making progress,” Conlon said.

“We still have the confidence of the community,” he said. “We still have an enrollment that is respectable and growing. And we’ve demonstrated now with the students that have graduated” – a requirement for achieving NASAD accreditation – “that we have a program that’s worthwhile and that meets accreditation standards. … NASAD said our program is terrific.”

Conlon served as a NASAD commissioner in 2016 and 2017, helping other schools through the process. Current NASAD commissioners made a recent site visit to the Southwest School, making recommendations on improving ventilation in the classrooms and studios and on generating a greater portion of revenue from increasing student enrollment. The school put $1 million into improvements based on those recommendations, Conlon said.

However, the school’s budget is now projected at $5.5 million, nearly $1 million less than its previous annual budget. Staff cuts and the PPP loan mean a balanced budget is still achievable, despite the pandemic damage.

SACSCOC will make no allowances for the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, according to Belle Wheelan, the agency’s president. “No, there will not be any consideration during the application process,” she said.

Without commenting specifically on the Southwest School, any applicant “would have to meet all of our financial indicators in order to gain membership,” she said.  

Ann Chard, SACSCOC vice president and the liaison working with Southwest School during its pre-application process, suggested that cumulative budget numbers would be taken into consideration. “One of the financial requirements is institutions may not run a cumulative operating deficit during the whole application process,” she said.

Having worked through many accreditation processes in his 15-year career as an arts administrator, Conlon acknowledged the complex nature of the process. “Real life is very seldom a straight A-to-B construct,” he said. “You have to take a lot of detours before you get to the goal.”

This story has been clarified to specify the number of enrolled and prospective students for the fall 2020 semester, and that college courses and some summer community classes were moved online.

Education Reporter Emily Donaldson contributed to this report.

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Nicholas Frank

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...