On Thursday, Paula Berg Owen will retire as president and CEO of the Southwest School of Art, ending her 26-year tenure. Her mantra throughout has been, “If you don’t like change, you’ll like irrelevance even less.”

Change has been the hallmark of Owen’s leadership from the day she arrived.

The school began in 1965 as the Southwest Craft Center, located in La Villita. In 1971 it moved to the historic campus of the old Ursuline Academy in the center of downtown.

Owen arrived in 1996 with a vision to expand beyond the school’s traditional community classes. In 1998 she changed the name to Southwest School of Art and Craft, in part spurred by the acquisition of the Santikos building across Augusta Street, with room for new studios and a spacious gallery.

In 2010 Owen dropped craft from the name and led the Southwest School of Art forward by instituting a bachelor’s degree program, proudly touting the school as “the only independent college of art in Texas.”

This year, various circumstances necessitated the biggest change in the school’s 57-year history: a wholesale merger with the University of Texas at San Antonio, to be formalized with the start of the fall semester. The Southwest School will live on in some form, with many students, faculty and staff moving to UTSA, and the historic downtown campus that housed the school since 1971 to be incorporated into the expanding UTSA footprint.

To anyone who doubts Owen’s vision that the change will be better for both schools, she said, “constancy is an illusion, and we have to put our resources and our energy into our communities and our institutions, and into our young people, and try to make things better. I believe that the conversations and decisions that we made with UTSA will do that. I don’t believe that we’ve killed anything. I think, in fact, we’ve invented and birthed a whole new school at UTSA.”

Learning to lead

Managing change has served Owen well not only since her arrival at the Southwest School but during a lifetime of adaptation.

In 1966, her father Warren Berg was awarded a Fulbright professorship and moved the family to Malta, which had just gained independence from the United Kingdom. She attended the Royal University of Malta and, as a singer and guitarist, formed a folk music club with one Maltese member, an Irishman, and a member of the British Royal Air Force.

As a crossroads of the Mediterranean, Malta regularly saw travelers from many different countries, she said. “It was a formative experience,” Owen said.

Back in the U.S., she graduated cum laude in 1970 from Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, with a bachelor’s degree in art and political science. She earned a master’s degree in art education from Minnesota State University in Moorhead, Minnesota, then went on to earn a master’s of fine arts in painting and printmaking from Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.

That varied background has informed her leadership. “I’ve always felt that my administrative work was informed by my artist self, and I think that more artists should be administrators,” she said.

“I think a lot of those same skills are necessary in today’s world. The editing and problem solving and experimentation, ability to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty, and intuitive and entrepreneurial skills. I think it really served me.”

She stayed for 11 years to direct the organization that is now the Visual Arts Center of Richmond. “That’s where I got my first taste of leading an organization, and all the elements and knowledge that was required,” Owen said.

The most important lesson she learned there was to ask for help. “People are extremely generous. So if you ask someone you admire to help you, they almost always do.”

Winning support

When the Southwest School’s CEO search committee reached out to invite Owen to interview for the position, she hadn’t even been to San Antonio before, Owen said.

During her visit, she got a good taste of the city and “became extremely intrigued by the potential of what was then the Southwest Craft Center.” Owen said she “could see so many possibilities, so many ways of moving it forward, that I couldn’t resist. I just couldn’t resist.”

After convincing her husband Ben to sell their house and move to a new city, she discovered that not everyone at the school was on board with her vision for change.

The school’s founding trustees, including Edith McAllister, Margaret Pace Wilson, Helen Marie Hendrie, and Maggie Block, resisted the changes Owen proposed. “I admired them completely, but they really didn’t want me to add my two cents,” she said. “I could see it all but I didn’t know how to convince them.”

Owen felt defeated, even telling her husband she didn’t think she could be successful here. He suggested articulating her entire vision, and she spent the weekend “writing a long treatise on everything that I learned in those first weeks here on the job, and what I thought the potential was and how we could achieve the potential.”

Her treatise won the support of the board chair and executive committee. “Then I knew I had a path,” she said.

She counts winning the buy-in of the founders among her greatest achievements. “They saw that it was working,” and though it took several years, “they came around.”

Edith McAllisterwith Southwest School of Art President Paula Owen.
Southwest School of Art founder Edith McAllister, left, with Paula Owen. Credit: Courtesy / McAllister Family

Balancing the interests of those who want things to stay the same and those who see how change would improve the school has remained the challenge, she said.

Not everyone has supported the school’s merger with UTSA. One longtime faculty member retired rather than accept what she considered an insulting job offer with the university, and other staff and faculty have complained privately about job offers that they felt devalued their experience.

“I wish that I could have done more, is the honest answer,” Owen said. “I did everything, I think, that I could have done. I wish I could have done more to enable them to have the professional future that they wanted.”

Owen admitted that it’s hard for her to know how disappointed they are. “I am not embarrassed to say I love them. And I admire them, and I respect them.”

Facing challenges

Recent board member Ruth Chang, a professional chief financial officer in telecommunications, said she saw the merger as a potential solution to financial challenges the school faced. A yearslong effort to achieve accreditation ended with mixed results, and the COVID-19 pandemic brought on dire financial struggles caused by losses in enrollment.

Though she was not on the board at the time the decision was made to institute the BFA program, Chang said enrollment never reached forecasted levels required to sustain the program financially, and failing to achieve crucial regional accreditation within looming deadlines was “a letdown,” she said.

The BFA program faced potential closure, Owen said, and without the UTSA merger, the school might have had to revert to becoming something akin to the Southwest Craft Center again.

“We would have had to restructure the school,” and risk the potential loss of donor support, Owen said. “We could have stayed independent, but we wouldn’t have had a BFA program.”

Despite the challenge of change for faculty and students, Chang said, “I’m still in full support of the merger because it makes sense. It’s good for the longevity of the school.”

Chang said she has no doubt that the school has benefited from Owen’s leadership.

“She has this rare combination of being an artist and understanding the creative world, but also she is a very good administrator and businesswoman. The school’s success so far to a large extent is because of her. And to me, a good leader doesn’t always please every single person.”

Distinction in the Arts Arts Administration Honoree Paula Owen thanks the audience at the Third Annual Distinction in the Arts honoree announcement at the Centro de Artes Gallery.
Outgoing Southwest School of Art President Paula Owen. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

A mindset we need

Asked what she counts among her greatest achievements at the Southwest School of Art, the 74-year-old Owen said, “constantly moving forward with an eye on the future, of holding the artist and the art as the anchor, the nucleus of the institution.”

UTSA has said it will keep the Southwest School’s focus on multidisciplinary learning, which Owen said will benefit the students in the ways her own multidisciplinary background has benefited her.

“I do believe that arts education is not about making products,” she said. “It’s really very important to the wider world. It’s a mindset that we need, desperately, in today’s world, to connect the creative process and creative thinking with the wider world, and also our personal actions, and our values.”

Owen has continued making art throughout her professional career, and last Sunday wrapped up her solo exhibition Unbound Botanicals at Studio Comfort Texas. For now, she’s making no plans beyond devoting time to exploring her interior world.

“I want to set some new rhythms and see what happens,” she said.

Among words of advice she has for her successor, who after a nationwide search will become the director of the new, yet-to-be-named school, Owen offered both practical advice, and her guiding philosophy.

“Communicate all the time. Listen to the artists. Do your research. Try to keep an eye on the future and an appreciation for the past,” and, Owen said, “keep evolving.”

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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...