April 21 was the last day of classes at the Southwest School of Art (SSA). Some students and faculty say the day also marked the end of an era.
By the fall semester, the school, since 2014 Texas’ only independent art college, will have completed its transition into becoming part of the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) College of Liberal and Fine Arts. The school’s Bachelor of Fine Arts program will move to UTSA, while community classes will continue at SSA.
Though UTSA has promised the name of the much smaller college will be retained in some way, students say some essential qualities will be lost.
Junior Jim Gelvin had the idea to hold a last-day gathering for SSA faculty, students, alumni, and staff to “cherish and reflect” on what he called the special experience they all shared at the school, known for its small class sizes and intimate educational atmosphere on the historic campus that once housed the 170-year-old Ursuline Convent and Academy.
In choosing art schools, Gelvin told the small crowd he decided specifically against UTSA.
“I knew that this was going to be a small place where I could get to know everybody, and that was really important to me. And I don’t want to make this a negative thing towards UTSA, but I knew … that’s a big school. And I was just going to be, you know, a number.”
He said he’s glad he made the decision to attend the Southwest School, in part because “it really felt like another family.” The Southwest School’s BFA program had a total student body of 50, whereas those students will join a class of over 400 students when the schools merge.
Despite the move to a larger school, students pointed out that some SSA classes, including metalsmithing and papermaking, would not be offered at UTSA in the fall. Those mediums will be incorporated into a multimedia class, students said, but would not offer the concentrated focus they had previously enjoyed.
An early retirement
The loss of a focused book arts and papermaking program is one reason Margaret Craig, Chair of Printmaking/Paper, will not be joining the new school at UTSA.
Craig said she will retire after a 23-year teaching career at the Southwest School, in part because the position UTSA offered her did not include teaching in the BFA program. Instead, she said she was offered an administrative position leading a new internship program under the auspices of the UTSA Professional and Continuing Education (PACE) department, but that her heart is in the kind of teaching development the baccalaureate program fosters with four-year students.
In her response to the UTSA offer, Craig wrote, “I really didn’t want to retire early.”
At the April 21 gathering, a gaggle of sophomores representing SSA student government reflected on the loss of a treasured teacher.
“Margaret’s the best teacher ever,” said Oliver Martin. “I’ve had her the most out of all the professors here and she’s the best.”
Martin and his cohort might not be aware of the details of the offer made to Craig, but they know the result.
“Paper isn’t even being offered and we have the facilities required, and we even have the instructor, who’s now retiring. It just doesn’t make sense,” said sophomore Jay Lopez, who wants to continue his focus on papermaking and metalsmithing. “Those aren’t being offered as focuses at UTSA. So I don’t know where I’m going to go.”
A memorial service and a silver lining
Rachael Oelsen graduated SSA in 2021. She said she’s been going to the campus her whole life, including summer camp as a child and the Teen Studio Intensive program, “so I’m very emotional and sentimental about this place. It’s sad to hear about all the changes happening.”
Of the last-day gathering, she said “it kind of feels like a memorial service for the way things were because they were pretty special.”
First-year SSA student Lani Tagle transferred to Southwest School from UTSA after her freshman year. “The community here has been everything I’ve needed. I really need that small community support, like family support. And being at a big school, I definitely didn’t really feel that.”
As she faces returning to the much larger school, knowing some of her classmates will be key. “Now I know I have people I can go to if I ever need people that know me and know my art.”
Lauri Garcia Jones worked as recruitment and admissions officer for SSA, and has been brought onto the UTSA staff as senior undergraduate admissions counselor, effectively as the primary liaison for students during the transition.
She said she understands the stress students have been under, given questions about whether their classes will be offered, who their teachers will be, whether their scholarships will transfer, and practical issues like transportation to the UTSA main campus, 14 miles northwest of the Southwest School.
When the merger was first announced, she said she, like others, was “a little bit in shock.” But when the initial shock wore off, she said the result seemed positive for the small college, which had struggled through “trials and tribulations” of the complicated accreditation process.
“There’s a silver lining,” Jones said.
In her new role as liaison, she said, “I’m trying to make it as least stressful for [the students] as possible. That’s always been my main concern is to make sure that they’re taken care of throughout all of this.”
Looking beyond the immediate concerns of the transition, she said, “I can see a lot of opportunity for the students that they don’t see yet because I’m on the other side. … I’ve let them know that I plan to continue to be working with them and being just as much of the art department there as I am here.”
A legacy in the balance
At least one major donor is questioning the results of the merger.
In 2018 after discussions with SSA President Paula Owen, donor Guillermo Nicolas gave $100,000 in the name of his mother and Univision co-founder Irma Cortez Nicolas — once a student at the Ursuline Academy — to create a scholarship fund for Latino students.
As onetime chair of the school’s board of trustees, Nicolas said he had a longstanding interest in the well-being of the school and had helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars annually during his tenure, mostly to benefit students.
When he learned of the merger, Nicolas considered rescinding the scholarship fund donation, given the uncertainty of how the fund would be used in the UTSA system.
“Who knows if it’s just gonna get lost in a giant pool of much bigger gifts with less focus?” he said. “I just I hope UTSA does right by it. And I hope it doesn’t get swallowed up and lose its identity and its uniqueness in a gigantic, multibillion-dollar machine that is the UT system.”
That machine now owns the campus and school that donors like Nicolas gave millions to over the years, intent on establishing and maintaining what Owen often touted as “the only independent college of art in Texas.”
“I think [founding donor] Edith McAllister would probably be spinning in her grave to know that she had worked her a— off” to raise millions of dollars to establish the school, “only to give it away to UTSA.”
But to be fair to Owen in the longer term, Nicolas said, “this could end up being potentially a great achievement that we just can’t see right now. … I think that her legacy is in the hands of UTSA.”
This article has been updated to clarify that April 21 was the last day of classes for the Southwest School of Art’s BFA program. Community classes will continue at SSA.