By the Fall 2022 semester, the Southwest School of Art and UTSA’s Department of Art and Art History will have completed their merger, creating a new arts degree program that incorporates elements from both schools.

But integrating a small, independent school of 40 students and seven faculty members into a much larger public university has posed challenges.

The “merger and acquisition” of the Southwest School by UTSA was first announced in August, with the independent art college’s 6.6-acre historic downtown campus becoming part of the university’s expanding downtown footprint after the deal between the two schools was finalized in November. After shepherding the merger with UTSA President Taylor Eighmy, Southwest School President Paula Owen will retire June 30 from the job she’s held since 1996.

UTSA now owns a stunning historic campus, but one that lacks adequate space for the nearly 500 students enrolled in what will be the new program, so classes will continue to be held at the university’s main campus.

Glenn Martinez, dean of the UTSA College of Liberal and Fine Arts, said the goal in the merger was to keep all students and faculty, an aim that has largely succeeded. But all Southwest School faculty were asked to reapply for their positions, with differences in rank and pay between the former college and university systems, and students will need to adjust to larger class sizes.

Despite the challenges, Martinez said, “The excitement is bringing the best of both of those areas together, to create something that is more than the sum of its parts.”

A different hiring process

Justin Boyd, academic director and chair of sculpture and integrated media for the Southwest School of Art, said he was invited to participate in collaborative sessions with with UTSA faculty and staff as soon as the merger was announced. He and UTSA faculty chairs assessed the similarities and differences of the two programs, toward envisioning what shape the new degree program would ultimately take for its close to 500 students, around 450 from UTSA and 40 from the Southwest School.

The main differences, Boyd said, will be larger class sizes, so students will have to commute to the UTSA campus near Loop 1604, which can accommodate the 12-student minimum and maximum of 18 for each studio arts class.

UTSA's main campus.
UTSA’s main campus will house the faculty and students from the Southwest School of Art starting in the Fall semester. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The average class size at Southwest School has been around eight students, Boyd said, which is not necessarily a positive or a negative. Having more students in the classroom can mean more perspectives and opinions for a richer dialogue, he said.

After the seven members of the Southwest School faculty reapplied for jobs with the new program, Boyd and fellow faculty received offers in March with one tenure-track offer and six offers for fixed-term positions. While Southwest School faculty positions were essential permanent appointments, Boyd said, all UTSA faculty positions require annual evaluations, with fixed-term positions running three years with the possibility of renewal.

In addition, the application process was initially missing at least one key element typical of a college-level art faculty interview process: the presentation.

During national searches, prospective arts faculty candidates are generally asked to make a presentation to art faculty and students, often including an example of a class lesson or assignment. Boyd said he and other Southwest School faculty successfully pressed for presentations to be added to the process so they could be fairly judged for their demonstrated experience and creative capabilities.

Southwest School faculty members declined to comment on UTSA’s hiring process because they were still weighing the university’s job offers, but one faculty member chose to retire rather than join the merged institution.

Martinez acknowledged that differences between the pay schedule at an independent college and that of a university might have caused some shock among Southwest School faculty, who were accustomed to a 12-month schedule and now would have to adjust to UTSA’s nine-month schedule, with university faculty commonly picking up summer classes or extra work during the summer break.

‘Improve as we go’

Though he only joined the UTSA College of Liberal and Fine Arts as dean last July, Martinez said the change in the fine arts program has been long-awaited.

“The faculty in art had been having conversations maybe for the past decade, about ‘How do we renew our art curriculum? it’s very traditional,’” Martinez said. “And this opportunity of [the] merger and the conversations with the colleagues at SSA, I think was really a eureka moment that allowed things to come together in a really beautiful way.”

Boyd said conversations are ongoing, and challenges remain.

“Whatever’s not working, we’ll continue to change and fix and improve as we go,” he said. Still to be determined are details such as tenure and promotion requirements, he said, as well as a national search for a director of the new program, which will begin in May.

Whether the merger of the two programs lives up to its full potential will depend on the vision that person brings to the position, Boyd said.

“It’s going to require a vision to make Southwest School of Art and UTSA more than the sum of its parts,” he said. “And we still are waiting on what that vision is going to be.”

Boyd has a bold vision for the new school: “For me, personally, it’s going to require a new building” on the Southwest School of Art campus that houses both art departments together.

The action and energy of the art community is centered around downtown and Southtown, he said, “so I think getting everything down to that space and a new building, then you’ll really start to see the synergy and the sum of its parts coming together.”

Preserving and building

A name for the new arts degree program has not yet been chosen, though it will in some way incorporate the Southwest School of Art name in order to preserve the 57-year-old legacy of the school, Martinez said.

The Southwest Craft Center was founded in 1965 and opened as a gallery in La Villita in 1968, then moved to the Ursuline Convent and Academy in 1971, and purchased the property in 1981. The school changed its name to the Southwest School of Art and Craft in 1998, then in 2010 announced that it would drop “craft” from its name, and began offering a degree program in 2014, becoming “the only independent college of art in Texas” according to its website.

Throughout its history, the school has been known for its community arts education program for youth and adults, and UTSA will continue the legacy of community engagement by adding Southwest School community classes to its Professional and Continuing Education program.

Melissa Mahan, UTSA associate vice provost for academic innovation who oversees the continuing education program, said the Southwest School’s community art classes will broaden the scope of the university’s offerings.

“It made sense that our unit was equipped to be able to … take these community arts programs into our fold, and actually enhance them and bring greater support toward them,” Mahan said. “We’re excited to have them with us, we continue to look at how we can build upon the excellence that Southwest School of Art has in the community, and just make it stronger and better.”

Visiting Spanish artist David Ventura works with Joanne Diaz on her project.
Visiting Spanish artist David Ventura works with Joann Diaz on a sculpture project at the Southwest School of Art in 2018. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Martinez said that UTSA’s degree program had been in a mode of self-assessment before the merger, and will be enhanced by incorporating the Southwest School’s interdisciplinary focus.

A student in the prior UTSA fine arts program would choose a single discipline, such as painting or ceramics, and stay on track throughout their years in the program. The new approach will allow students to pursue the most advanced developments in a chosen discipline, while incorporating interdisciplinary studies to learn how various approaches to art can work together.

The new program will also require students to engage in internships at arts institutions throughout the community, Martinez said, another hallmark of the Southwest School’s curriculum.

“We’re going to have an army of artists out in the community really contributing” to San Antonio’s arts culture, Martinez said.

Nicholas Frank

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 an indie rock...