In an unprecedented development between two local higher education institutions, the University of Texas at San Antonio and the Southwest School of Art have set in motion a plan for the independent art college to become part of a new school within UTSA’s College of Liberal and Fine Arts.

The UT System’s board of regents will consider creating a newly named school within the college that carries forward the Southwest School of Art’s name, brand, and legacy. The deal, which includes the 6.6 acres of historic structures and downtown properties owned by the Southwest School of Art (SSA), represents a significant expansion of UTSA President Taylor Eighmy’s vision for the university’s downtown presence and will trigger a review of the university’s downtown master plan.

A letter of intent from UTSA was presented last Monday to the SSA board of trustees, which approved the proposed “merger and acquisition.” Meanwhile, the UT board of regents met Thursday as the two institutions prepared to go public with the news this week. The UT regents and SSA board expect to finalize terms and grant final approval by November, with UTSA taking control by the fall 2022 semester.

For SSA President Paula Owen, the agreement assures the expanded future of fine arts higher education downtown and the continuation of the school’s highly regarded community arts programs.

Eighmy called it a “very special opportunity.”

“These very special moments do not come one’s way often,” Eighmy told the San Antonio Report. “There is a tangible strategic opportunity here going forward that is much more than additive of our two wonderful arts programs. With this new school, we can create something unique for San Antonio and our arts community that is expansive, interdisciplinary, and commensurate with the very best schools of art in the country. I am grateful beyond measure that Paula reached out last year to begin exploration of this very special opportunity with us.”

Owen initiated talks with Eighmy last summer, hoping to build on the established relationship between the two schools as the pandemic continued to disrupt operations at both schools.

“Before we even knew the impact that the pandemic would have, SSA’s board decided to follow parallel paths: one moving forward and the other exploring our options,” Owen said. “I called Taylor in early June of 2020 to talk about possible strategic partnerships because UTSA and SSA already had existing connections. I don’t think either of us could have imagined then that we would arrive at the creation of a new art school combining the best of both institutions. Many people and organizations reexamined their assumptions and priorities during the pandemic, and this innovative idea was born out of that mindset.”

San Antonio businessman and entrepreneur Rad Weaver, a UT System regent, is said to have played a key role in building support for the partnership, along with Randy Cain, a retired Ernst & Young executive who serves as the SSA board chair.

Click here to read UTSA’s six-page document describing how the agreement will be executed over the coming academic year.

UTSA President Taylor Eighmy attends the ribbon cutting ceremony of the Roadrunner Athletics Center of Excellence (RACE).
UTSA President Taylor Eighmy attends the ribbon-cutting ceremony of the Roadrunner Athletics Center of Excellence (RACE) in early August. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Completion of the proposed deal would mark the end of the SSA after 56 years as an independent downtown arts institution, one that began as a community school of arts and crafts and grew to become the state’s only independent college of art in 2014.

That news will sadden many who have come to cherish the school, whose studio programs have served tens of thousands of adult and youth art students over the years, and an even greater number of people who have attended exhibitions and other events on a campus that’s considered one of San Antonio’s greatest preservation stories.

But the deal is all but certain to yield significant new investment in the downtown arts school in the coming years with the considerable resources of the UT System brought into play.

Owen and her eight art faculty members and 30 other staff employees will remain in place, and the school’s 42 students will continue in the SSA’s bachelor of fine arts program for the 2021-22 academic year. Students will then be invited to transfer to UTSA and enjoy additional financial aid opportunities. The school’s on-campus studio programs that annually serve more than 4,000 adults, teens, and children, and 5,000 others who participate in off-campus programs will be maintained after UTSA assumes control.

UTSA’s Department of Art and Art History awards multiple undergraduate and graduate degrees in art, fine arts, and art history. The UTSA-SSA plan calls for a new school to be created that reflects the two institutions joining forces to create a growing program with expanded new offerings, including digital and graphic design.

Once that new school is created, a national search will be conducted for the director who will report to the College of Liberal and Fine Arts’ dean, Glenn L. Martinez, a Del Rio native recruited in July from his post as a professor of Hispanic linguistics at Ohio State University. Owen is expected to continue in her current leadership role through the end of 2022.

UTSA will acquire $32 million in SSA assets, including a $15 million endowment, and assume its $2 million worth of liabilities. SSA’s annual budget is $5.3 million and Owen said the school is operating in the black, despite the pandemic and the loss of revenue streams from its many hosted events and the annual Fiesta Arts Fair, which was canceled in 2020 and 2021.

The deal will add new momentum to Eighmy’s plans to expand UTSA’s Downtown Campus with construction now underway of the $90 million School of Data Science and National Security Collaboration Center. A one-block SSA-owned real estate parcel flanked by North St. Mary’s, Augusta, Navarro, and Richmond streets, adjacent to the SSA campus, presents future opportunities for growth. A UTSA document states that acquisition of the property will lead the university to revisit its downtown master plan.

For Owen, the deal is a career capstone as an art education leader. It marks the end to efforts to raise millions of dollars in new funding to secure the SSA’s independent future and growth.

Owen, a practicing artist, has served as SSA’s president since 1996. She led the effort to transform the school into a degree-granting program and has been widely praised for her leadership in elevating the art school to a four-year institution, fighting a long accreditation battle, and expanding the school’s studio programs.

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

“Apparently there aren’t enough philanthropic dollars available in San Antonio to sustain an independent fine arts school in the city, which is sad,” said one downtown business leader unaffiliated with the deal. “I would credit both Taylor and Paula for finding a new way forward that keeps art and the pursuit of an arts education at the center of life in one of San Antonio’s most iconic historic places. It might become UTSA property, but the whole city feels ownership there.”

The Southwest Craft Center, as it was first named, was founded in 1965 and opened as a gallery in historic La Villita in 1968, coinciding with HemisFair ’68. Three years later it moved to its current home in the former Ursuline Convent and Academy, founded as the first all-girls school in San Antonio in 1851. The poorly maintained historic buildings were saved from demolition by The Conservation Society of San Antonio, which acquired them in the 1960s. The Southwest Craft Center was invited to move to the campus on the San Antonio River in 1971, and in 1981 it purchased the property.

Owen was named president in 1996 when the school was renamed the Southwest School of Art. That same year saw the expansion of the campus with the opening of the Navarro Street Building on the site of a former automotive center. Today the renamed John L. Santikos Building houses expansive contemporary exhibition galleries, state-of-the-art classrooms, and working studios for a range of art disciplines.

SSA welcomed its first class of undergraduate students in 2014. Four years later, 11 students were awarded the first bachelor of fine arts degrees. Even then, Owen faced difficult fundraising challenges seen as central to winning long-term accreditation as a degree-granting institution.

In November 2020, the school won accreditation by the National Association of Schools of Art and Design (NASAD), which sets national standards for undergraduate and graduate degrees and other art and design credentials. The accreditation came more than two years after SSA decided to suspend its pursuit of accreditation through the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC), which imposed stringent fundraising requirements and timelines that could not be met.

Once the deal with SSA is finalized, UTSA’s Downtown Campus will extend to multiple sites in the urban core. The original campus lies west of Interstate 35 between César Chávez Boulevard and Buena Vista Street and includes multiple academic buildings and other facilities. UTSA’s Institute of Texan Cultures is located on the southeast corner of Hemisfair.

SSA’s downtown properties, including its historic campus and the nearby one-block parcel, are rising in value as the area redevelops, with a 29-story mixed-use tower on the former WOAI site being the latest nearby project to win approval.

The SSA campus is home to some of the most popular downtown event spaces, including the Coates Chapel and Courtyard, a favorite wedding venue and seated dinner space, the Russell Hill Rogers Lecture Hall and Courtyard, and the Copper Kitchen Café.

The members-only dining venue Club Giraud operates independently as a campus tenant. It will continue to operate during the expected one-year transition but then will be subject to evaluation, according to the UTSA document, which states that UTSA will continue making the various other campus venues available for rentals and public use.

Senior Reporter Shari Biediger and Education Reporter Brooke Crum contributed reporting.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is co-founder and columnist at the San Antonio Report.