University of the Arts closes, everybody loses

I was invited by the editors at Philadelphia Citizen to write something about the meaning of the loss of University of the Arts to the city, and how it would impact us all. I wrote about how artists are optimists and that this blow tears at the spirit of can-do positivity we were just now beginning to get back after the pandemic and recession stole it from us. In hindsight one thing didn't say but that I now believe would help the arts is if the city instituted a "sports for arts" tax on tickets for all games in Philadelphia played by the Eagles, Phillies, 76ers, Flyers. It's long overdue for the teams to support the arts and the easiest way is to have a ticket tax that goes to the arts. There's got to be a way to do this.

People on steps and the sidewalk in front of a building with large pillars and banners flying between them. They are students and their university has just announced it is closing.
University of the Arts students congregate on the steps and sidewalk in front of Hamilton Hall two days before UArts closed on June 7, 2024. Photo by Max Kimbrough

[This article was first published in Philadelphia Citizen on June 7, 2024, under the title, “What we lose when we lose UArts.”]

The news last week of University of the Arts’ sudden closing — following the collapse, last year, of the BFA and MFA programs at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts — is a blow to the confidence of the arts community in Philadelphia. It threatens to kill off the optimistic spirit that is only now blooming again after Covid and the recession gutted galleries and disturbed the fragile ecosystem of artists, maker spaces, artist collectives and larger institutions.

The sky is not falling, but we need to see a bigger picture, of a community of humans and a system of arts institutions and how those two are intertwined, economically and socially, for better — and now, in this instance, for worse. Collapse of an institution like University of the Arts is a disaster for the arts community and for Philadelphia.

Of course the arts community is familiar with threats to its sector. While Philadelphia provides support to the arts through the Office of Art Culture and the Creative Economy (OACCE) and the Philadelphia Cultural Fund (PCF), every other year, one mayor or another cuts the OACCE out of the city budget and slices the PCF budget to the bone. In other words, support for the arts is not a priority — in spite of the many research studies showing that arts and culture spending is a bigger generator of dollars for the city than sporting events are. According to the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, arts institutions deliver $4.1 billion in economic impact and 55,000 jobs.

Meanwhile, thousands of art students come to Philadelphia each September, and hundreds of artists graduate from Philadelphia art colleges and universities each May, hopeful as hell about making it here. Some stay because of cheap rents and a rich, gritty, DIY underground arts community that is more exciting than what’s in Brooklyn (imo). Some stay to be adjunct professors or to become baristas. Some go on to become pillars in our arts world.

Take two examples — Paradigm Gallery and Studios, started in 2010 by Sara McCorriston and Jason Chen, and Art Star, begun in 2004 by Megan Brewster and Erin Waxman. All four of those artists were UArts graduates who burst out of their school with visions of creating art, creating a community, and serving the public and the public good. They are successful and contribute to the city not only financially but in their spirit of can do and generosity of welcoming the public in.

Former students like these are not going to stay around long in the face of one disaster after another letting the air out of the arts balloon. Pity poor Pig Iron Theatre Company, an also gritty independent teaching organization brought on board at UArts as part of their degree-granting programs. With this closure, Pig Iron – a wonderful incubator of performing arts talent – is now imperiled as an organization.

In a world of pessimists, artists are optimists

Artists live and breathe for the making, sharing, and joy that comes from being in community. In a world of pessimists, they are optimists, visionaries, and open to new ideas. Artists believe, truly believe, that art makes the world a better place. (They are right.) They take on student loan debt to study art in college and hope to become artists who continue to produce art throughout their lives. At the end of their college careers, they are not promised a career path, because there is none. Artists are not told up front that their path is to be small business people, basically, unincorporated entrepreneurs. As we know, many small businesses do not make it. That is a hard reality for an optimist.

Institutions like University of the Arts may be built on the founders’ optimism about art as a tool to support society, but, over time they’ve grown into big businesses that are top-heavy with administrators and with bean counters who make the decisions. Institutional growth based on dollars and cents for the institution does not support art, artists, and society. In fact, running the art colleges as big businesses undermines the mission of art as a tool to support society.

The earnest labor of artists who teach at art institutions and students who want to learn cannot thrive when the institution fails to pay a supportive wage for teaching and charges exorbitant tuition and ancillary costs to students who will never get out from under their student loan debt. The entire system of higher education in the arts needs to be rethought so that financial growth is not the goal but art and artists and the betterment of society are the goals.

I’m not for abolishing higher education for artists — far from it! But in the case of higher education for artists, I believe that smaller is better. While it was horrible to witness the collapse at PAFA of their BFA and MFA programs, I wonder if PAFA wasn’t right to downsize back to the certificate program — small scale, intimate, supportive. I hate that they let go of teachers and staff and that they left students in the lurch about their futures. But the institutional soul searching and reckoning they did, and the planning for the students was handled in a professional framework and time frame. It wasn’t enough and was a blow to the community, but still.

My optimistic soul jumped at the notice this week that Temple University reached out to offer a potential way forward. Saving UArts would be a way to salvage the heart of our city. Artists are creators of things, yes — paintings, sculpture, jewelry, plays, music, pottery. But they are also little engines that can. Their creations foster community and generate positive energy. It was wonderful when the Eagles won the Super Bowl in 2018, but it was even more wonderful when Jason Kelce wore a Mummers costume to the parade and sang a song on the Parkway. That was art lifting spirits even higher.

Artists buy in to civic engagement. They vote, they send their children to Philadelphia public schools; they teach in those schools. They believe in helping each other and when some artist in their community needs help, they organize fundraising or cookie sales. They don’t have tons of money but they buy each others’ art as a way to support the community. A surprising number of collectors of Philadelphia art are Philadelphia artists.

Artists live in every neighborhood. They are your neighbors. They are entrepreneurs. They are ingenious, and sometimes they turn out to be great business people. How impoverished we — and our collective civil society — would be without them.