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Hard lessons learned from the closing of St. Paul’s College of Visual Arts

College of Visual Arts
For nearly a century, CVA, the little school that could, adapted, thrived, stumbled, adapted, and thrived again.

For 89 years, Saint Paul’s College of Visual Arts (CVA) educated and trained the art directors, designers, illustrators, photographers, fine artists, and educators who helped make the Twin Cities a world leader in the creative arts. One year ago this month, the last class graduated from CVA.

The legacies left by CVA and its graduates are numerous, profound, and indelible. Although sometimes disparaged as being “too commercial” or “too vocational” to be a proper art college, CVA was an ideal forum for students who wanted to just do it rather than to just think about doing it. CVA, in its Summit Avenue castle, became home for a diverse mix of students, some quirky, some out of step — seeking to immerse themselves in a passionate, supportive, and hands-on environment. Their achievements in the creative community are extraordinary.    

For nearly a century, CVA, the little school that could, adapted, thrived, stumbled, adapted, and thrived again. Ironically, CVA’s closing shuttered an institution with a long record of inspiring and educating creative problem solvers — the very people who may have been able to help keep CVA’s doors open, if only they had been given a chance.

Underdog school

There are reasons why CVA, a school that overcame nine decades of difficult challenges, did not make it into its second century. But these reasons do not include any lack of passion, talent, or commitment by CVA’s faculty and students. CVA never had a substantial endowment. It never had a prestigious pedigree. It was the underdog school. But what CVA always had — and what it still had to the day it closed — was heart.

The abrupt announcement by CVA’s board and president that the school would close at the end of the spring semester shocked the faculty, students, and alumni. They immediately rallied in support of the school they loved. But their passion, commitment to, and love for the little school in the castle could not shake the administration’s decision to quickly give up. Those who were served most by CVA’s mission ultimately had no voice at the table. And so, the end came.

Passion is required

CVA’s closure can serve as a warning.

Kolean Pitner
Photo by Ken Friberg
Kolean Pitner

A board’s leadership roles in fund-raising and strategic oversight are vital. But in art and education, leadership can fail its stakeholders if it focuses only on the money and interacts only with the management. Leadership that lacks passion for, understanding of, and commitment to an institution’s mission cannot be relied upon to fight for that mission when adversity inevitably arises.

Collaboration with an institution’s constituents is hard. It is messy, and it is uncertain. Making decisions in a vacuum is uncomplicated. But to fulfill their responsibilities, leaders must be willing to listen, to bring people together, and to work to serve the best interests of all stakeholders.

To truly deserve their posts, leaders must be willing to accept that there are things they do not know. They must encourage participation by those who love their institutions. And, while the fire still burns during the darkest of nights — as it did with CVA — leaders must welcome into the arena those willing to fight for survival.

Kolean Pitner was an assistant professor at CVA for 26 years and member of CVA Action’s board of directors.

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