OLD LYME — After 43 years of providing students with a classical education in the arts, Lyme Academy of Fine Arts will close its doors this September unless a partner institution comes forward with funding.
Established in 1976 by sculptor Elisabeth Gordon Chandler, the school was accredited to grant Bachelor of Fine Arts degrees beginning in 1992, with its first graduating class in 1996. Chandler’s mission was to educate artists through a studio curriculum rooted in figurative and representational art, which she believed was disappearing from art education.
“Elisabeth Gordon Chandler said there’s a lack of people in the world who can draw, who can sculpt,” said Kim Monson, a member of the first graduating class and instructor of anatomy, sculpture and drawing for what may be the last. Monson has been active in efforts to save the institution and the Chandler legacy.
Standing under an enormous northerly-facing skylight in one of the school’s cavernous studios, Monson pointed to the unique quality of the light in Old Lyme that has attracted artists to the area for generations.
“The light here is different and the story is it’s very much like the light in the south of France, so that’s why the American Impressionists and the Barbizon painters came to this area.”
Following Chandler’s vision, Monson said, the school has emphasized building a classical skill set which can be used across media, including drawing, sculpture and painting.
“Those are the skills the masters used and through the years are still being up held here. That’s the mission and that’s what we’d like to keep. It’s a legacy.”
But that legacy may soon disappear.
In 2014, the University of New Haven (UNH) affiliated with Lyme, saving it from losing its accreditation and providing a needed influx of funding for capital improvements.
But as of August 2019, UNH will disaffiliate itself from the art college, taking with it Lyme’s illustration department. Lyme will retain ownership of all assets including the campus real estate and endowment.
According to the UNH website for Lyme, the UNH Board of Governors “indicated that within four or five years of finalizing the affiliation agreement with Lyme that the revenue generated through the programs offered at Lyme would need to reach a level that would cover the cost of operating the campus. Although the campus enrollment grew significantly since the affiliation, it became apparent that it would be difficult to reach the goal of financial viability in the foreseeable future.”
Freshmen and sophomores were offered automatic transfers to Hartford Art School, a college of the University of Hartford, for fall semester 2019. Juniors were offered an intensive, accelerated program allowing them to graduate in August this year. In all, about 28 seniors graduated on May 17 and about 33 juniors are expected to graduate in August.
But without another college or university stepping up to affiliate, the degree-granting program will be gone, said Fritz Jellinghaus, a former vice president for development at Lyme.
“Unless there’s a partner there it will be shuttered,” he said in a phone interview on May 17. “I think the decision was made to end the institution as a degree-granting college so the word ‘college’ has been taken out of its name and there is no intention to recruit students to a degree-granting program in the fall, so the degree program is gone.”
Jellinghaus said the school had been looking “very aggressively” to find a compatible partner institution but no agreement has been announced.
This summer Lyme Academy of Fine Arts will offer a variety of programs including workshops and master classes, Pre-College and Middle School Academies at the Lyme campus. Florence Academy of Art, an independent art school with studios based in Italy, Sweden and the United States, will rent studio space from Lyme and offer its own classes in August.
But beginning in September, the studios are expected to sit empty.
Over the years Lyme has struggled financially, a fact that Jellinghaus attributed to the nature of an art institution. “You do not have an affluent alumni body as most educational institutions do. The place will never be sustained by alumni philanthropy,” he said.
One idea for financial self-sustainability, at least for the campus, was the establishment of the Center for Arts Programming in April 2015. The center was to offer year-round programs in studio instruction and art appreciation for students and adults, with Marguerite d’Aprile Quigley, an experienced arts administrator, at the helm.
“I worked hard to establish the center with the hopes it would become a robust community asset and resource with lectures and exhibitions and opportunities to come study painting and sculpture and drawing and illustration. We hoped it would be such a vital and useful community asset that the community would support it,” Jellinghaus said.
But that didn’t happen. “The center generated some initial gifts from the same group of college friends, but never really any community money. People would come and pay their $15 to see an art film or an exhibition or a lecture but it never attracted any serious philanthropy, which was a shock to me, to the college and to the university, that we weren’t able to generate community support for a community asset,” he said.
The center wouldn’t have supported the college’s degree-granting program, but Jellinghaus said he was surprised the community didn’t support the center’s mission, considering the artistic history of the area.
“We had a unique mission and we were doing some remarkable programming with an art film series and a lecture series and exhibitions but we failed to excite community support,” he said. “That’s the heartbreaking tragedy in this community, which is so proud of its artistic heritage in American Impressionism, which has so many prominent artists, and galleries and good museums.”
Establishing an educational or research center affiliated with a college or university is exactly what Randy Melick, an associate professor at UNH, and longtime department chair and Deane G. Keller chair at Lyme, said he wants to see on the Lyme campus.
“Many campuses have a ‘center for the study of XYZ,’ and generally that center has a director at the university but the center isn’t necessarily integrated into the university. The center is there because it provides an additional forum that enriches the ecology of the community,” he said.
A center for classical art on the campus, said Melick, could host scholarly symposia, forums and talks. “The affiliation can be at little or no cost to the other institution. We’re not looking to receive accreditation as part of the affiliation necessarily,” he said.
Monson said she wanted to see agreements with other colleges and universities allowing students to take Lyme courses for credit that would be accepted at other colleges and universities “Ultimately I’d like to see a master’s degree program here because that’s what Elisabeth wanted.” Monson also believes that bringing together master’s and foundation students at the campus would benefit students.
The biggest immediate impact of the school closing has been on the students, said Monson. “They thought they were home and they thought they were settled and they thought they knew where they were going to be for the next four years and that was not the case. Reflection will come later but right now it’s triage in a lot of ways. It’s been rough.”
Sitting in the school’s student commons on May 15 was Toby Bridges, 19, of Houston, Texas, a sophomore majoring in drawing who is transferring to School of Visuals Arts in New York City this fall. Bridges said she chose Lyme because she felt immediately comfortable when she came for a tour. And the school provided an excellent scholarship. “I came to see the school and fell in love with it and definitely wanted to be in this environment,” she said.
Bridges said she didn’t want the school to close, even if it continued unaccredited.
“I want the quality of the education to be the same even if the school is not accredited,” she said. “Hopefully in the future we’ll have accreditation again but for the most part I just hope this education is available to other people because I have benefitted from it so much myself and I don’t want that opportunity to disappear for everyone else.”
Sitting on a couch nearby was Kate Aiello, 24 of Stonington, a sculpture major who chose to do the accelerated junior program and will graduate in August. She said the school’s emphasis on figurative and classical art as well as the small classes were “crucial in my choosing to go here.”
“Before I came I here, I went to two other colleges, not for art either one, but I was very unmotivated — like for showing up to class when you’re one of 1,000,” she said. “Here, the teachers notice and they hold you accountable. You matter here.”
Sitting in her office not far from the commons, Nancy Gladwell, an associate professor at UNH who has taught at Lyme for 27 years, said she hoped the academy would reopen.
“I hope to be back. It will be a loss for the community and we hope to come back as an integral part of the community sooner rather than later.”
“I feel sad, of course,” she added. “This is a great place to work — great colleagues, the students are amazing. We’re all kindred spirits here.”