OLD LYME — After nearly two years of uncertainty, the Lyme Academy of Fine Arts has structured a new plan reflective of the founder’s mission and hired personnel in anticipation of reopening with as many as 20 full-time students in September.
“We thought, what an opportunity this could be to actually help contribute whatever we can to bring back what Elizabeth Gordon Chandler’s original mission for the school was,” said Jordan Sokol, a painter, and the new artistic director for the school, whose first day was Monday. His wife, artist Amaya Gurpide, will serve as the director of drawing at the school. The couple have a four-year-old daughter and have relocated to Old Lyme from Jersey City where Sokol served as academic director of the Florence Academy of Fine Arts’ presence in the United States.
Monday was also the first day for Mora Rowe as executive director for the school. Most recently, Rowe served as the director of economic development for the City of Auburn, Calif., and was previously the executive director and chief executive officer of Placer County Visitors Bureau in Auburn, Calif. She relocated to Essex in December 2020.
“I’ve always looked at management and leadership as a servant role,” said Rowe. “Instead of people working to serve a leader, the leader works to serve the organization. I like the role of supporting Jordan and his vision and the board’s vision.”
The board developed a 10-point manifesto “for the revival of the Lyme Academy of Fine Arts as it plans for its 50th anniversary in 2026,” said Michael Thomas Duffy, who was elected board chair in December and served on the artistic director search committee.
The plan includes adhering to the vision of founder Elisabeth Gordon Chandler, a well-known sculptor who founded the school in 1976 based on her philosophy that artists needed to be educated in the fundamentals of representational and figurative art forms, a curriculum she believed was waning in art education.
“There is still a need for Lyme Academy’s Mission,” and “An Academy, not a College,” are the first two points of the manifesto and reflect the board’s desire to avoid the pitfalls of accreditation to grant bachelor of fine arts degrees, which the school achieved first in 1992 and later in 2014 through an affiliation with University of New Haven, which that ended in 2019.
“I think that the seeds of the academy’s woes were sown in the 90s with that decision,” said Duffy.
The business plan for New Haven University was contingent upon enrolling 200 students at the Lyme Academy, which was difficult, Duffy said.
“That is a very large amount [of students] and that was never met. I think that at its most it got about 120 students and so it fell short of that of that large goal,” he said.
The new program will enroll at most 20 full-time students per year in what is expected to be a two-year program. Tuition will cost $10,000 per year, Duffy said.
Asked whether the tuition will cover the school’s expenses and salaries, Duffy said the academy has an $6.4 million endowment and $1 million in cash on hand.
Other goals in the manifesto include “serving the needs of many kinds of students,” which will include youth programs and classes open to the public, reconnecting with the academy alumni and investing in career development for graduates of the academy.
Duffy said ideas that could transform the campus into manifesto point four, “a vibrant community hub,” include remaking the school cafeteria into a cafe that would be open to the public and making the academy library an extension of the Phoebe Griffin Noyes Library
Housing will require some inquiries and connections within the Old Lyme community — for example, academic rentals in the beach communities, or spare bedrooms for rent in people’s homes or guest houses or cottages, said Duffy.
“I love the idea of taking in a Lyme Academy student, so, I would love to create a list of neighbors and people in Old Lyme, who fit that bill and have a spare room that they would like to rent to a student,” he said.
The 12-unit apartment building across the street that was once used as a dormitory for the academy is now rented to members of the public. The school was released from a long-term contract with the developer of the apartments, Henry Resnikoff and a partner. The academy had placed for sale a 26.31-acre parcel at 83 Lyme Street, across from the academy campus but the parcel appears to be off the market.
Duffy said the program will be for students whose intention is to build skills and mastery in drawing, sculpting, painting, human anatomy, rather than accumulating credits toward a degree.
“You could go in any one of a number of directions with those skills — graphic design, animation, architecture, decorative arts. You could become an artist yourself,” he said.
Sokol said that when he was a student, the model of an academy, as opposed to a college, fulfilled the type of education he was looking for. He studied at the Florence Academy of Art in Florence, Italy, and taught there after he graduated.
“When I made my decision to go to the Florence Academy, I didn’t have a college degree and I wasn’t interested in a college degree. I knew I wanted to be a painter and I just wanted to go where I would learn how to paint regardless of whether I would get a degree or not,” he said. “I find that a lot of my students share that same feeling. They’re not interested in the degree, they’re interested in learning how to paint so that they can pursue their dream and so [a degree] is not as important as maybe it once was.”
Rowe said the academy model reflected trends in the marketplace.
“So many industries are going back to the crafts and trades, learning a set of skills,” she said. “This is foundational and I don’t think that goes out of style. It’s almost more popular and it’s more affordable. The fact that you’re working with exceptional artists in their own right — I don’t think that’s a hard sell.”