For Art's Sake - The business of art

Is ACA/SCAD merger a foregone conclusion?

Irregularities in the voting process that gave a thumbs-up to the merger of the Atlanta College of Art and the Savannah College of Art and Design last month has led ACA board members to hold a second vote next week.

ACA board member Morten Brante, who voted against the merger, circulated an e-mail to board members Aug. 8 criticizing the secrecy and rushed handling of the issue, which came as a surprise to some board members, not to mention ACA students, faculty and administrators. More damning, he also pointed out that at least three honorary nonvoting board members cast votes in the narrow 10-9 decision, that some voting members were not notified of the meeting, and a 10-day written notice of the meeting was not given.

As a result, a second vote will be held Aug. 22.

But whatever the outcome of that revote, it's the Woodruff Arts Center vote on Aug. 24 that really matters, says ACA board Chairman John Spiegel, a member of the ACA board for two years and the WAC board since 1976 who championed the merger.

The opening of Savannah College of Art and Design's Atlanta campus in March initially seemed like a good thing. It promised a more vibrant and diverse art scene.

SCAD is known for its comprehensive curriculum, and its ability to prepare students for careers after graduation. It has a reputation for restoring old buildings and has helped revitalize Savannah since its founding in 1979.

But in the arts community, SCAD has often been the subject of suspicion and some rancor, in part stemming from the college's rapid growth and the aggressive way it has dealt with interlopers and perceived threats.

In a 1992 New York Times article, detractors claimed SCAD was "an economic enterprise first and an academic one second."

And in 1993, SCAD fought tooth and nail to protect its turf, suing the School of Visual Arts in New York when it tried to open a campus in Savannah.

What a surprise, then, to find the same school that had fought to protect its own dominion had been undergoing secret talks with some Atlanta College of Art board members about a merger with ACA.

On July 26, the official announcement was made; SCAD and ACA were planning to merge into one mega-Time Warner-style art school behemoth.

Atlanta has proven yet again that it doesn't mind being known as the kind of business-first city that offers up its cultural legacy to the institution with the fatter wallet.

SCAD has 7,500 students at its Savannah campus, and 150 signed up for fall classes in Atlanta. ACA has about 330 students, and a commitment, its faculty and administrators say, to keeping the school small and devoted to a fine arts curriculum during its prestigious 100-year history.

The merger would certainly benefit SCAD in allowing it to eliminate a competitor and absorb any faculty and students who weather the process.

But no one gets swallowed without some complicity, and some say the Woodruff Arts Center would benefit from the merger.

Insiders at ACA believe the entire effort has been driven by the Woodruff Arts Center, which might see a financial incentive in leasing the ACA's classroom and administrative space. As an added bonus, WAC wouldn't have to deal with the school's artsy upstarts when the new $130 million High expansion and higher profile "village for the arts" opens Nov. 12.

And with an annual budget of $143 million, compared to ACA's annual budget of $11.5 million, SCAD offers a tantalizingly large pocketbook to use as it sees fit.

It's all just business, apparently.

Like many faculty I spoke to, Elizabeth Turk, chairwoman of the ACA photography department, is concerned about her future amid the frustratingly ambiguous merger talk. Turk has taught at ACA for 23 years with a long-term contract that is renewed every five years.

In that time, Turk says, she has come to value the administration's support for ACA faculty and the interdisciplinary approach for students, who can sample and experiment in different disciplines.

Maybe people like Turk are just idealistic and naive.

Quality of education? History? A diverse arts scene? Faculty and their students' futures? All seem suddenly irrelevant next to someone else's better business plan.

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