The Vermont College of Fine Arts will stop hosting students on its Montpelier campus next year and is considering selling or leasing some of its 11 buildings, the school announced Wednesday.
The college, which offers low-residency master’s degrees in six artistic disciplines, formally announced its plan on Wednesday to end on-campus programs and move some to Colorado College, a liberal arts school in Colorado Springs.
The move, which could lead to the transfer or lease of millions of dollars worth of property, appears to represent a dramatic transformation for the nearly 15-year-old private school and for the city of Montpelier.
“We are a low-residency school on what was at one time a residential campus,” Leslie Ward, the college president, said in an interview Tuesday. “It doesn't serve our needs. It's not going to serve our future vision of how we want to best serve our students. So how do we think about that differently?”
In the past, most Vermont College of Fine Arts students spent roughly two and a half weeks total during the year on campus for workshops, performances and lectures. That time was split between two semesters: one residency in the winter, the other in the summer.
Starting next summer, the school will hold its summer residencies at Colorado College, and winter residencies will take place virtually. The school hopes to add international residency programs as well.
Along with the move, the college is considering selling or leasing almost all of its buildings, Ward said.
The college plans to keep its administrative offices in College Hall, a 19th-century building at 36 College St., and maintain the school’s green. Administrators have hired the real estate firm White and Burke to decide what to do with the remaining 10 buildings on campus, she said.
“We really are cognizant of our role as stewards of this beautiful property, and we'll be working in collaboration with the community and the city of Montpelier around those options,” she said.
Ward said the decision came about primarily because administrators wanted to encourage collaboration among artists of different disciplines.
The school has only enough capacity to host students from one program at a time, meaning that students in poetry and graphic design, for example, do not overlap with each other. By moving its summer residencies to Colorado College’s campus, she said, the school will be able to bring all its students together in a space with better artistic facilities.
“The future of arts education really lies in the blurring of boundaries between disciplines, and the opportunity for interdisciplinary collaboration and inspiration,” said Ward, who took over the role of president in 2019 after serving as a board member.
But she admitted that finances “are always an important part of your decision.”
Normally, the school has between 350 and 365 students, according to Ward. But after an initial bump in enrollment in 2020, those figures dropped as students took leaves of absence. Currently, about 340 students are enrolled, she said.
The college also shifted its residencies to online during the Covid-19 pandemic, Ward said. Administrators managed to hold one fully on-campus residency last year before the Omicron variant struck Vermont.
The Vermont College of Fine Arts is currently operating with a hybrid model, in which students have the option of completing their residencies in person or virtually.
VCFA has an annual budget of roughly $11 million and 155 employees, both of which could change if the school leases or sells buildings.
The college is financially stable, Ward said, but without students on campus, the school lost revenue from room and board fees, and school administrators “began to realize that we probably don't need to support a residential campus as a nonresidential college.”
Tom Greene, a novelist who founded the school and served as its president until 2019, said in a text message that he did not have access to the college’s financial information, and that administrators “have to make difficult decisions.”
“But, objectively, this is devastating for Montpelier, its economy, and for all of us who fought so hard to make sure a campus that had been in continuous educational use since 1868 remained that way,” he said.
The buildings that became the College of Fine Arts were built as a seminary nearly 200 years ago, and have been a part of a series of educational institutions since then. College Hall is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The campus was previously owned by Norwich University and operated as Vermont College for roughly 30 years, until it was bought by the Ohio-based Union Institute and University in 2001, according to the college’s website.
The Vermont College of Fine Arts became an independent institution in 2008, after Greene raised nearly $14 million to buy the campus and three master’s degree programs from Union Institute.
Before buying the school, Greene told Seven Days in 2007 that he wanted to “turn this historic campus into a place where the next generation of writers and artists pass through on their way to creating their own work.”
Administrators have championed the school’s low-residency model as an affordable alternative to traditional master’s degree programs.
“We believe it's the model of the future,” Ward said. “It fits people's busy lives.”
But with the potential sale of much of the campus, and an end to on-campus programs, the move appears likely to cut many of the institution’s ties to Vermont.
Asked about the school’s future connection to the state, Ward said that “the Vermont piece is really our heritage.”
“VCFA is the people. It is our community,” she said. “Really, we could be anywhere.”
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