Lyme Academy plans to stay open over upcoming academic year

Old Lyme — Lyme Academy of Fine Arts officials said Thursday that the school's campus will stay open over the upcoming academic year, with fall programming in the works, while it continues to make strides to rebuild itself.

The move comes after months of uncertainty and speculation over whether the academy could temporarily or permanently close after the University of New Haven suddenly announced it would disaffiliate with the school last August.

“This is like starting a new business, we are starting from the ground up,” academy board of trustees Chairman Stephen Tagliatela said Thursday in an interview with The Day, while also explaining that since UNH announced it would disaffiliate last year, the 12 trustees overseeing the academy have had their hands full trying to manage the 100-member student body, organizing accelerated graduation options for juniors, while also finding alternative schooling solutions for sophomores and freshmen.

Aside from that, the board also has had to work through the “nitty gritty” of the disaffiliation process, Tagliatela said, officially separating on June 28 and ceasing the ability to grant bachelor's degrees in fine arts after the school’s last “super-juniors” graduate Aug. 17.

“All of that was our first priority,” Tagliatela said, but now “we are starting from ground zero, basically, and it will take a long time to build that back up. We need the community to understand that. (The board) is looking at all opportunities right now. A number of different possibilities.”

With a desire to keep in line with founder Elisabeth Gordon Chandler’s original vision for the academy, Tagliatela explained that the board also may decide to affiliate with another arts college in the future, or it may organize its own two- or three-year certification program, allowing students to focus on intensive studio courses at Lyme while receiving general education requirements for a bachelor’s degree elsewhere.

“If we can make the right kind of agreements, it can be very mutually beneficial. We have wonderful studio facilities here that most colleges and universities can’t afford or can’t have,” said Kimberly Monson, a Lyme professor who has taken an active role guiding the academy through its recent transition, helping organize both its summer and upcoming fall programming. “What if you could send your art majors here while they are fulfilling their degrees at a different school? We have the potential to make these types of agreements.”

The possibility of instating its own master’s program also is on the table, Monson said, but to do that, the school would first need to seek re-accreditation, a process that will take at least a year. The academy lost its accreditation when the University of New Haven partnership ended.

“A lot of things are happening, and we don’t want to cut out anything, because maybe the program that would be ideal for us hasn’t been developed yet. Maybe our innovation will create that opportunity,” Monson said. “I like to see the situation as an opportunity, as opposed to something that’s happened to us. We basically get to set the reset button and start the way it was intended to go.”

‘We need more donors’

Originally founded in 1976, the academy, renowned for its intensive studio courses based in figurative and representational art, had been granting bachelor's degrees in fine arts since 1996 before affiliating with UNH in 2014 after experiencing difficulty maintaining its enrollment and finances, according to a statement made by UNH President Steven Kaplan last August when announcing disaffiliation plans.

Tagliatela said three years into the affiliation, UNH, too, started experiencing difficultly keeping its enrollment up.

“They recognized that they were funding this project out of their own pockets at a half-million dollars per year and it was only benefiting a really small number of students,” said Tagliatela, who also sits on the UNH board of governors. “They weren’t looking to make money, but were looking to break even. But they saw that they were going to have to open up their checkbook that much more.”

Following the widespread speculation of a potential permanent closing after UNH announced it would disaffiliate, the fear was further stoked in March after three academy officials, including Tagliatela, approached the town's Board of Finance requesting a $102,500 "special allocation" to help the academy.

The money, they said, would provide added financial stability as the academy board continued to look for a long-term solution. “We must reinvent ourselves or close,” trustee board Treasurer Brian Beglin had said to the finance board.

With a highly restricted endowment fund, then in control of the University of New Haven, and an estimated $700,000 needed for maintenance costs over this academic year, Beglin said the academy board worried it would not have enough funds to break even, despite efforts from the board to raise approximately $160,000 and an estimated $421,000 that could be freed from the academy’s approximate $7 million endowment.

Tagliatela also explained then that the academy owed at least $1.5 million to the university after it borrowed money to cover campus improvements and upgrades, as well as deficiencies in operating expenses.

Since the disaffiliation, however, Tagliatela said the academy has gained full control over its endowment but it’s still heavily restricted, and UNH will require the academy to pay back its $1.5 million loan only if its property is sold or the academy starts making a profit. He said payments will not be required over the next three years, as outlined in the disaffiliation agreement, and interest will not accumulate on the loan. The academy also has retained ownership of its property, including its buildings, furnishings and arts equipment, aside from a telephone system that UNH took.

The town's Board of Finance, after denying the academy’s request in March, said the academy was invited to come before the board once more after it had formed a comprehensive understanding of its finances and a plan for its future.

Tagliatela said Thursday that the board may pursue that option once more and that while there have been a handful of “very generous donors” helping to keep the institution alive, more are still needed.

“We are definitely interested in people who might want to help us with our mission. It’s definitely an expensive opportunity that we have,” he said. “To make this place successful as we move forward, we need more donors. We absolutely need more donors, or we won’t be successful.”

Starting from a clean slate

In the weeks since UNH has officially disaffiliated, academy officials have made strides to move its future visions along, hiring a part-time interim director and business manager, Frank Burns, as well as working with marketing firm Miranda Creative of Norwich to overhaul Lyme’s marketing campaign, to both redesign its website and revamp its search engine optimization initiatives, as well as take part in developing a digital Adobe software certification course that potentially will run at the academy this fall.

Burns said the academy is now looking to hire a firm to help create a strategic plan for where the school would look to be in three years.

Describing the academy's future as a clean slate, Burns said, "We want people to know that we are alive and well, and that the board's intent is to come up with a strategic operating plan moving forward," Burns said. One "that's going to address the original mission that Elizabeth put together, but while also looking at current trends appealing to the younger generation."

Burns, who is the Connecticut Tourism Coalition’s director of business development, has worked closely with Tagliatela — who also is  president of the coalition — over the last 30-plus years since Tagliatela’s father first hired Burns as a consultant to help open the Saybrook Point Inn and Spa of Old Saybrook, which the Tagliatela family owns.

Since, Burns has undertaken a variety of consulting roles for Tagliatela’s business and also worked as an acting general manager for the inn’s Fresh Salt restaurant when that first opened. Burns also teaches hospitality and management at the State University of New York's Adirondack Community College and at UNH. He lives in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

Originally searching for a director with a more extensive background in the arts and art programming, as was outlined in the academy’s original job posting for the position, Tagliatela said the board backtracked that idea, realizing, “That’s not what we need right now. We need an entrepreneur that can start a business.”

“Frank will be a tremendous asset because of his business acumen and background to get all these things accomplished,” Tagliatela said. “His background in teaching in higher education also gives him a unique skill set for this job. We are very happy to have Frank to work with us and find a pathway forward.”

Helping organize the school's upcoming art programming, Burns said he has relied on both Monson and the board to assist with that, lining up fall programing that will include traditional art classes, such as anatomical figure drawing and figure painting and sculpture, as well as a photography class and the Adobe certifications courses, among others.

"We want to show people that we are moving forward, that there is progress being made and that we are here for the long run," Burns said. "This isn’t a temporary experiment. We are committed to this. This is a process, an ongoing evolution. And it’s going to take some time to get us to where we were pre-UNH."

The academy is offering a variety of summer classes and workshops for children and adults, lists of which are available on the school's website, www.lymeacademy.org. It will celebrate its last Senior Studio Exhibition, which runs through Aug. 16, with an opening reception from 5 to 8 p.m. Friday, July 19, in the academy's Chauncey Stillman Gallery, 84 Lyme St.

m.biekert@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version corrects Frank Burns' work history.

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