UTSA’s merger with San Antonio arts school to go into effect Fall 2022

Gauri Raje, News Editor

UTSA’s merger with the Southwest School of Art (SSA) will go into effect in Fall 2022. SSA will combine with the art program at UTSA under the College of Liberal and Fine Arts (COLFA) to form a new school of art. Students, as well as faculty from the former, will transfer to UTSA. According to UTSA, the merger will be another step in expanding its downtown footprint. 

We are in the midst of the transition. We have already signed a definitive agreement for the merger to take place. The official formalities will occur in June, and that will be the moment that the institution will become part of UTSA … at this time UTSA and SSA are working very closely to align our programs, our donors, our mission and our facilities and all the elements that comprise an institution of higher education,” Paula Owen, president of the Southwest School of Art, said.

The idea to merge the two schools was initiated back in 2020 and was accelerated due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

We’ve said that COVID actually gave us the opportunity to think outside the box in our society at large and many businesses and institutions were [also] able, during that time — and in some cases were nudged in that direction — by the fact that everything was … changed so suddenly,” Owen said.

According to Glenn Martinez, dean of COLFA, merging with SSA is part of the University’s larger goal to “remake COLFA.”

“Remaking COLFA right now means three things to me — bolstering social science research, reimagining the humanities and recommitting to arts education,” Martinez said. “This has been a real driver of us inching closer to realizing our new vision of a new COLFA — really committed to the arts in significant ways … we have been committed to the arts since our founding, but I think it’s time, given everything that’s going on in UTSA, how we’re growing, how we’re elevating our stature, it’s time to recommit to the arts and really get the message out there that arts education is fundamental to a public research university that UTSA is imagining itself as.”

Photograph courtesy of the Southwest School of Art

SSA was founded in 1965 as “a community arts education and support organization for art and craft,” Owen explained. The school’s campus was the site of the Ursuline Convent and Academy, the first school for girls in San Antonio. 

Owen, who has served as president of the school since 1996, explained that the school started as a way to support artists in San Antonio as well as provide “art education programs,” and eventually went on to become an independent art school in San Antonio after the addition of a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) degree. 

“The term ‘independent college of art’ was introduced when we added the Bachelor of Fine Arts degree program, and it’s a term that’s used normally to distinguish those institutions that are not public institutions, such as UTSA. So, it’s independent, private colleges. That’s why we use the word independent because Texas did not have an independent college of art. It had art departments within universities, but it did not have a freestanding, standalone college of art and that was one of the reasons [why] in 2010 … we decided to plan for the launch of our degree program,” Owen said.

According to Owen, the school’s independent nature has helped foster an enriching environment for students throughout its run. 

“… we are a college of art that is totally focused on artists and art and the cultural environment and … [its] a concentrated effort on the part of everyone — the board of trustees, the donors, the faculty [and] the staff, the students … and many of the people on campus on any given day are artists, are trained, are educated in the arts,” Owen said.

However, Owen was quick to point out that merging with UTSA — a public university — would prove to be beneficial for students. 

“We would not have voted to pursue this vision if we didn’t believe that it benefitted students, that it benefited the community, benefited a part of the larger community … [the] arts community. And San Antonio has a very robust arts community. And so to move forward with the new and expanded school of art, we have set ourselves [on the course] to become something that Texas does not have right now — a large and innovative and forward-thinking school of art that … may have some traditional approaches but has many more innovative approaches to the teaching of art,” Owen said.

Photograph courtesy of the Southwest School of Art

Martinez also emphasized that the merger will give students opportunities that were not a part of UTSA’s previous art program, including access to interdisciplinary studies on the SSA campus and the ability to get hands-on experience with varying types of media, as well as internships and community arts education.

One of those is the introduction of interdisciplinary studios. So before at UTSA, if you were in ceramics, you did ceramics and that was it. Given the way that SSA was structured — the small number of students, the proximity of facilities [from one to] another — there was a real emphasis on interdisciplinary studios, so sculpture could go and explore … painting … a painter could go and explore fibers … we’re trying to bring that experience to our BFA experience here at UTSA,” Martinez said. “The idea is to promote creative expression to its fullest by allowing artists to experience … different media … so that’s one very concrete way that we’re bringing together the best of both worlds.”

Owen further emphasized that while it’s hard to pinpoint the exact impact of the decision, it’s one that was made with commitment.

Well, as an artist myself, I am used to ambiguity and uncertainty and risk-taking. So, I can’t give … a very specific answer. I can simply say that it will be an iterative process and that we’re all committed to working towards a very grand vision for a new and expanded school of art under UTSA,” Owen said.