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Closed in 2008, Spokane Art School rallies as nonprofit

Sun., Nov. 11, 2012, midnight

If art changes the world, then the world changes art, too – including the stuff it’s made of as well as the way we learn to make it.

When the Spokane Art School closed its doors in 2008, selling its downtown building and putting the money it had left into an endowment fund, it cited dwindling federal and state support for the arts. Enrollment in the school’s classes was down, too, according to reports at the time.

As an independent entity, the art school has been mostly dormant since. The $1 million it had from the building sale after paying off its bills went into a fund under the umbrella of the MAC Foundation.

But now the school is extending new roots into the community. It reincorporated as a nonprofit institution and is offering a small roster of classes as a “school without walls,” said Sue Bradley, president of the school’s board of trustees.

It’s also working on a long-term plan to get some permanent walls of its own – and in its next phase of life, the Spokane Arts School will reflect both new media and students’ new needs, Bradley said.

“The way art is delivered and the way people are encountering art – particularly with the change in the Internet and technology – is changing,” she said. “So the art school model for arts education is also changing. What is not changing is that we’re finding individuals want their children to do art, and adults still want to make art.”

The art school’s “old model” was to offer a variety of weekly classes, one long session at a time.

“People don’t do art like that anymore,” Bradley said. “Nobody does a nine-week class anymore. They’ve got soccer.”

For the art school, she said, the job becomes figuring out how to help children and adults develop their creative and technical skills while adapting to their busy lives. So offering shorter and drop-in classes is one aspect of a long-term plan under development by the trustees.

Another aspect is to find a new location. While that’s a long way off, Bradley said – there’s the “master plan” to finish, budgets to envision, fundraising to undertake – board members are investigating potential locations. They’d like the school to open downtown, she said, near Mobius Science Center and other attractions.

“The vision is to have something that looks like an art factory, where we’d have a working printing press, where we’d have a ceramics studio,” Bradley said. Also among potential offerings: digital-media classes.

Run by a resident artist with enough cachet to draw other artists to Spokane, Bradley said, the school would offer studio space for rent.

“It would be the kind of building and facility that would support working artists, so people could have studio time,” she said. “We have dozens of young people graduate every year from the fine arts program in our universities. And in order to keep doing the work they’ve learned, they have to either keep paying tuition to get access to the studios or they somehow have to have the financial wherewithal to set up their own studios. In this economy that’s very difficult.”

‘Starting small’

But that’s all stages of development away. While the timeline is fuzzy, Bradley estimated that if the art school isn’t in a new spot downtown within five years, the trustees will at least by then know where it’s going.

For now, the school – run by part-time staff paid through income from the endowment – is slowly rebuilding its faculty and adding classes.

Karen Kaiser, the school’s program director, noted that the school’s 2008 closure meant a loss not just of classes, but also its physical resources. The building’s three stories included a gallery, ceramics and jewelry studios and a darkroom.

That it provided so much – in a building with costly overhead – may have been part of its problem, especially as arts organizations and galleries throughout the community faced cuts, said Kaiser, also the interim director of the Jundt Art Museum at Gonzaga University.

So as the school grows again, it’s doing so slowly, she said. “We’re starting small and moving from there.”

Classes for children started this year in the former Tinman Too space, leased free of charge to the school by Bradley. That space is on West Garland Avenue, next to the Tinman Gallery, which Bradley also owns.

The art school’s next session will start in January and include adult classes. Where the classes take place will depend on where the teachers can find space, whether it’s in their own studios or elsewhere.

Learning from pros

No longer able to afford the building it had occupied at 920 N. Howard St. since 1984, the school sold the roughly 11,700-square-foot property in 2008 for about $1.1 million. After the sale, art school leaders created the endowment fund inside the MAC Foundation, with a group of people associated with the old school advising the foundation on how to use its endowment income. As a formal entity, the art school was dissolved. Bradley was president of the museum’s board at the time.

That council worked with artists and other organizations to offer a few art classes at Crosswalk Teen Shelter and elsewhere. The hope was to eventually establish an art school at the museum, Bradley said.

But the MAC faced budget and staffing problems of its own that made that seem unlikely, she said. The school reincorporated as a nonprofit last spring. It contracted with the museum to keep managing the endowment.

Jodi Davis worked as the school’s operations manager in its old building and is back on the job at its base, for now, at the Tinman. In the past, Davis said, the school counted among its students young people planning to study fine art in college and professional artists seeking to learn new skills.

“When you come to the Spokane Art School, you are learning from somebody who has lived and breathed their craft for a long time,” she said. As professional artists, the instructors know how to sell their work, for example, along with the techniques of photography or painting. Students “are able to glean from these teachers what it is to be an artist – what does it mean to take it on as a profession.”

A faculty of professional artists will continue to be one of the school’s “special characteristics,” Bradley said. Ken Spiering, whose public art pieces include Riverfront Park’s Radio Flyer Red Wagon, and painter Kay O’Rourke are among those planning to lead workshops, she said.

Spiering started teaching at the art school in 1970, when classes were held in donated basement space.

As an art teacher at Freeman High School in Rockford, Spiering said, he augments his small supplies budget with proceeds from an annual art festival. When funding shrinks, “art has always been the first one to take the beating,” he said.

As a trustee for the Spokane Art School as it takes new shape, he’s excited about what it can become “in today’s world, not just repeating what it was yesterday.” That might include an art-outreach program for veterans.

“I’ve had parents ask me, ‘My kid really loves art. Where can they go to go a little more, rather than just one hour a day in their classwork?’ ” Spiering said. “Well, having the art school was always the easy answer.”

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