Enrollment is up at art schools across the country, but after 135 years, Watkins College of Art is closing its doors. The small Nashville art school has become the second in recent years to keep its memory alive by merging into Belmont University.
In the weeks since the news broke, tensions have arisen between the secular arts school and the Christian college.
Watkins students lined the sidewalk outside their MetroCenter campus after being kicked out of the main building during an unannounced sit-in.
The students chanted at passing cars, “Show us the deal! Show us the deal!”
They were referring to an agreement that came to light late last month. Come fall, Watkins will be absorbed by Belmont, the Christian liberal arts school in Midtown Nashville.
The students have faulted their school for a lack of transparency and have questioned whether Belmont will respect their independence as artists.
“What I’ve gotten here in the span of a semester, I never got over at Belmont,” protester Amari Harris said. “And I was there for two years. I got nothing by going over there.”
It was only a few dozen protesters outside Watkins. But they represented about one-quarter of the small art school’s population.
Harris is a fine arts student at Watkins, but first went to Belmont over what they say was “a toxic culture.” Harris is non-binary and uses the pronouns “they” and “them.” They have concerns for their fellow students.
“LGBT, also minorities, but pretty much just everyone in general as artists, we’re all so unique,” Harris said. “I just feel that going over there can pose a huge challenge for a lot of us.”
The Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design says enrollment is up at art schools across the nation, but small schools — those with enrollment below 500 students — face a heightened risk of closure. In the last decade, six AICAD member schools were forced to close or merge in the U.S., and the pace seems to have accelerated in recent years.
“I think that it’s unfortunate that the current landscape seems to be so difficult for very small schools,” said Deborah Obalil, AICAD’s president. “I do think they have something to offer to the students, as we’ve certainly seen from the Watkins students.”
Most shuttered schools were taken over by independent liberal art colleges — not a Christian university. But, this isn’t Belmont’s first merger. The school absorbed the O’More College of Design in Franklin just two years ago.
It’s all part of huge growth spurt for Belmont, but there have been some aches and pains. In 2007, Belmont split from the Tennessee Baptist Convention following a dispute over whether non-Baptists could serve on the school’s board.
Three years later, an LGBT soccer coach left after telling players she was expecting a child with her female partner. The school says the departure was a “mutual agreement,” and in the time since, it’s formed an LGBT group on campus and expanded its protections for orientation and gender.
The school is now nondenominational, but it does remain Christian. A play was recently moved off campus for curse words, and faculty are still required to sign a statement of faith.
Those differences are what, Obalil says, small art school students are most upset over.
“This was a place, that for many of them, was a dream come true,” Obalil said, “to be part of an environment that was nurturing of their particular interests, of creating a path to careers that they felt they could succeed in and contribute to society through, and to be in an environment where truly everyone knows your name.”
But, Watkins President J. Kline says, the school didn’t have a future, especially without a large endowment.
“Those monies can spin off enough revenue to provide scholarship assistances for students. That solves your enrollment problem,” he said.
“And actually, our enrollment has been increasing, very slightly, over the last two years — but not fast enough. We simply ran out of opportunity.”
Kline spoke at a town hall for students days after they were told the news about Belmont. He told them he considers the merger the best-case scenario for Watkins.
“Instead of transitioning into a new and — I think — very possibly, more positive environment, we would have just closed. That’s what would’ve happened because we do not have the cash to go through another year.”
Kline has come under fire from students and faculty for not disclosing the school’s deal with Belmont sooner. He said he had signed a non-disclosure agreement that wouldn’t allow full transparency, but following weeks of student protests, Kline was removed from duties overseeing the merger.
The Watkins Board of Trustees took the first step in the partnership, approaching Belmont about the possibility last fall. The thinking was that it had gone well for O’More, and Belmont itself started as an art school, just a few years after Watkins in the late 1800s.
But, unlike Watkins, Belmont has always been a Christian institution. Students say they fear for their teachers, especially since faculty have to sign that statement saying they’re Christian.
Belmont President Bob Fisher said, however, that won’t be enforced. Belmont made an exception after the merger with O’More and plans to do the same for Watkins faculty.
“That is policy, but I always view policy as general guidance to action,” he said.
The school says it “aims to provide a welcoming and inclusive place for all students.”
“Our vibrant and diverse student body features a wide range of beliefs, political persuasions, sexual orientations and ethnic and racial backgrounds. It is our goal for every single one of our more than 8.400 students to feels loved, accepted and supported.”
And, as far as the concerns about censorship, Fisher said there will be room for students to have “full creative expression.”
“They can paint. They can sculpt. They can do whatever they like,” he said. “If they want to hang it on the walls in our galleries, there are things — and I bet you anything that’s true at Watkins too — there are things you can’t hang on the wall that would hurt others pretty badly.”
But, Watkins film student Kenny Strawn said, even that can be a way to censor.
“Belmont seems to be defining it as a way to silence students,” Strawn said. “We see it as modifying our art. If we’re not able to create free and open art, then, to me, that’s not art. That’s censorship.”
Still, Strawn, who signed a 13-month lease days before news of the merger broke, plans to go to Belmont in the fall. At this point, he said, he doesn’t have any other options.
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated when Belmont split from the Tennessee Baptist Convention. It was in 2007, three years before the controversy over its soccer coach.
This story has also been updated to include statements by Belmont on the coach and its inclusivity policies.