Uncertainty Amidst Closure: A Perspective from a PAFA Student

Image credit: PAFA

The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art (PAFA), celebrated as America’s first and oldest art school and museum institution, is currently in the process of closing its college. Just over a month ago, PAFA President Eric Pryor sent a distressing letter to the school’s student body and faculty announcing the abrupt termination of their bachelor and master’s degree programs by the 2024-2025 academic year, a decision attributed to a staggering three million dollar annual deficit and steadily decreasing student enrollment. 

The drastic decision has come as a shock and has harshly uprooted many students. While the academy has permitted third- and fourth-year students the ability to finish out their degrees, first- and second-year students scramble to secure spots at alternative schools as they are forced to transfer. With limited assistance from the academy, many students are grappling with daunting financial decisions and finding themselves with few accessible alternative programs to pursue. 

I was able to speak with PAFA first-year student Aubrie Testa about her experience. Aubrie grew up in Philadelphia and was on track to pursue a fully funded BFA in painting and printmaking before the announcement was made. 

The school has pledged to facilitate student transfers and is partnered with five local institutions, Temple University’s Tyler School of Art and Architecture, University of the Arts, Moore College of Art and Design, Pennsylvania College of Art and Design, and Arcadia University, all of which have agreed to accept PAFA’s 37 first- and second-year students. However, for many students, such a “Band-Aid” proposal feels more like a slap in the face than a desirable solution. Aubrie, like many of their peers, selected PAFA specifically for its emphasis on classical drawing and painting within its fine arts degree program, a feature notably absent in the listed institutions. With most of the listed schools lacking comparable programs, and only one institution guaranteeing matched scholarships for transfer students, the proposed solution falls remarkably short of meeting student needs.

Students seeking fine arts programs outside of PAFA’s partnered institutions are navigating the transfer process without additional advisory or financial assistance from the school. Aubrie, who is hoping to transfer to the Lyme Academy of Fine Arts in Connecticut, faces challenging decisions in regards to the transfer process. Among these challenges are the possibility of having to take out private loans, relocating out of her hometown, and shifting from a degree program to a certificate program.    

Aubrie’s experience and frustrations mirror that of many other PAFA students grappling with the repercussions and lazy solutions succeeding the administration’s decision. According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, PAFA has raised tens of millions of dollars for building renovations but the administration decided its degree program was not worth the investment of donations due to the shrinking student body. The absence of transparency, support, and student-centric consideration in PAFA’s decisions perhaps reflects a wider trend across higher education institutions in general, wherein student welfare is sidelined in favor of priorities like profit or renovations.

Students who have been refused meetings with administration voice their discontent through printed messages posted across the walls of the institution’s buildings. Their lines carry a poignant message to press teams, contractors, administrators, and passerby, “Know that there is an endless well of energy, effort, wisdom, spirit and generosity within the walls of this institution and it is all being abandoned. Greed does not win over art.”

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