The first night, the visitors shared drinks with faculty, administrators and board members at a reception in their honor at the H&R Block Artspace. They spent the next three days exploring almost every inch of the school -- tracking through the dust of the ceramics department, negotiating the rabbit warren of a painting department, where each student has a few square feet of studio space delineated by roughly built partial walls. They riffled through stacks of paper in the administrative offices -- budgets, course plans and student files. They met formally with the student senate and the faculty assembly. They knocked on doors at the freshman dorm and wandered through the cafeteria. They chatted with anyone who was interested, from janitor to dean.
A university's accreditation process is basically a peer review. It's voluntary -- but crucial if a school wants official validation of its program. The Art Institute accreditation team members wrote up the results of their visit and delivered them to Kansas City Art Institute President Kathleen Collins on January 8.
It was not a report card Collins would be excited to show off. Though the school would keep its accreditation through the National Association of Schools of Art and Design and the North Central Association of Schools and Colleges, the report spent 52 pages detailing the school's problems.
No one closely associated with the 116-year-old school was surprised by the report's contents -- not Collins, not her vice presidents, not the faculty, not board chairman Roger L. Cohen and probably not the few students who bothered to read the report at the library.
It told them what they already knew: that the Kansas City Art Institute no longer is a trend-setting art school with an array of well-known artists on the faculty and inspired students raving about its attributes.
Specifically, the report says the teachers don't get along with administration; that financial problems threaten the school's future; that enrollment has dropped significantly; that several of the major programs are struggling; that the sculpture department, which once held national prominence under the leadership of Dale Eldred, is jeopardized by faculty turnover; that the school is making no effort to recruit minority faculty and students; and that it is not accurately measuring whether its graduates have the skills to succeed in the art and corporate worlds.
Though she would quibble with some of the details, Collins doesn't argue the report's accuracy, calling it a "frank assessment" of what is going on at the institute. She portrays the report as a comprehensive accounting of the problems. "That's all there is," she says. "There is nothing you are going to hear beyond that."
And Collins has done her best to keep it that way, at one point banning a Pitch reporter from a campus otherwise dedicated to nurturing free expression. When the Pitch began asking questions about the accreditation report, Collins wrote a letter alerting the faculty and encouraging them to "speak affirmatively of this college." She then spent most of the letter railing against the person who had dared provide the Pitch with a copy of the report, which she had given to selected faculty and staff and left in the library for students to read but not copy.
"I broadly distributed the document with confidence that every individual faculty member receiving it would handle it with respect," Collins' letter reads. "I find it unconscionable that one faculty member has betrayed our trust. I feel confident that each of you, save for one, would share in this sentiment."
In fact, several faculty members, both on and off the record, say many things that Collins wouldn't characterize as "affirmative."
Some senior members of the school faculty say the accreditation report went easy on the school, that the reality of the situation is even worse.
And as accreditors have noticed for at least a decade, a destructive mistrust between the faculty and administration has been festering for a long time.
Creative tension at the Art Institute is nothing new.
For more than a century, the school has been a part of Kansas City's soul, a crucial piece of culture that complements our simplistic love of sports and barbecue. Each year it brings a new class of energetic young artists to town and gives local artists a reason to stay -- those artists become some of Kansas City's most interesting residents. Of the 8,032 alumni registered with the school, 1,288 still live in the area.
Some labor in studios, unveiling their work to the sound of clinking wineglasses at the growing number of Friday-night gallery openings downtown. Some join the ranks at Hallmark, where their creative efforts see mass production and distribution in drugstores across the country. According to the school's records, 41 percent of its graduates end up using their design and graphics skills as business artists. Slightly more than a quarter of them are full-time fine artists, and 18 percent teach. Others merge with the rest of us, retiring their art to avocation status and picking up hammers, waiting on tables or shuffling papers in offices.
Even Kansas Citians who aren't directly associated with the institute nonetheless appreciate its contribution to the life of our city -- and many show their gratitude with hard currency. The Art Institute's 1998-'99 donor list, for example, is a litany of not only influential Kansas Citians and philanthropy-minded corporations but also state arts organizations and average people who've handed out anywhere from $1,000 to $100,000 to express their love for the college.
The Kansas City Art Institute is descended from a sketch club founded in 1885. At the time, the City of Kansas was home to 100,000 people, many of whom worked in the unpretentious railroad, cattle and grain industries. Sketch club members wanted to talk about art, and they met to do so in one another's living rooms, according to a history of the school compiled by Milton Katz, who teaches in the liberal arts department. They eventually leased a building at 1214 Main Street -- which fire destroyed in 1893, nearly gutting the club as well.
But it reorganized in 1906 as the Fine Arts Institute of Kansas City, offering classes at the YWCA building at 10th and McGee and counting among its students Walt Disney, who took art lessons as a child between 1914 and 1917. It was called the Kansas City Art Institute by 1921, when 600 students were paying tuition.
In the late '20s, grain dealer Howard Vanderslice raised $140,000 to buy the A.R. Meyer residence across the street from the site set aside for the William R. Nelson Gallery and Mary Atkins Museum. With its 35-room mansion and eight-and-a-half hillside acres, the property secured a home for the institute.
The school's future was not certain, however. Enrollment fell to 250 during the Great Depression, prompting salary cuts. Then, in 1935, school officials hired muralist Thomas Hart Benton, instantly lifting the institute to national prominence. Enrollment climbed once more, reaching 433 students. But again, the good times didn't last. Administrators criticized Benton for being "sensual, gross, profane and vulgar" and fired him in 1941. He had dared to suggest that museums shouldn't exist, that art was more suited for display in bars, "bawdy houses" and clubs.
With Benton's departure and World War II, enrollment sank to 34 full-time students. But by the end of the decade, returning soldiers had swelled the ranks to 638.
Around that same time, the school's lack of accreditation became a problem -- students who took classes at the Art Institute weren't able to transfer their credits to the University of Missouri. School officials spent the next fifteen years refining the institute's mission, crafting a full-time, four-year program. In 1964, the North Central Association of Schools and Colleges granted full accreditation.
That same year a group of students hung in effigy Art Institute President Andrew Morgan -- they opposed a visiting teacher he had brought in. Dean Elliott Berkly got the same treatment the next year because students were required to live in noisy dorms.
When Morgan left in 1970, the school had 547 students, 41 faculty members making an average of about $9,000 a year and a $1.5 million budget. It also had hired many of the faculty members who would build the school's reputation. It's stars included Dale Eldred in sculpture, Ken Ferguson in ceramics, Wilbur Niewald in painting, Rob Roy Kelly and Victor Papanek in design and Steve Whitacre in foundation, the acclaimed freshman program that gave students a taste of many different media and artistic philosophies and since has been copied by other art schools.
"The Kansas City Art Institute is a hugely important experiment in possibilities," Whitacre says. He agrees with Collins that the accreditation report should not be made public, but he doesn't mind talking about the school, both its strengths and weaknesses.
Whitacre says the experiment worked. During its glory years from 1965 to 1985, the school threw off the British style of higher education that had been replicated at American colleges, where Tudor buildings were filled with stuffy classrooms. The Art Institute's spaces resemble factories, with equipment and work areas spread out across large rooms -- the sculpture area a cross between junkyard and workshop, the foundation building basically a Quonset hut big enough to drive in a truckload of metal or wood.
Everything is geared toward making art, not discussing it.
"When you walked on the campus you could feel the vitality and human energy," Whitacre says. "It was a magnet for the artistic and for the visually gifted of all ages."
Internationally known artists regularly stopped in Kansas City as they traveled between coasts. They'd walk the grounds, work on their own projects and linger over student work until late at night, talking about the meaning of life and art.
The Kansas City Art Institute wasn't simply a knock-off of more established schools in urban areas along the East Coast, Whitacre says. The surest way to get a new program idea rejected was to compare it with something already being done in Chicago or New York City. The administration and the board, which included the first generation of Kansas City's power families -- such as the Soslands, Kempers and Halls -- wanted new and original ideas.
People didn't always get along. Whitacre says neither Ferguson nor Eldred liked him much at first. They seldom sought his company, but their shared interest in the students and the school bound them together.
"There was a camaraderie and a cohesiveness that made it a joy to go to school," says Victor Babu, a 33-year instructor in the ceramics department.
That joy eroded as the tension between faculty and administration became unhealthy during the late 1980s. "I believe there was a drifting apart of faculty and administration," Babu says. "Over the past eighteen years, maybe less, the administration has encouraged less contact, less direct conversation. In the past, the chair used to meet regularly with the president and discuss issues face to face. I don't believe that happens anymore."
At a school of fewer than 600 students, with about forty full-time faculty, there is no excuse for communication problems, Babu says. "It's a small school. The opportunity for close talk is there.... All I do know is that it creates suspicion on both sides because there isn't enough communication, so people start rumors or people assume."
The last accreditation team, which visited the school in 1990, noticed the tension and mentioned it in its report. That sense of unease has only grown worse since -- and it went very public in the mid-1990s, with a disagreement over the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art and Design.
Banker R. Crosby Kemper had bankrolled the $6.6 million museum as a gift to the school. It opened in the fall of 1994 to architectural raves -- but financial anxieties. The school was running a deficit and was struggling to pay its bills. Yet Kemper had determined that the school would ultimately be responsible for the museum's $810,000 operating budget. After a public debate between Art Institute board members, who wanted to make the museum a separate nonprofit entity, and Kemper, who wanted it to remain attached to the school, the school and museum separated the next year. The fallout led the Art Institute's president, Beatrice Rivas Sanchez, to resign.
The Kemper situation was a wake-up call to Babu, 64, who plans to retire after next year. "How could a board allow that to happen? How could people that are in the business of business not understand this white elephant would be tied around our neck, and we could not possibly afford to keep it?"
The board of trustees controls the school, meeting about four times a year to set policy and approve the budget. As in the early days, its roster -- with its Helzberg, Bloch and Kemper -- boasts around thirty of the city's most influential people. "It is a group of names that read well, and they are a group of names that are generally interested in the operation of and the welfare of the college," says Roger Cohen, board chairman. The board hires a president, who oversees the day-to-day operations of the school. In 1996, the board hired Kathleen Collins to take Sanchez's place. In making her pitch for the job, Collins billed herself as a consensus builder, one who could take the shaky pieces of the school and put them back together.
"We had three very ineffective presidents prior to her coming," Whitacre says. "She kind of came in as a kind of healing type. She had a very, very tough job."
"I came at a time it was clear there were some things that needed to be done," Collins says. "I really believe this institution, like many institutions, is going through a true season of change. Change does create a certain level of stress."
Collins has boosted the Art Institute's profile locally. A capital campaign under her leadership succeeded in raising $12 million in cash and pledges. The campaign allowed the school to issue $10 million in tax-exempt, thirty-year bonds.
With the money, the school has renovated the student living center (where the freshmen live), purchased an apartment building for upper-class students, bought a nearby home and is expanding it to house a new library, and acquired the former J&G Market at 43rd and Oak as studio space.
The school also is back in the gallery business, with the opening of the H&R Block Artspace at 16 E. 43rd Street in November 1999. The Art Institute bought and renovated the building at a cost of $1 million, with the help of a $400,000 gift from the H&R Block Foundation. Its operating expenses are supplemented by a $500,000 endowment from the Missouri Arts Council's Missouri Cultural Trust Fund.
But the building boom has brought into stark relief the fact that Art Institute employees have not had raises in three years -- a contrast not missed by the accreditors.
"Kansas City Art Institute presents two quite different budget and financial pictures," their report says. "Financially, the institute is succeeding in securing the funds necessary to address deferred maintenance and to add such facilities as a new library and an excellent exhibition space. Simultaneously, its operating budget is constricted such that salaries, funds for dramatic improvement in existing programs and the start-up monies for new initiatives are rarely available."
Regardless of what it might look like, however, Collins is not purposely spending money on buildings instead of people. The $10 million in bond money comes with restrictions requiring it to be spent on the facilities. Salaries and such have to come from the operating budget -- and school administrators have had to be creative to keep that budget balanced.
For years, the school has been using its endowment and selling assets in a way that "disguised the institute's financial reality," the accreditors say. Like a young married couple trying stick to their savings plan, the board decided that the school would draw only 4 percent from its endowment each year, leaving the remainder to earn interest. The school then turned around and granted itself a two-year exemption to use 6 percent to give the president discretionary funds to stimulate growth. According to the accreditors, the turnaround "suggests how challenging the financial situation is."
The school, Cohen says, is in much better financial shape now than in the past thanks, in part, to Collins. Cohen wouldn't talk about the specific decisions concerning the endowment. "It was done appropriately," he says. "It was done within guidelines of similar endowment programs in the country."
It isn't hard to find the cause of the money troubles: Fewer students are choosing the institute and bringing their $19,010 annual tuition (much of which is covered by student loans and other forms of financial aid). Although 595 students were enrolled in 1996-'97, only 505 were attending by the end of last year. Based on the number of applications, school officials expect enrollment to rise next year.
"The institute has seen an 11 percent decline in head count over the past two years, an 8 percent decline in [full-time equivalent students], a 29 percent decline in freshmen, a 34 percent decline in transfer students and overall a 31 percent decline in new students," accreditors write.
For a school the size of the Art Institute, those numbers are dangerous.
"The institute is in danger of being caught in a downward cycle.... Because the institute does not have operating resources to ensure that it can keep pace with salaries and benefits for faculty and staff, it risks losing human resources and being at a disadvantage in recruiting new faculty and staff in the future."
The students know the faculty members are leaving and that "quality is an issue."
"This perception may cause more students to leave and others not to consider the college in the first place. The result is a further erosion of the resource base necessary to operate the college, causing further decline in the perception of quality, causing further declines in enrollment, causing further cuts in the operating budget and so on."
The problems are occurring at a gruesome time for small schools. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that schools with enrollments of fewer than 1,000 students are threatened with extinction, closing or merging with larger institutions. Newsweek reports that 52 such schools have closed since 1986.
Perhaps most damning of all, the administration hasn't had a strategy to stop the enrollment slide and get the numbers back up to 600, which is considered ideal.
"At the moment," accreditors note, "the academic plan necessary to achieve that goal does not seem to be in place and to a great extent not seriously in the process of being developed because of the difficult relationship that exists between the faculty and the administration."
That remains so despite the fact that in the summer of 1998, Collins imported Lance Carlson to serve as vice president of Academic Affairs. Carlson says he wants to change the nature of the institute. He had been molded as a teacher and administrator during 24 years in the California community college system. It's a system heavy with bureaucracy -- to the extent, Carlson says, that faculty members sometimes are afraid to propose new courses because of the paperwork storm that ensues.
What he found at the Art Institute was the antithesis of that system. Course syllabi were brief and vague. That would not stand in the new age of education with the accreditation review looming. Classes of today need lengthy course documents with tasks and outcomes described in detail, Carlson says. "It has to do with, I think, greater public scrutiny ... greater accountability. I think that's actually good."
Carlson set out to create a curriculum file and went to the teachers, asking them to write descriptions of their courses -- in effect, to justify themselves. "What is your purpose, and how do you know you're fulfilling your purpose?" Carlson asked -- knowing full well that "it could come off as bureaucratic. It could come off as an insult."
Carlson's changes -- and Carlson himself -- quickly became targets for hostilities. When Carlson proposed removing a little-used workshop in the basement of the design department, someone hung a banner at the administration building: "Lance Carlson College of Business and Design." Carlson ordered it left up for ten days. He took the insult in stride, just as he humored the printmaking class that used his image and name as fodder for derogatory posters, and he giggled to himself at the bathroom graffiti referring to him as the reason for the rising tuition: "You know where your money goes. It goes to his $2,000 Italian suits." (For the record, Carlson says, he never has owned a $2,000 Italian suit.)
A few months ago, the Carlson disturbance went global, with a Web site posing the question "Lance Carlson: Saint or Satan?"
The site's introductory letter reads: "While one man cannot be solely responsible, his position as dean makes him a visible figurehead to direct these issues.... There is a great deal of frustration towards Lance Carlson. There is also a number of people who like and support him."
That range of opinions plays out in the postings.
"Lance needs to die ... very painfully ... by my hands ... yes," one person writes.
"He's sneaky and i don't like being around him, he makes me nervous."
"Have you ever seen the bears at the circus ... you know the ones that ride the little bicycles. He's kind of like that only the bicycle is much larger."
"THE SCHOOL HAS MANY PROBLEMS. HOWEVER ONE LESS LANCE IS ONE LESS PROBLEM."
"He gets a bad rap; he is actually a friend of students ... think about it."
"Lance has been like a father to me. He is caring, compassionate, sweet and nice."
"Mr. Carlson is a fabulous dresser, and he has great shoes."
Effective July 12, as a result of Collins' reorganization of her staff, Carlson will become the institute's long-term planner, devoting his time to ensuring the future health of the school. He also will oversee campus construction projects and pursue national corporate contacts.
The practical effect will be to remove Carlson from direct supervision of the faculty, many of whom he has alienated. Collins named photography and new media (which includes video and computer imagery) teacher Gary Sutton interim dean of faculty. Sutton declined to be interviewed for this story.
Collins and her administrators say they are intent on using the accreditation report as a guide for getting out of the current crisis. They know much is riding on the decisions they are making now. "We don't want to be one of the guys who don't make it," says Larry Stone, vice president for enrollment management.
Faculty members, however, are not celebrating the changes. They say Carlson was made a scapegoat for more fundamental problems than personality clashes and that Collins made the change without broad input from faculty.
"They've created another high-paying position," says Patricia Catto, a teacher in liberal arts. "Management seems to be burgeoning ... while the core faculty seems to be dwindling."
Carlson believes the school has to change if it is to survive. The school can no longer rely on the personalities of its faculty members as it did in the 1960s, '70s and '80s, Carlson says. "That was a different time. That was a time of stars," he says. "What happens when they leave or die?"
Carlson's fears have come true. Eldred died in an accident during the 1993 flood, and Ferguson (who was unavailable to be interviewed for this story) retired a couple of years ago, leaving hard-to-fill vacancies. Carlson would prefer a system that depends on more-or-less interchangeable parts.
And that may be his only option, because the school has been changing a lot of parts lately.
Juan Ormaza could have been one of the stars. Students love the emotional and charismatic 41-year-old Ecuadorian, who creates fantastical sculptures of wood and fiberglass and presents them with video accompaniment.
Ormaza moved his family to Kansas City from Alfred University in western New York because of what he had heard about the Art Institute from ex-faculty and alumni. "It was a very important school."
He arrived in 1996, coincidentally the same year as Collins, who had been a dean at Alfred. He calls her "a kind of friend," though her reputation at Alfred was not that of someone who spent a lot of time getting to know the students and faculty. "She lived her own life in the castle, the office," Ormaza says.
As he joined the faculty of the foundation program, Ormaza's first impression of the Art Institute was a great one. Reality did not live up to that first brush.
"In the five years I have been here that school has gone like that: shhhh," he says, guiding his hand like a crashing airplane from shoulder-level toward the floor.
Some of Ormaza's complaints are about simple annoyances. He couldn't convince the administration to install a work sink in one of the studio spaces; while the administrative offices were getting a makeover, his students had to bring in water from outside the building.
But Ormaza has more serious complaints too. His hardest year was 1999-2000, when he taught sophomore sculpture, substituting in a department that was losing a faculty member and had another on sabbatical. Ormaza brought 28 students who had studied with him as freshmen. The department wasn't used to so many students, and instead of being welcomed, Ormaza believes, he and his students were resented by the faculty as well as the juniors and seniors in the department. Ormaza offered to teach, on his own time, a sculpture class on figures -- a subject the institute didn't offer but that the students wanted to learn. Instead of his efforts' being appreciated, Ormaza says, he had difficulty reserving a space for the course.
Ormaza says he also was asked to quit working the students so hard and quit working so many hours himself. Carlson says one of Ormaza's students complained about feeling overwhelmed by the demands of the class and that he mentioned the complaint to Ormaza.
Ormaza also became the target of graffiti: "Your mom's pussy smells like Equador" and "I will fuck Juan for a B plus." With 500-plus students wandering around with art supplies, graffiti is common at the Art Institute. But Ormaza says the personal attacks, which were left up all year, should have been taken down.
"It was very offensive racially, culturally," Ormaza says. Adding to the feeling that he wasn't being treated equally was the fact that other teachers had keys for various buildings, while administrators gave him only limited access to the facilities. "If you want minorities," he says, "you have to be able to accept them not just as skin."
And Ormaza has reason to feel isolated as a minority faculty member. According to the accreditation report: "No evidence exists to suggest that creating a diverse Kansas City Art Institute is a vision which has been articulated and generally embraced by the board, administration, faculty, staff and students."
Last spring, Ormaza was completing the fifth year of his five-year contract. Only after he had accepted a job in New York did Carlson invite him back.
"I'm sorry to see him go because he's excellent," Carlson says now.
Two other relatively young instructors are following Ormaza out the door.
Paul Sebben, special assistant professor of sculpture and a 1990 graduate of the Art Institute, is leaving after three years. On May 17, Sebben's next-to-last day, he sent a memo to the other members of the faculty, charging the administration with being out of touch.
"Administration for their part are wholly unaware of what goes on in the departments in which I have taught, are never seen there and respond only to complaints that somehow filter their way up to the Vanderslice offices and make the administration fear that some truth about the rotten quality of the school might leak out to the public, or the tuition of a student be lost," Sebben wrote.
"They never descend because they heard a terrific piece of work was completed or, better yet, to simply see what is going on. The reputation of the school ... is a matter of history and no longer has anything to do with the reality of KCAI.... KCAI became an art school of national importance because of powerful artist/teachers.... As these teachers disappear they are not being replaced."
Thomas Sciacca also is leaving, disillusioned and bitter. Sciacca, who has had success as a comic book cover illustrator, joined the faculty in 1999 from Ringling School in Florida. He describes the Art Institute as "Nazi-like."
Sciacca taught in the design and illustration department, which is experiencing drastic changes as a result of technology, emphasizing computer illustration over traditional painting and drawing.
"Faculty are just talked to like we're idiots or disposable," Sciacca says. "You are just a disposable component. You can be replaced at any time."
Ormaza, Sebben and Sciacca typify the kind of churn that has been going on at the Art Institute for several years.
This year, the school has openings in fiber, painting, sculpture, graphic design and illustration. Carlson says the vacancies are simply circumstance: In the sculpture department, Jim Leedy was out with an illness and then on sabbatical for more than a year and Karen McCoy went on sabbatical (both are back). Shaun Cassidy, meanwhile, went to teach at another college. (Editor's note: Pitch art writer Debra Di Blasi teaches creative writing at the Art Institute. She did not take part in the preparation of this story.)
"I don't know of any faculty who left just because they were annoyed at something," Carlson says.
A more difficult problem is that three of the four school director seats are also empty. Fred Murrell, who directed the school of design, left for a job in the private sector, though he continued to help with the design curriculum overhaul in absentia last year. Margorie Amdur, who directed the school of foundation, left after just one year to return to her previous post in New Mexico. This past year, Carlson himself served in the newly created position of director of the school of fine arts.
A 75 percent turnover in school leadership has been traumatic for each of the programs.
"Institutions have an organic life," says Patricia Catto. "Too many transplants, too many disruptions, you kill the organism."
The faculty churn has gone on long enough that the Art Institute has become an unhealthy mix of young and old teachers, the accreditors say. They point out that "there are few faculty in the 'middle' years to assume leadership roles."
"There is a serious concern about the talent drain at the Art Institute," says Steve Whitacre. "Talent makes the difference in staff and in faculty. Finding and keeping talent in this work is critical."
And doing so is tougher in Kansas City than it might be in a city with a larger arts community, such as Chicago or New York, Whitacre says. "This is not San Francisco. You have to import talent. You have to cultivate them. You have to grow them."
Despite the problems with faculty -administration relations, Collins continues to have the board's support. "Kathleen received a virtually unanimous vote of confidence from the board as recently as May," Cohen says. "There may well be some people who have some private thoughts otherwise. I have never had negative thoughts expressed about Kathleen's performance."
Cohen says steps are being taken to reach out to faculty, including a roundtable discussion a few weeks ago attended by about ten board members, three or four administrators including Collins and a dozen select members of the faculty. "My belief is that the meeting was extraordinarily positive," Cohen says. "It was designed to open communication between all the interested parties."
The back and forth of faculty-administration relations would be just so much gossip and griping except for the fact it does have an impact on the students.
The problems at the Art Institute are not secret from the students, accreditors say. "The student body is aware that this tension exists, and students possess a disturbing degree of knowledge about some of its details." Art students spend many hours with their teachers, discussing things at very personal levels. They suffer directly when their favorite instructors move away.
"The teacher matters so much," says nineteen-year-old Araan Schmidt of Iowa City, Iowa. Schmidt will be a sophomore in the fall and hopes to study sculpture. But he doesn't know who will be teaching the course that Ormaza and Sebben taught the past two years.
"In the past, there's been some great teachers there," Schmidt says. "I don't think they are going to make a terrible decision [about who to bring in to replace Ormaza and Sebben]. I guess just the lack of knowing makes me nervous."
Michael, who will be a junior in illustration next year (and who asked that his real name not be used), has endured more of the faculty game of musical chairs than Schmidt. "There is so much change going on and there has been so much change going on for several years, it's hard to get comfortable within the school." He says he will miss Sciacca. "He helped out numerous students to get far beyond where they thought they could get."
By luck of being in photography, which is a more stable department, Sara Golding has positive things to say about the school, which she calls "a pretty great place." The faculty are "all really cool," she says. The 24-year-old Houston native just graduated and plans to stay in Kansas City, at least for a while.
But she did notice odd things going on at the Art Institute. She remembers that last year, Lance Carlson took one of the four digital cameras from the photography department without telling anyone.
Carlson says he saw the camera sitting on a desk unsupervised and took it as a lesson: "We can't be leaving our really expensive equipment around when no one is in the room.... I don't think that's so bad honestly.... I think I've got a little devil in me. That's the Satan part."
The lesson didn't play well in photography, Golding says. "We were wondering what the hell happened. It was mid-semester and people were using that camera. I thought that was completely uncalled for."
Michael came to the Art Institute based on a recruiter's visit to his East Coast high school and his own teacher's reassurance that the Art Institute was a great place to be. But he has been caught in the design department's transition. Michael dreams of illustrating comic book covers with paints. But school officials are pushing him to put down the brush and pick up the mouse to work in computer design. "They design this program for a specific type of person that they feel is the majority," he says. "I don't think they are doing this out of spite. I think it's a businessman's solution to how to handle being an artist in this world."
Michael will not be raving about the Art Institute program to his high school art teacher. Likewise, Ormaza, Sebben and Sciacca are likely to be critical in academic circles.
It can only be a matter of time before the Art Institute's reputation, a reputation built over decades of excellence, will be lost.
Carlson believes that hasn't happened yet. "Kansas City Art Institute still has a sterling reputation nationally," he says.
The school continues to draw high-caliber students, though not as many.
"There has never been a day when those students do not surprise me," Babu says. "They are fabulous. They are a tonic. They are my educators."
"The students are like dreams," Catto echoes. "It's a dream, dream job."
Whitacre says his group of students this past year was as intelligent and motivated as any class he's had. He wonders whether they will continue to be challenged in the major departments they choose.
"When students come here we, in effect, have a stewardship over their development," Whitacre says. "We have a responsibility to continue to challenge them through their remaining time at the Art Institute in all aspects of work. That's what it means to be a world-class institute."