My Alma Mater Closing Shop

January 17th, 2013 | Posted in News


The Minneapolis Star Tribune had an article today about how the College of Visual Arts in St. Paul. MN will be closing after this school year after 89 years. They cite the recent recession leading to reduced enrollment and the lack of endowments as the culprits. This is the college I studied at, although it’s under a different name and has changed considerably since I graduated with a B.F.A. and an illustration major in 1989.

Back then it was called the School of Associated Arts, and was housed in only one physical building, an old mansion on Summit Ave. in St. Paul. I transferred there in 1986 after half a year at the University of Wisconsin- La Crosse (where I majored in Happy Hour) and the University of Minnesota- Minneapolis, where I took a grand total of one art class. Unhappy with the art program at the U of M, I wanted to go to an art school that still had the accreditation for a full college degree, as opposed to a trade school. In the Twin Cities that meant either the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, or the School of Associated Arts. Both required a portfolio review for acceptance. MCAD was the more prestigious and had the better facilities. SAA was significantly cheaper.

I had to chose the cheaper route, as I had very limited means for college. My parents were divorced, and while my father made a blue collar level decent wage, the divorce and the problems that arose from it left us buried with debt. I was in the unenviable position where my parent made too much for me to qualify for any low-income grants (and there were very few of those to be had) but could not pay for any of my tuition himself. I had to pay my own tuition, using a combination of student loans and money I saved doing caricatures as a summer job at a Six Flags park. I could not afford MCAD, which at the time was (I think) about $25,000 a year. SAA was more like $12,000 (I think), and that was possible.

There were good and bad things about SAA. The good was that most of my professors were not professional teachers, but working artists, designers and illustrators who taught as a kind of side-career. Every one of them knew from experience what it took to make a living in the real world with art, and they taught you these things. That was invaluable knowledge that was not part of the set curriculum. Second, the school was very small. I had about 20-30 people in my graduating class, so you knew everybody. I got a few jobs out of those close relationships down the road, when some of my classmates became art directors for magazines and ad agencies. The other good thing was that I really learned about illustration, and built a solid foundation of skills. The degree itself is worthless, of course. No art director asks about your degree, or even if you ever went to college.

The bad stuff was that the school was tiny and didn’t have much in the way of equipment. There were no animation courses at all. We had one computer, way up in the attic, and you could sign up for time with it and mess about with MacPaint. No classes on the computer at all. Of course this was the late 80’s, and desktop publishing was just starting to see the light of day…I still had keylining and paste-up classes! Another bad thing was that the “portfolio review” process was a sham. I think they’d have taken anyone who was willing to pay tuition . . . there were some students in that school who had next to no talent and no real expectations of doing anything creative for a living. I thought taking their tuition money was a disservice to those students. Finally, they hated cartooning there. I used to get lectured constantly from my illustration instructors that cartooning was an impossible way to make a living, and not to even try. The way to make money as an illustrator, they said, was to learn to draw sandwiches and tractors and lawn furniture, because there was endless work in product illustration. They did not know that PhotoShop was about to happen. I had to fight tooth and nail to do any form of cartooning in any of my assignments, and of course none of my teachers did any cartooning so I learned nothing about it there. On the other hand, it did force me to develop my realistic drawing skills, which helped me in the long run.

As the years went by SAA changed it’s name to the College of Visual arts, and expanded into a few other buildings in St. Paul while still retaining its Summit Ave. campus. It’s a shame anytime an art school closes like this, but I had no continuing relationship with the school so it’s not much more than an “oh, well” on my part. I tried to reach out to them some years back when I was bringing my chapter of the National Cartoonists Society to Minneapolis for a chapter meeting. We wanted to have a cartoon art exhibit, and we had big name cartoonists like Jerry Van Amerongen (Ballard Street) and Michael Jantze (The Norm) as guests willing to do presentations plus the work of artists like Chris Browne (Hagar the Horrible), Mort Walker (Beetle Bailey, Hi and Lois) and many others as part of the exhibit. CVA was not interested. We ended up having the show and speakers at MCAD, who were great to work with and have since been supporters of the NCS, and the recipient of a few scholarships from the NCS Foundation. I’ve lectured there several times. Short-sighted move on the College of Visual Arts part there . . . maybe that sort of attitude is part of the reason they are closing their doors.


  1. Edd Travers says:

    Good post Tom. Sad in a way it’s closing it’s doors, but everyone has to start somewhere…. and you surely must feel vindicated that your passion for what you do has got you to where you are today, and also, therefore others can be inspired by the journey you have taken and the work you’ve put in. Congratulations on all your success…pity that they didn’t realise what talent they had under their noses. Keep up the brilliant work my friend. PS. I love your book!…what an inspiration. Thankyou! Kind regards, Edd Travers.

    • Tom says:

      Actually I credit SAA a lot for all the real-world know-how they imparted on me, and I certainly don’t feel like they didn’t appreciate me any less than I deserved to be appreciated as a student there. I do find it ironic that 24 years later I’m doing exactly what they told me was impossible, making a living as a cartoonist, while they are shuttering their windows. Had they embraced cartooning and graphic storytelling as a curriculum like MCAD did, maybe they would have had more enrollment and been able to stay afloat. Guess we’ll never know.

  2. jailerjoe says:

    Hope they have some alternate use for a building with so much character. Possibly the Tom Richmond Museum of Caricature Art! I lived near there from ’88 to ’91…Just walking on Summit with all the wonderful mansions and rich history inspires many artists and writers. They were crazy to turn down such a distinguished panel when you offered. I’m sure the writing was already on the wall at that point. Thanks for sharing, Tom.

    • Tom says:

      They might be able to use the upstairs bathroom for the “Tom Richmond Museum of Caricature Art” . . . that would be appropriate.


New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

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