The future of Maine’s Salt Institute of photographic documentary studies

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By Donna Galluzzo and Kimberly Curry, First appeared in the BDN

A number of Salt Institute for Documentary Studies alumni have contributed tremendously to the effort in recent months to keep Salt alive, independent and a part of our beloved arts district and arts community here in Portland.

In June, Salt announced it planned to close. In the weeks since, a number of statements have been made about Salt’s 42-year history that we would like to clarify. As we move forward in our discussions about partnering with the Maine College of Art, we would like the people of Maine — the focus of all Salt stories and the heart and soul of our institution — to have clear and more accurate information about Salt’s past in relation to what we hope is an exciting future ahead.

It is of paramount importance that we clarify that Salt, in its entire 42-year history, has never held accreditation. Salt has had several decades-long affiliations with accredited institutions within and even outside of Maine, but we have never held accreditation in our own right.

Decades ago, as with many similar small workshop programs, Salt initiated institutional affiliations that allowed for some wonderful benefits for our semester program students. With institutional affiliations students were able to get official transcripts, transfer partial or full credit hours, use AmeriCorps awards to help pay for school and gain access to unsubsidized educational loans.

Over the years and of their own accord, our affiliate institutions ended their formal relationships with us. We were disappointed and concerned when the termination decisions were made, and we fought hard to make an argument for keeping such affiliations. Ultimately, we realized these decisions not only were out of our hands but also necessary for our partner institutions to remain as solvent as possible.

One of the most exciting opportunities we have with a potential partnership with Maine College of Art is we could re-energize our programming by reinstating our affiliation with an accredited institution. Going forward, we hope to be able to provide even more opportunities for our students to find creative ways to fund their semester program and develop mechanisms to transfer credits earned during a course of study at Salt.

It also has been suggested Salt’s operating expenses have increased significantly over the years. In reality, operating expenses and income have been at a nearly equal stalemate.

Salt consistently has committed 12 to 15 percent of our operating budget to financial aid; because we are not accredited, financial aid must be given from our own operating expenses. We feel the cost of tuition is a hurdle to those with socio-economic challenges, and we try to mitigate it as much as we can. But we feel the pressure of the rising cost of doing business, and we often are competing for students from a market in which institutions of higher education can fall back on their endowments to help provide aid in difficult times. Salt does not and has never had the safety net of an endowment.

The question then is, how has Salt managed these past years with somewhat static or small tuition increases, more significant declines in enrollment the past several years and the generally rising cost of business? The answer is simply we have cut staffing. Within the last decade alone, Salt has had as many as eight part-time faculty and teaching assistants and up to four full-time staff. Today, Salt employs four part-time faculty, two full-time and one part-time staff member.

Our first priority has always been to deliver the best quality educational program we could, but we no longer could ignore the fact that our facilities needed work and our students were struggling to find housing in the crazy rental market that has exploded here in Portland. As such, the two full-time staff members have been managing three facilities (two student housing facilities and the school’s physical space), two semester-long programs, between two and five weeklong summer workshops and up to seven gallery shows per year. Each decision, show, facility and programming change was taken on in an effort to keep the institution alive and thriving.

With the announcement of our closure came an incredible outpouring of love and support for Salt. It now appears we might finally be able to make Salt more stable and sustainable through the generosity of the Quimby Family Foundation and the ingenuity, spirit and open arms of our neighbors across the street: Maine College of Art.

This most recent chapter of Salt’s history has been one of our most challenging, and it isn’t the way we would have written this story. But like all great stories, there are unforeseen twists and turns, decisive moments and unexpected outcomes. It appears, gratefully so, we are still writing our story and that is hasn’t ended after all.

Donna Galluzzo is executive director of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Kimberly Curry is Salt’s board chair.

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