Death of an institution: Folding of NHIA in Manchester is heartbreaking, to say the least

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O P I N I O N


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Emma Blood French Building

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If you would have asked me as a child what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have energetically answered “an artist!” If you would have asked me as an adolescent, I would have assertively answered “a writer!” After taking a year off from high school (to work in a bookstore, nonetheless), I flopped around a bit in college, first declaring an English/Journalism major, then declaring a “Studio Arts” major, then ending up as an “Environmental Conservation” major, taking me five years to graduate instead of four (thank you for your patience and support during this time, mom and dad!). My left brain and right brain have battled for dominance my entire life. When I was younger, I believed I had to choose a side and stick with it. However, as an adult, I appreciate that there is room for both, and for me, that involves a combination of art, writing, and science/the environment. 

The New Hampshire Institute of Arts (NHIA, R.I.P) has been a part of my life since early 1996, nearly 100 years after its inception, when I first studied ceramics and sculpture at the Manchester Institute of Arts and Sciences. This, at the time, was located solely in what is now the Emma French Building at 148 Concord Street. During this time, I received college credit through the University of New Hampshire in a unique partnership with their Manchester campus and the Institute. In 2005/2006 I returned to take ceramics as a Continuing Education (CE) student at NHIA. This class was held at the Rogers Williams building at 77 Amherst Street. And, during this time, as the physical campus began to grow, class offerings began to grow, and student enrollment began to grow, my excitement about art began to grow again.

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Thus, after placing art on the back burner in my life for nearly 10 years, and after not obtaining my once-declared Studio Arts degree, in 2008 I attended an open house for NHIA’s CE Certificate Program and decided to study photography. Taking every class twice (they were that fantastic!), in 2012 I earned a Certificate in Photography from NHIA. These were four of the most influential years of my adult life. During this time, I not only learned exceptional photography skills from New Hampshire’s most talented photography faculty (Gary Samson, Bev Conway, Glen Scheffer, Claudia Rippee, Dia Stolnitz, Mike Ariel among them) but the friendships and sense of community I made I will always hold in the highest of regards. Additionally, I completely immersed myself into and devoured every photography book in the library. And even though I graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a Bachelor of Science degree in Environmental Conservation, my time at NHIA enriched my life in much more meaningful ways as an artist and member of Manchester’s art community. 

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2012 Certificate in Photography graduating students hang their artwork for their commencement exhibition at the Roger Williams Gallery. Photo/Courtesy of Jane Button (also a 2012 Certificate in Photography graduate).

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Standing with my parents in front of my artwork included in the 2012 Certificate of Photography exhibition at the Roger Williams Gallery. Photography/Kristina Drociak

From 2012 through 2019 I continued to study photography and use the digital labs to further my own artwork. From 2013 through 2015 I was on the Alumni Council, serving as the Communications Committee co-chair, and assisted with planning activities and events for NHIA alumni. In 2014 I was a digital lab monitor and assisted photography and illustration students print images. During the same year, I was also fortunate to have been hired to teach an Architectural Photography class for CE, which was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I assisted with the 2012, 2013, and 2014 annual “Art and Soul” benefit auctions, with the 2013 and with the 2014 donor reception/preview parties (annual scholarship and fundraiser celebration for current Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) graduating student exhibitions). In 2013, I was highly encouraged to apply for the inaugural low residency Master of Fine Art (MFA) in Photography program (which sadly, I did not). And in 2015, I sat on an alumni panel (one of many different panels) in search of a new president after the retirement of former President Roger Williams. I was there in 2012 as Chester College of New England closed and friends of mine, whom were faculty members there, came to NHIA and, along with many Chester College students, had to experience that sea change. I was there in 2014 when merger talks with Southern New Hampshire University (SHNU) were occurring, and through emotionally charged “town hall” meetings with then-current students and faculty. At the time, many, including myself, did not see the acquisition of NHIA by SNHU as a good fit or a wise move. Many, including myself, found the acquisition in 2019 by New England College (NEC) a more palatable and presumably more sustainable option; especially after being reassured by the President who convinced us that the Manchester campus will remain integral to the school, and to the community of Manchester. 

Additionally, up until early 2019, I continued to assist CE photography students with printing, matting, framing, sequencing, and hanging images for their annual commencement exhibition. Upon request of Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) instructors, I also showed and discussed my artwork to several BFA photography classes. And on June 30, 2019, in one last hurrah, I gathered (then current and former) photography instructors and students in front of Fuller Hall (at 156 Hanover Street, which mainly housed Photography, the library, and Teti special collections library) for a farewell photograph before NEC acquired NIA and that particular building was sold (and has been sadly sitting vacant, ever since).were.  

All that said, the institute has been part of the very fiber of my being and such a wonderful resource all my adult life. Like many others, I have seen and experienced it through various capacities, programs, and lenses. I especially loved being around so many wonderfully creative minds and individuals, whether they were BFA students, MFA students, or CE students, ranging in age, interests, and life experiences. The value of that alone, in my personal life and in the community, is simply invaluable and will never be replicated or replaced. image1

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As a photographer who lives in downtown Manchester, even after graduation, I continued, off-and-on to pay to either take additional photography classes and/or for an “open lab” to continue using the digital labs as I do not have a computer with a calibrated monitor, Photoshop, Epsom printers, or a darkroom at home. This unfortunately ended in 2019 when NEC tragically ended the CE program. As such, I have had three years of work collecting dust, so to speak, on my external hard drives and I fear I am losing my digital photography processing and printing skills with each passing year I am largely inactive relative to my “real photography” (which, to please the dueling sides of my brain, has, in several series combined my passion for environmental issues into art). 

The end of the CE program (which is what the institution was originally intended and used for) was and continues to be absolutely devastating for me and others. At one time it was an extremely robust program with many offerings which included, but was not limited to, ceramics, creative writing, drawing, fiber arts, glass, graphic design, illustration, interior design, painting, photography, jewelry/metalsmithing, printmaking, and sculpture. These were easily accessible and highly affordable programs and classes that simply weren’t – and aren’t – found elsewhere (at least at one nearby / easily accessible institution). NHIA became so important to me and in my life, that in 2015 I formally included it as part of my planned giving upon death.

I understand the continued challenges that dwindling college enrollment across the U.S., struggles of small, independent institutions, and a global pandemic has had on NHIA and other institutions. It certainly appears that this was a trifecta of unfortunate circumstances over an acute amount of time that led to the institution being unsustainable as it once was, and ultimately causing its demise. And while I am grateful that BFA programs and classes will resume in Henniker, that BFA students will still be afforded continued learning opportunities in their chosen fields, and that friends and acquaintances of mine who are instructors have been afforded opportunities to remain employed (although I can’t claim I know the details or extent of this transition), the folding of the Manchester campus and liquidation of programs and buildings in Manchester is heartbreaking, to say the least. And the discontinuation of the community education program and classes, which again was what the original institution was founded on, is absolutely devastating and feels simply unjust.  

I am aware that photography instructors have, and continue to bring photography classes, workshops, and digital labs and darkrooms to Kimball Jenkins in Concord, which is wonderful and much appreciated. However, Manchester is being left with a large, unsettling cavity in its artistic community in what currently feels like a death of an institution which has existed in this city for 125 years. I am trying to remain cautiously optimistic and hopeful that via conversations between passionate and interested individuals, entities, and artists, any endowment and/or deed restrictions, and NEC’s decisions in the upcoming months can retain, at the very least, French Hall for community art education in Manchester, and that it will not only survive, but once again become the thriving entity it once was.


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Jen Drociak’s photography can be found at: https://jdrociak.wixsite.com/jendrociak 

 

About this Author

Jen Drociak

Jen Drociak (a.k.a “Jenchester” by her close friends), lives in Manchester, is a member of the Manchester Heritage Commission, a trustee of the Manchester Historic Association, and coordinates the Manchester Urban Ponds Restoration Program (https://www.facebook.com/ManchesterUrbanPondsRestoration/). She is a Union Leader “40 Under 40” honoree (class of 2011), Graduate of Leadership Greater Manchester (class of 2022), and WZID “Outstanding Woman” honoree (class of 2023). Jen has a degree in Environmental Conservation (and works at the NH Department of Environmental Services) and a Certificate in Photography from the New Hampshire Institute of Art. Her photography can be found at https://jdrociak.wixsite.com/jendrociak and three photographs can be seen as wrap-around art on the city’s new solar-powered compacting trash cans on Elm Street. She loves all things wonderfully weird, is a Brady Bunch fanatic, and loves street sweepers (her harbinger of spring and best management practice for cleaner water!).