New Mexico School for the Arts in a state of ‘flux’

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

The New Mexico School for the Arts. (Courtesy of Peter Molick)

The coronavirus pandemic has thrown things into flux at the New Mexico School for the Arts.

Ironically, “Flux” is the name the graduating seniors picked for their exhibition before COVID-19 forced the shutdown of the campus in the Santa Fe Railyard.

Avis Kerns had been looking forward to exhibiting her senior project, which she had been building in a studio at the school, in the NMSA gallery. Instead, she had to transform her bedroom in her family’s West Side Albuquerque home into a studio and is showing her art installation, “Avis’ Room,” in a virtual exhibition on the NMSA website.

“Avis’ Room,” Avis Kerns’ senior project for the New Mexico School for the Arts, which she had to build in her Albuquerque bedroom because of the school’s closure due to the virus. (Courtesy of Avis Kerns)

“My senior exhibition had to be in my bedroom instead of people seeing it in person,” said Kerns, who will be attending the College for Creative Studies in Detroit. As of last week, she was still scheduled to move into her dorm on Aug. 13.

Like all schools in New Mexico, NMSA, a state-chartered high school for young artists from around the state, was forced to move quickly when government officials declared students would have to move to online learning in mid-March.

Karina Hean, NMSA visual arts chair and an instructor, said the shift meant that students had to become more resourceful, recycling and upcycling stuff lying around their homes because they didn’t have access to materials at the school and because most stores have been closed.

Avis Kerns, a graduating senior at the New Mexico School for the Arts. (Courtesy of Avis Kerns)

Kerns had planned to make a doll cage that is part of her installation out of wire and paint it silver. Instead, she rolled paper into tubes and used toothpicks as internal structure. There was no silver paint in the house, but there was plenty of green, so that become the color of the cage. “I think the circumstances made it more successful,” she said.

To find other materials for her senior project, Kerns roamed around nearby housing construction sites, and found abandoned nails and other objects that became part of “Avis’ Room.”

“The construction workers left a lot of stuff there. I found a broken mirror that I used for the bottom of the doll cage,” she said.

Kerns’ stepfather does closet installations, and the shelves and nails that he uses arrive in cardboard boxes. Kearns wrapped one of these boxes in fabric to create a coffin-like repository for a doll in “Avis’ Room.”

While NMSA students such as Kerns have been turning their bedrooms into their studios, NMSA Head of School Eric Crites and visual arts chair Hean have been helping the school’s students with their overnight transition to online learning.

Hean said that contrary to conventional wisdom, not all teens are adept with technology. On March 12, students were sent home with Chromebooks and T-Mobile hotspots ahead of spring break the following week. But it’s been a challenge for some students to adapt to online learning, she said.

“It’s been a range. We have students who are unfamiliar with such platforms as Moodle and Google Hangout that we’ve been using to teach,” she said. “There’s been a learning curve. We’ve tried to keep it limited – classroom software, email and the Google calendar.”

In normal times, NMSA students start presenting their work online during their junior and senior years as they apply to college. This year, all students had to learn how to show their artwork in a digital format, Hean said.

There are currently 236 students enrolled at the 10-year-old NMSA, which moved to the site of the former Sanbusco Market Center in August 2019. The school offers courses in music, dance, theater, visual arts, and creative writing and literature. Students also must take academic classes that are mandated by the state.

Besides having to cope with the transition to online learning, NMSA has been facing an interruption of its capital outlay funding by the state for its new cafeteria, Crites said. The school had been allocated $4.25 million in total for the project, he said.

However, on May 6, NMSA received an email from the Capital Outlay Bureau of the New Mexico Public Education Department informing it that all 2019 general fund capital appropriations that haven’t been “encumbered,” meaning paid or issued purchase orders for, are now frozen, Crites said.

He said NMSA has spent $2.35 million on architect and design fees, engineering and demolition for the new cafeteria, and that $1.9 million which was to be used for construction is no longer accessible.

“The girls’ and boys’ bathrooms have been torn out and we’re not in a position to move forward,” said NMSA co-founder Catherine Oppenheimer.

Construction of a new dorm at NMSA had already been put on hold when Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in March vetoed some capital outlay projects approved in the 2020 legislative session in the wake of a budget crisis created largely by cratering oil and gas prices. That loss for NMSA amounted to $1.65 million, Crites said.

Despite the upheaval at the school, Crites is trying to create a sense of closure for the 46 graduating seniors. On May 29, there will be a virtual graduation ceremony, with drive-thru diploma pickup the following day.

“It’s already hard being a graduating senior because you know your friends will be going to different colleges,” said Kerns. “But this year, we missed out on a special time.”

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