Arts slashed at the University of Rhode Island

Shockwaves hit the arts community
By GREG COOK  |  June 6, 2008

On Tuesday, the University of Rhode Island informed Judith Tolnick Champa, who runs the URI Fine Arts Center Galleries, and Roxana Tourigny, who runs the school’s “Great Performances” program, that they will be laid off, effective July 4, and that the galleries and performance program will close.

The decision came suddenly and sent shock waves through the state’s art community. Vesela Sretenovic, a friend of Tolnick Champa and a curator at Brown University’s Bell Gallery, says, “It was such a surprise. It was hard to react. People are still in disbelief.”

A Facebook group “Save the Galleries!!” was set up Wednesday morning by URI photo instructor Zoey Stites to protest the cuts, and by 3 PM Thursday the group listed 100 members, with more continuing to sign up. Tolnick Champa is organizing a public meeting at the university’s main gallery at 4 PM on Tuesday, June 10, to brainstorm “about the galleries at URI and supporting the arts in general.”

“I felt something was coming,” she says. “I know I’m not immune to the financial crisis at my university. I thought they would tell me my budget was slashed. I was called in and told the galleries are done and my job is done, and it’s not a question of quality, it’s a budget question.” She has worked at URI for 17 years.

The cuts are one more result of the state’s budget crisis. The university is facing a $17 million shortfall ($12 million less in state funding, plus a $5 million increase in built-in staffing costs) in its $524 million budget for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, URI spokesman David Lavallee says.

Staff is being cut through layoffs and retirements. Four sports were eliminated. “The ‘Great Performances’ and fine arts galleries program are not part of our central curriculum, and that’s what the priority is,” Lavallee says. Cutting the two art programs is expected to save $350,000.

Randall Rosenbaum, executive director of the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts (RISCA), says, “The state is in really challenging shape and while these cutbacks are understandable, they’re still tragic. Once you lose a program like this, even if you don’t want to send this message, the message people receive is, this is just not important to us. And I don’t think that is the message the university wants to send. It’s forced to cut somewhere.”

RISCA will likely see cuts in the next fiscal year’s state budget as well. People at Rhode Island College in Providence, a state school that presents art at its Bannister Gallery, are worried about what’s in store there. Spokeswoman Jane Fusco says, “At this time we’re not having any cuts at Rhode Island College.” But the qualification isn’t reassuring.

“Great Performances” usually offered four or five classical music performances, one world music performance, and one dance or theatrical performance annually.

Tourigny also brought visiting performers to local primary and secondary schools and offered master classes with them for URI students. The three university art galleries have averaged 16 shows a year, usually with three on view at any one time. 

They were nearly all organized in-house. Tolnick Champa also taught five or six interns from the school each semester.

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