The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) in Philadelphia is the oldest art school in the United States. It has trained generations of artists forever over two centuries. And now, after all that time, it will end its degree-granting programs in 2025.
PAFA has an incredible history as an incubator for some of the great American artistic minds ranging from Thomas Eakins, Daniel Ridgway Knight, and Mary Cassatt to David Lynch, Robert Henri, and David Palumbo. The Academy and its museum have a reputation for thinking ahead of the curve. In 1844, PAFA was one of the first major art schools to allow women to study, more than fifty years before other schools like the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris did the same. Furthermore, even before public pressure began mounting for museums to curate more inclusive collections, PAFA’s museum used the $36 million it received after deaccessioning Edward Hopper’s East Wind Over Weehawken to fund the acquisition of works by female and Black artists. But now, the school will end its BFA and MFA programs due to decreasing enrollment and an increasing deficit. However, the school museum will remain open and continue to host educational programs for students in kindergarten through high school. Academy president Eric Pryor said that the decision to end their main programs may have been painful for everyone, but it had to be done. “Just burying our heads in the sand and hoping that things would change I just think wasn’t an option.” The Academy hopes that terminating these degree programs would save the school around $1 million. Meanwhile, renting out some of the school’s buildings can cover the remainder of the $3 million deficit. Anne McCollum, PAFA’s chairwoman, estimates that the school will return to running a surplus by 2028.
Hopefully, ending the BFA and MFA programs will only be temporary. Much of the decline in enrollment started in 2019. Since then, the school has seen about half the number of new students than in previous years. Since this decline is so recent, it can easily be blamed on COVID-19 or the economy rather than a genuine lack of interest in arts education. MFA students, as well as third- and fourth-year BFA students, will be allowed to finish their degrees. However, first- and second-year BFA students must find other places to attend. Thankfully, PAFA is partnering with several schools in eastern Pennsylvania, such as Arcadia University, Temple University, Moore College of Art & Design, and the Pennsylvania College of Art & Design, to help these students transfer into comparable programs.