Community, Creativity Thrive Under Pressure

January 13, 2021

WEDNESDAY JANUARY 13, 2021 (As published in the Salem News)

The doom and gloom scenarios bantered about on the demise of colleges and universities in Massachusetts, especially during the past semester when students, faculty, and staff spent inordinate amounts of time dealing with safety during the spread of Covid-19 are vastly overstated locally.

I am proud to report that at Montserrat College of Art in Beverly, our community bucked the trend. During a semester when some colleges were corralling students away from crowded gatherings, the Montserrat community stayed vigilant about mask-wearing, hand-washing, social distancing, and remaining focused. With 30% of Montserrat classes being offered online, the majority of students attended safely distanced, in-person classes and were able to continue their paths toward graduation. This semester proved what we already knew to be true – our students prefer being in the classroom and studio spaces. Through a Student Feedback Survey, we found 46.5% of our Upperclassmen prefer only 1-2 remote classes in an ideal Spring 2021 schedule and 58.7% of our Freshmen prefer a fully in-person studio course.

This is not just good news for our small community of just under 500 students, staff and faculty. It has been good news for Beverly as well. Montserrat is located in the middle of the downtown and our students walk between campus buildings, shop at local stores, and buy takeout coffee, pizza, sandwiches, and a variety of other goods from our local businesses. Montserrat has been an exceptional exception to the bad news delivered daily. With an over 80% residential community, higher than most institutions — it worked. Montserrat experienced only one case of Covid-19 in campus housing and no subsequent spread. We have an entire winter and spring session to get through to call it a success, but our initial experience shows that it can work. It only works if the entire community takes the risks and safety of others seriously.

Perhaps it is due to the creativity of our community, and the ability of students to focus deeply on their making, or their gratitude at being able to go into the Fabrication Lab and design and create something on a 3-D printer, or creating a 2-D object on the vinyl cutter. It could have been the extra assistance offered individually to lend an ear when stresses took hold. Maybe it was the encouragement from a faculty whose continued joy at being able to teach, never seems to wane as fresh crops of students enter their orbit to both learn and share fresh ideas, which keep our faculty invigorated. Maybe it was a staff member going above and beyond by reaching out and making sure students and faculty had what they needed in and out of the studio or office. I tend to think it is all of it coming together. The fall and early winter showed us the importance and meaning of real community.

The spirit of creativity and camaraderie in our community, it seems, was heightened by the challenge. Our retention rate from last spring to this fall was at more than 90% as students were eager to return to school, even after a shutdown last March. This winter, we are again looking at high retention rates as our community of creators plans to return in late January. 

We supported artists, designers and cultural life on the North Shore at a higher level than ever. This included 35 artists giving talks or special presentations, 15 events including a workshop live from the Kroller-Muller Museum in the Netherlands, 15 gallery exhibitions (including three staged by our students in Bare Gallery, and four recorded Process and Practice interviews which I conducted; all of which are documented and available on the college’s website.

As president, I would like to offer my thanks to our community of students, faculty and staff for doing all they did to keep everyone safe. But I would also like to offer my gratitude to our external community, including the city’s extremely capable and efficient health department, for helping us to get where we are today — looking toward a bright new semester.

We came together to celebrate our creative lives in the midst of circumstances that made that extremely difficult. It is the spirit and the DNA of this special place that sits in the middle of Beverly. Our community is a special place of makers made stronger by our external bonds to the North Shore and the creative energy of this wonderful part of our country. We must stay vigilant and with the same effort and dedication…..I know we can.

Dr. Kurt T. Steinberg
Montserrat College of Art