A Nashville Art School Made Headlines When It Announced a Merger With a Christian University. But a New Injunction Could Stop It
Plus, a state senator and a New York real estate firm have gotten involved.
In late January, the Watkins College of Art in Nashville, Tennessee announced that it would be absorbed by Belmont University, a local ecumenical institution, inciting an uproar among current students and faculty. But since then, the merger has been anything but clean. A judge, a state senator, and a real estate firm have all stepped in to either question the deal or suggest an alternative solution.
Student groups at Watkins have staged numerous protests since learning that they would be forced to start next semester on a private, Christian campus with a poor track record of supporting free expression and the voices LGBTQ+ communities. In mid-February, Watkins’s president J. Kline, who arranged the deal with Belmont and has been criticized by opponents for his lack of transparency in the negotiation process, was placed on leave after faculty held a vote of no confidence.
Last week, two Watkins students and a faculty member filed a complaint in county court alleging that the agreed-upon deal between the schools is illegal because the art school is a public institution located on public property. They also filed for a restraining order to block the deal from taking place until the court has had the opportunity to review the case.
“Giving away the public assets of the Watkins Trust to a private religious entity without due process violates multiple state laws, and would cause irreparable harm to [those who filed the complaint],” said a representative for Save Watkins, a collective of students, faculty, staff, and alumni from the school who oppose the deal. (Both the students and the faculty member who filed the complaint belong to Save Watkins.)
“The Watkins Board has repeatedly ignored or rebuffed lawful requests for public records relating to the deal, and have single-mindedly pursued a path that will cause harm and hardship to our students, particularly those in the LGBTQ community who will be adversely affected by Belmont’s overtly religious culture and policies,” the representative added.
A Nashville judge will consider the restraining order in a hearing set for this week.
A day after the injunction was filed, Tennessee state senator Brenda Gilmore issued a letter to the Watkins Commissioners and Board of Trustees, urging them to suspend any negotiations with Belmont until a community meeting can be held.
“As an educational institution that was established by the legislature and by state law is overseen by Commissioners, appointed by the Governor, it is troubling that I was not informed, nor consulted, prior to [the] deal being announced…” Gilmore wrote.
In the letter, she also wondered why two historically black institutions “right in Watkins’ backyard”—Tennessee State University and Fisk University—weren’t approached with the deal as well. “In any event, the public deserves transparency,” she said.
State senator Gilmore did not respond to Artnet’s request for comment.
The latest chapter in the saga came last Thursday when Somera Road, Inc., a commercial real estate firm based in New York, offered to buy Watkins’s property for $17 million and lease it back to the school at 30 percent under market rate, with the first year rent-free. The firm would also supply a $1 million dollar fund to the institution to cover any short-term financial needs.
“We’ve to-date only received acknowledgement of the offer and [a message saying], ‘The Watkins Board and its Real Estate Special Committee [are reviewing]’ and will get back to us,” Somera Road principal Joe LeMense, Jr., tells Artnet, noting his belief that there is “certainly interest on their end in completing the deal.”
“We feel our offer best provides the Watkins College of Art relief from current capital constraints and an opportunity to remain a fully independent institution operating from its current location for many years to come,” he adds.
Watkins College of Art has not yet responded to Artnet’s request for comment.
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