This article originally appeared in the January 3rd issue of The Villager.
The news caught staff and students by surprise. After 32 years and several decades of growth, McNally Smith College of Music shut its doors at 19 E. Exchange St. on December 20 due to a lack of funds.
Students were devastated and left scrambling to put their educations back on track. Faculty and staff, who were told they would not be paid for the last few weeks of the semester, did all they could to ease the transition for students, complete their courses and facilitate their transfer to other institutions.
News of the closing came via email on December 14.
“As you may know,” the email reads, “for several years the college has been experiencing declining enrollment and revenue. For nearly two years we have been in the process of becoming a nonprofit college and seeking funding necessary to establish the college on firm financial footing as a nonprofit institution. In spite of our best efforts, we have been unable to obtain this funding and the cash necessary to fund ongoing operations.”
McNally Smith was founded in 1985 as a music-oriented vocational school and was still owned by founders Jack McNally and Doug Smith. Over the years the private college had expanded its scope to include a liberal arts focus, offering two- and four-year degrees in audio engineering, musical performance, composition and musicology.
“It definitely came out of the blue,” said Kevin Schwandt, who taught music history at McNally Smith from 2010 until its closure. “I knew there had been enrollment problems, but the switch to the nonprofit ownership structure had been moving forward. I received the email just as I was starting a class, and I wondered how to proceed, knowing that the students hadn’t yet found out.”
According to its website, McNally Smith had approximately 100 faculty members and 600 students. However, in recent years the enrollment had fallen to around 440 students while the need to increase its financial aid offerings increased, Minnesota Public Radio reported.
McNally Smith had many high-profile musicians in its faculty, and its closing “is going to be a difficult thing for the Minneapolis-St. Paul music scene to absorb” Schwandt said. “The college has been a pretty vibrant contributor. It’s a difficult thing to quantify—I can’t put a dollar amount on it—but it provided a community with soul.”
Steve McClellan, who had taught music business classes at the college since 2004, recalled McNally Smith president Harry Chalmiers’ appointment in 2007. Chalmiers had worked for the renowned Berklee College of Music in Boston, McClellan said, “and when they got Harry, I think he was the beginning of the first good steps and they were really going in a good direction, almost becoming something like Berklee. I think they just got started too late in their ambitions to become a nonprofit.”
McNally Smith was a sponsor of the annual Twin Cities Jazz Festival from 2004-17. “Many of the students played at the festival,” said Steve Heckler, executive director of the summer festival. “We also had faculty perform, and many of the faculty were world-class jazz musicians. National musicians like Wynton Marsalis would do student clinics as part of their contract, doing an hour-long master class at McNally Smith that was free and open to the public.
“It’s gonna hurt the festival, no question,” Heckler said. “But what McNally Smith contributed to St. Paul was more than just a music school. Many of these students stuck around, and they brought their talents and what they learned and made the city a better place.”
The Lowry Apartments in downtown St. Paul served as a residence hall for 117 McNally Smith students, with floors four to six dedicated to their dorm rooms. Andrea Williams, who graduated from the college in 2015, helped students move out of the building following the closing.
“Since the semester ended, everyone had to be out of the dorms,” she said. “We’ve had to move people to different apartments, try to find new roommates. The international students have to go home. For people who are currently enrolled, they’re losing money. Their best option is to go to another school, but nobody can get accepted that quickly, so they’ll have to sit out a semester, and if they lived in the dorms they don’t have a place to stay.”
Camille Gibson, who graduated at the end of McNally Smith’s final semester with a bachelor’s degree in vocal performance, was a commencement speaker at the school’s final graduation ceremony on December 16. She was grateful for the response by faculty. “They’ve always been there for us, but they really just stepped in,” Gibson said. “A lot of my friends only had a few credits left for their degrees, and the faculty did everything they could to get those students their transcripts, their files. Overall, it was really the faculty that went above and beyond, because it was kind of just dumped in their laps. They had less than five days to figure it out, and were unpaid.”
Gibson expressed hope that a similar institution might develop in McNally Smith’s place. “Even though the school has closed, the community is still here,” she said. “If something can come in and create a space for the community to express themselves, even if it’s on a smaller scale, that would be wonderful. We still need spaces for people to create and flourish. It would be great if we had a group of community board members say, ‘Well that didn’t work, but let’s try again,’ because it contributed so much.”