Salt’s Last Stand?
After 10 tumultuous years, the documentary school soldiers on
By Patrick Banks
The Salt Institute for Documentary Studies is packing its bags and boxes again. The school — which offers semester-long college courses in documentary photography, writing, and radio production — sold its signature building on Exchange Street last year, and will relocate to leased office space on Congress Street this summer.
Once again, Salt is in the midst of big changes. And once again, its top administrators are saying that despite appearances to the contrary, the school has never been stronger.
This time, it looks like they’re telling the truth.
Salt was on a roll through the mid-1990s. From its genesis as a Kennebunk High School class in 1973, it had grown into a graduate and undergraduate program based in Portland that also published books and a widely read magazine, Salt.
Featuring striking images and non-fiction writing by Salt students, Salt was like a photographic negative of Portland magazine: it focused on ordinary Mainers, never celebrities; impoverished communities, rather than luxury homes. Black-and-white photography was abundant, stories were lengthy, and advertising was minimal.
Signs that things were slipping began to appear in the late ’90s. Most noticeably, Salt stopped producing Salt. No issue appeared in 1996. Semiannual publication resumed in ’97, but then stalled in ’98 and ’99. Students complained. After all, the semester-long education is valuable, but so is having your work published in a highly regarded documentary magazine with readers nationwide.
At the time, Salt founder and director Pamela Wood brushed off suggestions the school was struggling. “We are going into a new mode,” she told Casco Bay Weekly in the fall of 1999. Wood said new programs were on the way, including a master’s program in documentary studies, and spoke of introducing a new tabloid-format publication that would appear more frequently than the magazine and be complemented by an annual, bound volume of student work.
Indeed, Salt was also showing signs of strength. Its radio program was added during this period. And after a decade operating on Pine Street, in Portland’s West End, the school had just purchased the historic Labor Temple — a gorgeous, four-story building on upper Exchange Street built in 1900 — for over half a million dollars. With the help of a $100,000 loan from the city and other funds, it was preparing to spend nearly another half mil on renovations.
But the tabloid never materialized, and publication of Salt continued to be erratic. Salt published an “omnibus” collection of recent and past student work in 2000, and another in 2001. The school had moved into its Exchange Street building by then, but it was about to get a lot less crowded inside.
The first top administrator to leave under a cloud was Hugh French. French, the school’s associate director, had been Wood’s right-hand man at Salt for nearly 20 years. After taking time off to recover from a heart attack in 2000, French returned in early 2001, but abruptly and angrily resigned shortly thereafter.
As CBW reported in a November 2001 cover story, French had collected hundreds of books over the years, including many out-of-print Maine history texts, which filled the shelves of Salt’s library. Upon quitting, French took all his books with him.
That set back Salt’s effort to offer a graduate degree program (rather than just graduate-level coursework), because schools need a library of books related to the subject of the degree in order to be accredited. (Salt still does not offer a graduate degree. Grad students earn credits through an affiliation with the University of New England; most undergrads earn credits through a similar arrangement with the University of Maine at Farmington).
Salt students seek and are usually granted intimate access into the lives of their subjects, whom they portray as real people, warts and all. But turn the tables and start asking questions about Salt’s warts, and school officials tend to clam up. Board members and staff refused to discuss the circumstances of French’s departure at the time, and they’re still staying mum seven years later. Reached at his home in Eastport, where he directs the Tides Institute and Museum of Art, French declined to comment on the matter.
Shortly after French left, Wood followed him out the door under similarly acrimonious, and mysterious, circumstances. School officials told CBW in 2001 that an agreement reached with Wood forbade them from commenting on her departure. But it’s clear from others quoted then and now that the woman who created and carried Salt along for over a quarter century did not want to leave when she did. She was 70 years old at the time.
“Let’s just say, without getting into all the gory details: her arm was twisted,” said Jay York, a Portland photographer who helped start Salt as a student in Wood’s Kennebunk High School class. “Knowing Pam the way I did back then in high school, Salt was really her baby,” York said. “I don’t think she would have ever left Salt on her own.”
Wood is said to be living in Mexico these days. Efforts to reach her for comment were unsuccessful. (Remarkably, school officials say they have no discernible photographs of Wood among the nearly one million images the institute has accumulated in its archive over the years. Wood was allegedly quite camera shy; several photographers interviewed for this article who knew and worked with Wood likewise said they have no pictures of her.)
In the wake of Wood’s departure, French’s resignation, and the loss of its academic dean and several faculty members, Salt soldiered on. Sam Eliot, a co-founder and former vice president of College of the Atlantic, was hired to replace Wood. He in turn hired a new dean of academic affairs, Patricia Erikson, and staff expressed hope the new leaders would move Salt forward while remaining true to its roots.
Once again, a pledge was made to revive Salt magazine, and two issues were published in 2002. But the next year, nothing was published, and Eliot was out the door after just 18 months at the helm.
Asked about Eliot’s departure, Portland attorney and Salt board member James Hunt said, “What’s past is past. I don’t have any comment on the personalities and whatever conflicts there may have been at the time.”
Eliot is now an English teacher and college advisor at Conserve School, a private prep school in Land O’ Lakes, Wisconsin. In an e-mail, he said he left Salt because, “I did not gain the confidence of the faculty & staff.” His stint leading Salt is not listed in his online Conserve School bio.
Another period of transition followed, during which Erikson briefly served as interim co-director before she departed for reasons said to be unrelated to the school.
The decision last year to sell 110 Exchange Street and move into much smaller leased space on Congress appears to be a dire sign of Salt’s decline. But as in the past, school officials are characterizing this change as a fortuitous development, one that will allow the institute to thrive in future years.
Salt’s new executive director is Donna Galluzzo. After an eight-year stint at Merrill Lynch, Galluzzo, 44, left the corporate world to pursue a career as an educator and documentary photographer. She studied at Salt as part of her graduate work, then worked there on a part-time basis before serving as co-interim director with Erikson. Galluzzo was hired to permanently handle the top job in the fall of 2003.
“A lot of times, institutions are forced to make changes that are big or dramatic,” Galluzzo said when asked about the pending move. “We weren’t in a predicament. We didn’t have to do this. It’s wonderful when you can make a change like this and it’s a really proactive change.”
Salt may not have been in a “predicament,” but financial concerns were a big factor in its decision to sell its most valuable asset. Hunt said the old Labor Temple was “a difficult building to maintain and heat,” and Galluzzo spoke of the need to undertake a thorough renovation should Salt have decided to stay there, the cost of which “would have become a pretty big financial hit for us,” she said.
In hindsight, the purchase of the Exchange Street building 10 years ago may have been a blunder. Students and staff say the layout of the building was not conducive to Salt’s educational style, which involves intensive student-teacher interaction (students and teachers worked on different floors of the building, for example). “It was never really designed for our needs specifically,” said Rob Rosenthal, director of Salt’s radio program. “Whereas if we design our own space, we can plan for the future.”
Galluzzo said that though the ground-floor space at 561 Congress (formerly CBW’s office and, more recently, a used book store) is significantly smaller than the Labor Temple, it has about the same amount of useable space. School officials have been working with a local architectural firm to finalize the layout, which will include a gallery in addition to work areas for faculty and students, and Salt’s extensive archives.
By selling 110 Exchange, Salt not only shed a costly and ill-fitting building, but for the first time in its history, the institution will have an endowment. The size of that financial cushion is still unknown, said Galluzzo, because some proceeds will be spent on renovation of the new space and technology upgrades, but it’s something. “It’s a hard economy right now, and Salt is in a very fortunate position based on the outside factors in the world,” she said.
The sale netted Salt a cool 1.375 million, nearly three times what the institute paid for the property a decade ago. Proceeds from the sale of its Pine Street property helped Salt buy 110 Exchange Street. The school now has a pile of money, but no longer has valuable real estate to sell if it gets into a pinch again.
Salt’s enrollment has been steady for the past seven years: between 30 and 35 students per semester. This has helped the school keep tuition relatively unchanged over the same period, a time when many other educational institutions have been compelled to impose hefty increases. A semester at Salt cost $8,500 in the fall of 2000; last fall, it was $8,800.
For future photography students, it could actually be cheaper to attend Salt than it was in 2000. That’s because the school, long recognized for its film-based photography, is going digital this year, a move that cuts the photo lab fee from $700 to $150.
The transition to digital photography promises to make Salt photo program grads better prepared to land work in journalism. The change is being hailed by faculty and students alike. “You don’t need to be a good black-and-white printer to be a good photojournalist,” said Kate Philbrick, co-director of Salt’s photography program.
“It’s interesting, because Salt typically has been this bastion of black-and-white photography,” noted Sarah Wharton, who attended Salt last fall. “I wish I could do the digital program,” she said.
After another lull last year, Salt magazine is back on track as a semiannual publication (the next issue was at the printer as The Bollard was going to press). However, its 1990s-era print run of 4,000 copies has been reduced to about 1,000, most of which are sent to libraries, prospective students, and contributors.
The rate of turnover among faculty and administrators has slowed in recent years. Eliot noted that four staff members from his brief tenure are still with the school: Galluzzo, Rosenthal, Philbrick, and co-photographic director Neal Menschel. “They are committed, competent, visionary educators,” Eliot wrote. “Their continued presence suggests that the institute’s health is good.”
Most importantly, Salt students still say their experience there has been worthwhile and inspirational. “What you get out of Salt is a totally new way of looking at the world,” said Wharton. “You come away with an understanding that everybody has a kernel of a story in them. It reinvents the world for you because everything becomes interesting.”
Bollard editor Chris Busby contributed reporting to this article.