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New England College brings art education back to Manchester with ‘Art at French’

After merging with the New Hampshire Institute of Art, and then closing the Institute’s Manchester campus, the future of arts education in the area was in doubt

The Emma B. French Hall, part of New England College's former New Hampshire Institute of Art campus in Manchester, N.H., is seen through an old iron fence on June 25, 2023.Cheryl Senter for The Boston Globe

MANCHESTER, N.H. — In 2019, Jonathan Pereira was admitted to the New Hampshire Institute of Art. But while he was attending the school, it merged with New England College. And this fall, NEC shuttered its Manchester Campus, leaving students, including Pereira, with no choice but to move to the Henniker campus -- and leaving the future of arts education in Manchester in doubt.

“As a student, I’m still mourning,” Pereira said.

New England College administrators attributed the decision to finances, but have since faced criticism and questions about its obligation to continue providing art education in Manchester as a condition of endowments and buildings inherited from the institute. Though they insisted in July that arts programming would be in place by the start of the school year, when classes started on Aug. 28, there there was no public announcement about how the college would maintain an arts presence in the city.

This week the college announced its new plan for Manchester: offering community education classes at the French building, a historic cornerstone of the former New Hampshire Institute of Art campus.


“When the building was constructed for the Institute, the agreement stipulates that building has to be used for art — for the teaching or presentation or exhibitions, workshops, and the general culture of the city,” said Gary Samson, who has been teaching at the New Hampshire Institute of Art, and now New England College, for more than 40 years.

He’s happy that the building will continue serving art students in Manchester. He’ll be offering photography classes starting in October.

“As a native of Manchester, I grew up in Manchester and I’ve taught there so long, I want that building to continue to serve that important function in the community,” he said.

New England College’s new program, called Art at French, includes classes like beginner drawing, an introduction to screen printing, a new camera bootcamp, a mixed media course in drawing and painting, and open studio time for jewelry making and printmaking. On some Saturday mornings, there will be a free course for teenagers.


“It’s going to seem a lot like the Institute people remember,” said Samson.

“NEC is committed to offering regular programming in French Hall and to making Art at French a successful avenue for the arts and art education in Manchester,” said Wayne Lesperance, president of New England College in a written statement.

Manchester artist and New England College professor James Chase is the director of the new initiative. He said a community survey helped determine which classes would be offered, with a focus on making classes accessible and affordable.

“Our goal is to really uplift local arts,” he said.

Just eight weeks ago, this outcome seemed unlikely as New England College began selling some of its Manchester real estate. Karen Graham, interim executive director at the Currier Museum of Art, was concerned about a widening hole in arts education in the city.

“We were meeting with the real estate agent and being told financially (New England College) couldn’t afford to run programs in Manchester and that they were sad to depart,” she said.

But a Zoom meeting with the college Friday morning showed that there has been a “shocking turnaround,” Graham said. She believes that’s due to a combination of public pressure on the college and stipulations that the French building be used for arts education.


“If that building becomes a thriving arts center again, it’s positive. It’s a win for Manchester,” she said.

The Currier had a longstanding partnership with the New Hampshire Institute of Art. Graham said she’s talking with New England College about working together on a new arrangement, where the Currier might offer programs in some of the classrooms in the French building.

Students also see the new program as a positive development. Pereira said taking community education courses at French when he was 17 introduced him to the professors he studies with now and set him on the trajectory of studying art.

“It’s a relief,” said Pereia, who is set to graduate next Spring from New England College instead of the New Hampshire Institute of Art. “It’s good news for this community education to be announced, especially (in) French, that it’s still being used. It’s good news for everybody.”

Samson, the professor, encouraged people to approach the new program with an open mind.

“The community needs to give New England College and the new vision of the institute a chance,” he said.

Plus, he promised, the program will be responsive to the community. “We’re going to listen carefully to students,” he said. “If we’re not serving them, let’s change the programs so that we are.”

Amanda Gokee can be reached at Follow her @amanda_gokee.