Can Salt Institute be saved?

salt

Salt Institute for Documentary Studies announced two weeks ago it was closing. Since then a group of alumni from across the country have banded together in an attempt to rewrite the Portland storytelling school’s next chapter. And they have big names in radio like Ira Glass in their corner.

“We are trying to take action to make sure Salt does not go away, which would be a tragedy,” said Timothy Rhys, publisher of Moviemaker Magazine, who lives in Warren, Maine. “A lot feel very passionate about it.”

A dozen alumni, such as Rhys and writer Elyssa East, have formed an independent action committee called Save Salt, with Facebook and Twitter accounts, to get the word out. They say they were locked out of the board’s decision to close the 42-year-old school, which they credit for setting their creative careers in motion.

“Despite our overtures to the Salt board, they are refusing to put the brakes on this process. We think that is not fair,” said Rhys, a 1983 Salt graduate who found out the school was closing on Facebook. “What is the huge hurry to close Salt right now?”

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“This is ludicrous,” says Tim Rhys a salt alum.

To many alum, Salt is the most invaluable Maine institution.

“It made me a better person, it really was a revelation,” said East, a writer living in New York who teaches creative writing at New York University.

When she attended Salt in 1997 “it absolutely changed my life. The alumni feel as strongly as I do. Salt opens you up to truly be compassionate and listen. People’s stories are sacred.”

And so is the place where East learned to craft a “sense of place,” a skill she teaches young writers today.

At issue is the quickness of the decision to shutter Salt and that alumni, many respected pillars of the creative economy, were kept out of the loop. But board members say the writing was on the wall.

“We are not closing because we are going up in flames,” said board chairperson Kimberly Curry. “Ultimately we need a lot of money to do it.”

On July 8th the board will meet with alumni from Save Salt and a few community members to discuss its future. “We are open to new perspectives. It changes every day, talks are ongoing,” said Curry.

But Rhys, who talked to the board this week, fears time is running out.

“They are dismantling Salt right now and made the decisions without consulting the alum,” said Rhys. “It’s just ludicrous. There are ample reasons for the school to stay open. Not all the correct efforts have been made to raise money.”

Curry said enrollment was down, alliances had been cut and closing the non-profit school made the most sense.

“There are many factors. It’s hard keeping a school up to date. It was 100 percent driven by enrollment,” said Curry, adding that Salt was running on survival mode when funding dried up. The announced departure of its director Donna Galluzzo last winter may have also been a factor.

Efforts are being made to maintain the Salt archives, an important keepsake of a style of long-form storytelling through images, words and audio that is endangered. Though some aspects of Salt’s course of study are more relevant than ever.

“Podcasts are on the rise, there is a hunger among audiences to have these deeply satisfied reads. Images drive all communications,” said East. “We feel very confident there are more potential students out there.”

According to Glass, the producer and host of This American Life, “it would be a shame for one of the best training centers in the country to vanish, just when it’s needed so badly.”

Kathleen Pierce

About Kathleen Pierce

A lifelong journalist with a deep curiosity for what's next. Interested in food, culture, trends and the thrill of a good scoop. BDN features reporter based in Portland since 2013.