In 18 years teaching music at Keene State College, Christopher Swist said he’s measured success based on his students’ performances and their accomplishments in graduate programs.
This year, when the college’s Redfern Arts Center will celebrate its 40th anniversary, would have been a chance for Swist — the center’s co-artistic director — to formally recognize that work and add to his legacy. He won’t be overseeing the revelry, though, after accepting a buyout from Keene State in its latest, and reportedly final, round of faculty cuts earlier this summer.
Swist, 46, who lives in Spofford and plans to leave his position Friday, said that while other Redfern employees are also changing roles — largely due to regular staff movement unrelated to the faculty cuts — the center will continue hosting artistic performances, starting with its anniversary celebrations.
“Everyone’s still in a good mindset to make it work for the future,” he said. “It’s not going anywhere.”
The Redfern has modeled much of its 40th season on its performance lineup from 2006, when the center celebrated its 25th anniversary, according to Swist.
That will include working with the Music Department and the Theatre and Dance Department to put on “Urinetown: The Musical,” which Swist said the college first staged 15 years ago, and again hosting the Nelson-based Apple Hill String Quartet for a retrospective show. The upcoming season will also feature musical performances by Keene State alumni, including some who will accompany the Keene Jazz Orchestra in a recital next spring, he said.
Swist and Jeannie-Marie Brown, a theater and dance professor, were both tapped as executive artistic directors at the Redfern last year after staff adopted a plan to regularly rotate faculty in that role.
Traditionally, Swist said, the artistic director is responsible for curating the center’s performance lineup, arranging shows by students, community groups and professional artists. Much of his time over the past year, however, was spent managing new health policies meant to curb the spread of COVID-19, like testing protocols and seating arrangements based on, for example, “how far clarinet players spit,” he said.
After closing in spring 2020 due to the pandemic, the Redfern reopened for academic instruction last fall but allowed the public to watch live shows only in online broadcasts. In one pandemic-era adaptation at the facility, Redfern staff installed lights outside to let groups such as the college’s Jazz Ensemble practice with a lower risk of transmission, according to Swist.
“I can say with confidence what Keene State did during COVID [for] the performing arts was definitely above the norm,” he said. “It was pretty impressive, but of course, it was stressful and a shift and certainly not the way I envisioned my role.”
Christina Wright-Ivanova, a piano instructor, will likely replace Swist as the Redfern’s co-artistic director, he said.
“All the plans for the future seasons with the community engagement we’re going to do is still on,” he said.
While Keene State’s music program isn’t among those ending in the latest faculty cuts, Swist — who’s taken a job as a visiting lecturer at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. — said he expects Keene State to consolidate its performing-arts programs, creating more opportunities for interdisciplinary work. Keene State spokeswoman Kelly Ricaurte did not immediately respond Monday to a request for more information.
President Melinda Treadwell announced last month that the college had cut 25 faculty positions, mostly via layoffs in low-enrollment academic programs, as part of its multiyear plan to eliminate a budget deficit that had swelled to $14 million in the past year.
Keene State already faced a multimillion-dollar deficit when Treadwell took over as president in July 2017 before making about $7.5 million in cuts heading into the fall of that year. The school’s “realignment” effort formally began in 2018 and has included several rounds of faculty and staff buyouts meant to adjust to a smaller student body, which shrunk further last year as enrollment waned during the pandemic.
The latest moves included ending programs in American studies, geography, physics, and women’s and gender studies — though minors in the latter two will remain — in addition to cutting multiple minors and a limited number of teacher-certification programs, Ricaurte has told The Sentinel. (Students already enrolled in those programs will be able to complete their degrees.)
The voluntary separation package that Swist and six other faculty members accepted in this latest round of cuts includes 1½ years of salary and 5½ years of health insurance, Ricaurte has said.
Swist, who started as an adjunct instructor, said he tried to blend traditional teaching methods with a modern approach that included interactive work and cross-discipline collaboration — such as pairing up music, information technology and journalism students on a recent recording project. Despite its faculty realignment, he said Keene State still offers a quality education in the performing arts, adding that he wasn’t “just touting the company line.”
“The art department is still very strong,” he said. “There’s still a really strong list of accomplished faculty that are remaining.”
Calling his upcoming move a “homecoming,” since he’s previously lived and performed in the Hartford area, Swist said he plans to stay involved in the Monadnock Region arts scene, too.
That will include staying in Spofford part-time and running a recording studio he owns there, while also continuing to work with the Greater Keene & Peterborough Chamber of Commerce on its efforts to promote the region and train a local workforce.
“I’m not completely leaving the community,” he said.