PORTLAND, Maine — With 140 first-year students arriving this weekend, Maine College of Art is seeing its largest incoming class in eight years.
School officials say that’s evidence the college is emerging on the national scene and that their increased focus on helping student artists make the leap into professional life — oftentimes trading smocks for postgraduate suits and ties — is resonating in an evolving job market.
The boost in new students comes after three years of facilities improvements and innovative program launches. The streak of good news indicates that under fourth-year President Donald Tuski, the college, which was founded in 1882, has escaped the shadow of administrative turnover that destabilized it in the years before his 2010 arrival.
Four different people served as either full or interim president of Maine College of Art in the decade before Tuski was hired.
Erin Hutton, a 1998 MECA graduate who now works at the school, said under Tuski she’s taking part in her third strategic planning effort in her 13 years on the payroll.
“I’ve seen so many of the different changes,” Hutton said. “This [strategic planning effort] is the most focused, this one is the most collaborative and thoughtful, and it feels the most authentic. As an employee, that keeps you going. As a student, you feel that.”
In recent years, the school has consolidated its academic programs in the former Congress Street Porteous department store building; added a computer-controlled router for the woodworking and furniture design department and nearly tripled the size of the program’s working space; acquired new iPads for the illustration department; renovated the printmaking department studio; designated new teaching and studio space for photography, illustration, new media and graphic design students; opened a new in-house student center and cafe; added a third residence hall within walking distance of the school; and unveiled a new logo and brand campaign.
Those changes were implemented without making significant dents in the college’s bank account, as Tuski’s team secured major donors for much of the equipment and relied on students and faculty whenever possible. The woodworking space renovations were expected to cost $450,000, but were finished in-house for $250,000, while the new cafe was built for half the $400,000 the school initially hadestimated.
“We joke that we get $1.50 out of every $1 donation,” Tuski said, and that has helped build confidence among benefactors. Maine College of Art’s endowment has reached approximately $5 million — a figure that’s small compared with many private colleges but is more than double the $2.3 million reported around the turn of the 21st century.
MECA also is launching a new textiles and fashion design program this fall, thanks to a donation by philanthropist Roxanne Quimby, an offering the new department’s director said helps elevate the Maine school in a global field.
“MECA has a lot to offer any student who wishes to explore a career in this rapidly expanding arena,” said Anne Eimlein, who comes to lead the new program after a stint teaching at the Rhode Island School of Design. “Portland has all the creative potential and stylistic personality of a major city, but without the market saturation and expense of a New York, Paris or Milan.”
That juxtaposition of a small-school community feel with a big-school array of offerings and opportunities is what Hutton said makes Maine College of Art stand out among its peers. With this year’s class, MECA now has a total undergraduate enrollment of about 385 students — which jumps to around 410 when art education and master of fine arts students are included.
“Maine College of Art was a special institution when I was a student, and it continues to provide these one-on-one connections with students,” Hutton said. “But we’ve become much more focused on our mission. … Thirteen or 14 years ago it was a great choice for the area, and it was a great choice for kids in Maine. Now I feel like we have an opportunity to be an international draw. We have opportunities and curriculum you can’t find anywhere else in the nation.”
The total tuition bill per undergraduate student is just more than $30,000, but MECA spokesman Raffi Der Simonian said nearly all of the college’s students receive some form of financial aid. The school has distributed $4.2 million in financial aid to undergraduate students this year, and, after financial aid, the average MECA undergraduate pays $18,000 in tuition.
Tuski said he has been working to increase the amount the school gives out in financial aid.
“Some of [the financial aid money] is from new sources this year, but some of it is from giving out as much as you can while still running the college,” Tuski said.
‘You can’t hide at MECA’
Tuski said misconceptions about art schools — that they’re havens for brooding loners and don’t teach skills useful in the modern workforce — are prevalent and that colleges such as MECA must work harder to change those impressions.
“A lot of people want creativity,” said Tuski, who has his doctorate in anthropology and spent nine years as president of Olivet College in Michigan. “Corporate America wants creativity. Nonprofits want creativity.”
And Tuski is quick to disassociate the term “creativity” from simply “making something aesthetically pleasing.”
“It takes a lot of mental gymnastics to go out into the community to engage other people and solve problems,” he said. “You learn [at art school] to take risks and solve complex problems, and how to see the world thoughtfully.”
Raymond Apy, president and CEO of New York-based communications systems firm Annese & Associates Inc., told Forbes magazine last month there will always be jobs for workers with technical or mechanical skills, but companies such as his are seeking creative problem-solvers and bold communicators.
Maine College of Art is now emphasizing its nascent Artists At Work program, which places students in professional environments executing time-sensitive jobs for clients such as the local minor league hockey team, the Portland Pirates, as well as its public engagement courses, which involve high-visibility projects and significant outreach efforts.
“You can’t hide at an art school like MECA,” Tuski said. “You’re probably going to have your first review within a week of arriving. If you don’t put the work in or come up with something new and innovative, it’s going to be exposed very quickly.”
Carrie Zeisse, chief operating officer of the United Way of Greater Portland, is a 1992 graduate of MECA. Her husband, Brook, is also an alumnus.
“We’ve been working since graduation, since Day One with professional careers,” Carrie Zeisse said. “We’ve had consistent and stable employment.”
With the United Way, Zeisse oversees the organization’s finances, information technology and marketing, among other things. Her resume includes time in New York City working in magazine publishing and photography — more in line with what she studied at MECA — but she said she draws on her art school experiences still today in a workplace less obviously connected to the art world.
“I do think what I got out of MECA was the ability to synthesize a lot of information and communicate it out,” she said. “Because you’re product-focused, and your product is only as good as the work you put into it [as an art student], you develop a tremendous work ethic. And that continues to be something I look for in the people I’m hiring now.
“Even the critique process we go through in art school — where you put the work up on the wall and accept input from other people — you have to be constructive and capable of taking feedback,” Zeisse continued. “You have to be able to detach yourself enough from the work to be able to make it better, and I don’t know that you would have gotten that as much from a non-art school setting. There’s quite a bit of teamwork in that environment, and as you know now, business is all about teamwork and collaboration.”
Said Tuski: “Part of what we do here is make sure students know how to be true working artists.”