MECA undergoing MEGA changes


A college at a crossroads: MECA's Porteous Building on Congress Street. (photos/Chris Busby)
A college at a crossroads: MECA's Porteous Building on Congress Street. (photos/Chris Busby)

MECA undergoing MEGA changes 
Deans leaving, enrollment down, buildings for sale

By Chris Busby

The Maine College of Art is in what one top administrator called “a transition period.”

That’s putting it lightly, considering the following…

• The college is in the midst of changing presidents for the third time in five years. Interim president William Dill, who took over when Christine Vincent resigned unexpectedly last year, will make way for incoming president James Baker this summer.

• Jonathan Calame, a MECA instructor appointed last year to serve as the college’s interim dean, is being removed from that post this summer, a year earlier than previously planned or expected. The search for his replacement will begin this year, with Baker’s input. Calame could not be reached for comment.

• Carmita McCoy, MECA’s Dean of Students and Director of Student Affairs, was fired this month after four years in that position. The position of her principal assistant, the college’s Career Resource Coordinator, is being eliminated this summer. (That position was held by Jeff Badger, an artist, musician and Bollard freelance contributor, who declined comment; McCoy did not return a call seeking comment.)

• The former director/curator of the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) at MECA resigned several months ago, after a little over a year in that position. The gallery and education center’s Director of Education and assistant curator, Cindy Meyers Foley, also left recently. Neither position will be filled this year; meanwhile, the ICA’s staffing structure and direction will be reassessed. 

• The college is also in the process of selecting a new director for the Joanne Waxman Library. Located in the Porteous Building on Congress Street and open to the public, the facility is one of the largest visual art libraries in the region and a significant online resource for the community at large. 

• MECA has either recently sold, or plans to sell, several signature properties, including the historic Baxter Building on Congress Street. The college sold its residence hall on High Street earlier this year, and the Holbrock House, a student living facility on State Street, is going on the market. Those properties housed fewer than 20 students each. MECA is simultaneously expanding and consolidating its student residences. In addition to the roughly 80-bed dorm opened last summer in a renovated hotel on Oak Street, MECA acquired an apartment building on Shepley Street this past winter that’s expected to house about 60 students this fall. 

The Baxter Building may be on the market next year or the year after. MECA plans to move the programs and facilities currently located there to the Porteous Building a few blocks down the street, as renovations to the former department store progress. The administrative offices at the Clapp House – a stately, historic building on Spring Street – will also be moved into or closer to the Porteous Building within the next couple years. (The Clapp House is owned by the Portland Museum of Art.)

• Enrollment this fall is projected to drop by about 10 percent (to approximately 400 students) from this past year’s total (435 full-time students). MECA’s Vice President for Enrollment Management, Rick Longo (the administrator who called this a “transition period”), said that drop is primarily the result of a recent shift in the way the college awards scholarship money – from a system based on merit to one based on financial need. Longo also said the school is accepting more true freshmen students and fewer transfers these days, and more of those freshmen are trying to pay for college themselves, rather than relying on parents or receiving other sources of aid.

The Baxter Building – once the Portland Public Library – on Congress Street.

The high turnover of top administrative jobs, consolidation of real estate and shrinking enrollment are signs of long-planned restructuring and constructive transformation, not trouble for MECA, college officials say. Longo called this the period during which MECA “becomes the college it’s going to be for the next 20 years or so.” Enrollment may stay low for the next couple years, “but ultimately the school will emerge stronger,” he said.

And, in fact, there is good news on one crucial financial front. The non-profit art college’s endowment has increased from $2.3 million five years ago to $3.8 million “and growing” today, said Jessica Tomlinson, MECA’s Director of Public Relations.

MECA’s relatively miniscule endowment has been a source of concern through the years. Without substantial revenue from these savings funds, private colleges like MECA must rely more heavily on tuition and program fees in an increasingly competitive higher education market. And unforeseen expenses can stress the budget, especially in tight fiscal years, sometimes compelling administrators to make unpopular cuts. That happened in 2001, when MECA administrators, faced with $98,000 in unforeseen security costs associated with the then-new new media program, restricted students’ access to studio facilities, Casco Bay Weeklyreported (24-hour access was restored after students complained). 

The substantial growth of MECA’s endowment over the past half-decade bodes well for its future. The college is also running a capital campaign to raise money for the multi-million-dollar Porteous renovations. That campaign is still in a low-profile “quiet phase,” officials said, but the college recently announced a $1 million gift from the family of one of its trustees, board vice-chair Candace Pilk Karu. The donation will establish the Karu Center for New Media in the Porteous Building (the new media major is currently based in the Baxter Building). 

Sale of the Baxter Building has long been part of MECA’s “grand plan,” said Tomlinson – a plan that calls for dorms, studio and classroom space, and offices to be grouped closer together downtown. Plus, it’s expensive to maintain historic properties like the Baxter and Clapp buildings. The Baxter Building needs “extensive, extensive repairs,” Tomlinson said, noting that work on the roof alone is “a million-dollar job,” money better spent educating students, she said. 

There are also high hopes that incoming president Baker will reinvigorate the institution. MECA faculty are “very excited” about his hiring, said former MECA president Roger Gilmore, who added that interim president Dill “did a nice job keeping the place calm and cool” in the wake of Vincent’s departure. 
Gilmore would know. He joined MECA in 1989, after a decade of similarly high administrative turnover at what was then called the Portland School of Art. He retired in 2000, having done much to stabilize the college financially and administratively. 

Baker is in the process of moving to Maine from Colorado, where he headed the highly regarded Anderson Ranch Arts Center (he could not be reached for comment). He told the Portland Press Herald in May that his goals include increasing enrollment to 525 students.

“Change isn’t easy,” said Longo, who joined MECA in March of last year. “In order to move forward, we need to make difficult decisions.” 

“Some see this craziness,” he added, “but this is being done by design.”

Leave a Reply