Roger Gilmore & Don Tuski

Artists make communities better. Find me a community that artists have made worse.

The purchase and transformation of the Porteous Building, at a pivotal time in the College’s history, is the legacy of Roger Gilmore, MECA&D president from 1989 to 2001. Recently, Roger sat down to muse with Don Tuski, current president, about MECA&D today, how it has evolved over the past two decades, and what space art colleges might occupy in the future.

DON I have always held strong to my belief in artists as public intellectuals and art as central to culture, not an add-on. The idea of coming to a college that is a small and intimate environment with intensity and focus around the creation of art was really important to me. The power of the art college process, the critique process, seeing the world in more thorough and thoughtful ways, where you use your head, heart, and hands, are all appealing.

ROGER My initial impressions of you, Don, were that you looked like you would be a very good fit. Indeed, MECA&D has evolved very nicely into a more complete and stable institution. It is a thrill to see it continuing on a forward, upward trajectory and developing new programs that were only a dream 15 years ago. MECA&D continues to be a very strong, independent, professional art college and an even more central presence downtown. In the late ‘90s, we were just beginning to realize those connections.

DON Portland’s mayor, Michael Brennan, refers to MECA&D as the anchor of the arts district, and I love the fact that a couple of years ago, visionary philanthropist Roxanne Quimby said, “I can’t imagine this city without an art college.”

ROGER Having a more central campus is a major accomplishment, given the real estate market in downtown Portland. Doesn’t available space beg the question of enrollment and the perennial question, “What is our optimal size?”

DON Absolutely. Enrollment has crept up, but we need to grow carefully.

I don’t see us going over 500. Trying to be more efficient and keeping costs down, especially student debt, is an ethical responsibility and a challenge. I don’t believe in a silver bullet or quick fix. One of my 'big rock' issues in the next couple of years is to grow our endowment and identify and engage more resources for student scholarships. We want to make sure a wide variety of students from many different backgrounds have the opportunity to attend art college. We also want to redesign the front of the building and develop the street level.

ROGER I’d also love to see more international students and a broader scope of students from the U.S.

DON We have a big recruitment initiative underway. This year we visited 541 high schools and we have a recruitment plan for China. Professor Gan Xu, who teaches art history at MECA&D, has been very instrumental with the latter. I met Gan in Shanghai at the end of March to visit a number of art colleges and institutions. I’m very excited about this initiative. It’s very important for us to build an alumni presence in Asia.

ROGER The alumni connection is powerful, especially in recruiting students from faraway places. We have alumni in Mexico, Taiwan, and many other countries. Alumni love helping a place they feel very strongly about and that they feel is their own.

DON For a small college, our alumni are spread out nicely. In February, a large group of us went down to New York City for the opening of an exhibit featuring Ahmed Alsoudani ’05, whose work has garnered worldwide attention. Alsoudani’s work was shown alongside that of major artists Francis Bacon, Philip Guston, and Paula Rego. Many alumni have been very helpful, and we try to be as supportive as we can, so that they continue to feel good about MECA&D.

ROGER Another example is the memorial MECA&D hosted last September for Jim Dustin ‘81. Talk about a sense of family! When a family wants to have a memorial at an art college, that really reflects a sense of community.

DON Community is a term that students still use when explaining why they came to college here. If you ever search YouTube for ‘Maine College of Art & Design’ or ‘MECA&D,’ there are a lot of student videos and it’s interesting how many times the notion of community comes up. It’s pretty powerful.

ROGER MECA&D’s legacy began in the early 1900s, and as the College continues to have positive momentum and modest growth, the legacy will continue to grow and grow and grow. Should we try to anticipate the nature of colleges in 50 years? Will we all be online and the building for sale? I don’t think so. There’s something about the tangibility, the physical reality, and the togetherness of the students with the faculty. I also love the bookends of programming at MECA&D. It is terrific that this relatively modest-sized art college has been able to maintain both an innovative MFA program and Pre-College classes in the summer. It’s a lot to be the grandfather of.

DON The way that students are asked to look at the world and are assigned certain problems is so much more powerful than a lot of other approaches to higher education. Nothing replaces live people in a live studio doing a live critique, or a live professor interacting with a student around creating work. It’s hard to Skype that. As long as art colleges can find ways to educate as efficiently as possible, using technology in smart ways, they will persist as physical spaces. When you see people of all ages getting involved in art, you realize it’s one of the last intellectual frontiers for people who have been successful in business, law, sports, government and other careers. Human beings are really creative animals, and it’s up to art colleges to rediscover the importance of artists as public intellectuals in communities. I’m thinking of an art college version of Americorps. Artists make communities better. Find me a community that artists have made worse. I haven’t found one yet! At MECA&D, our hallmark is helping artists to build a strong traditional studio practice while embracing the potential of the broader notion of the ‘post-studio studio.’ We have a curriculum that connects us to places like the Telling Room, Preble Street Resource Center, and Cultivating Community.

ROGER The most creative artists are moving beyond solving problems to asking new questions, finding new ways of looking at things, and new ways of relating.

DON And those questions are integral to MECA&D’s vision to support our alumni and really make sure that our students know how to create great art, make a living, and navigate the world beyond our walls on Congress Street.