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VOL. 132 | NO. 211 | Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Memphis College of Art Closing Its Doors

By Bill Dries

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The Memphis College of Art will close by May of 2020 in what the board of the 81-year old Overton Park institution is describing as an "orderly dissolution of MCA’s real estate and other assets to fund the College’s debt obligations and other liabilities, including providing sufficient funding to serve existing students who remain at MCA."

It is the park's second institution to announce major changes in the last two months. The Memphis Brooks Museum of Art is leaving its 100-year old original home in the park with plans to move Downtown. The museum board is in talks with the city about terms of a move to land on the city's riverfront.

The city administration is also considering the next use of the century-old existing Brooks Museum building after the institution leaves.

The announcement Tuesday, Oct. 24, cites declining enrollment, overwhelming real estate debt and no viable long term plan for the financial sustainability of the institution.

“It is with great sadness that we move forward with this decision,” MCA Board Chair Henry P. Doggrell said in a written statement.

MCA interim president Laura Hine described the decision as "heartbreaking” after meeting with students Tuesday morning to tell them first that they would finish out their terms at the school over the next two years and be the last graduating class of the institution.

“We couldn’t see a way forward,” Hine told The Daily News later.

“When we’ve looked at every possible way forward – you just have to assume that the enrollment trend is going to continue or be very difficult to overcome,” she said, citing a $4.8 million endowment unable to deal with $1 million to $1.5 million in red ink annually.

“What it would really take is about a $30-million endowment. We have a draw down policy of 5 percent to fill that gap in the operating budget,” Hine said. “We certainly don’t have a sufficient endowment now. … There was just not the capacity to raise the $30 million endowment that we would need.”

The closing of the school will happen over a period of two years that the board describes as a "teach out."

MCA began what college president Ron Jones described as a “large-scale institutional review” in 2014 that included the school’s decision to move its graduate programs in a renovated building in the South Main district back to the Overton Park campus. The move out of South Main was in 2015, about five years after the college began renovation work on the South Main structure and moved in.

Against that backdrop, small art colleges across the country have suffered from the lingering effects of the recession, which was particularly slow to lift in the Memphis area.

“You see a declining higher education enrollment nationally. In the post-recession era the middle class has been hit particularly hard,” Hine said. “The ability of people to pay tuition has declined. You see the competition is fierce for enrollment and that is true of every school. … A small endowment, debt and declining enrollment is not a good formula for going forward.”

The college, started in a home in Victorian Village in 1936, moved to Overton Park at the end of the 1950s.

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland said the future of the MCA building “will be an important one for us to consider as 2020 approaches.”

“I’m confident that Overton Park will emerge from this transition an even stronger asset to the growing core of our city,” he added in a written statement.

The Overton Park Conservancy, which maintains and operates the park for the city – not including the Brooks, MCA and the Memphis Zoo – is about to undertake a park master plan that will include the planned move by the Brooks, the exit of Memphis College of Art and what to do with 16 acres of land on the East Parkway side of the park that is being vacated by a city vehicle maintenance facility.

“Added together, these three transitions will create an unprecedented opportunity to shape the future of Overton Park,” the conservancy said Tuesday, in a statement reacting to the word that MCA would close in 2020. The conservancy also pledged its support and partnership in the transition.

“The loss of MCA will be felt deeply in Overton Park, where students have given and received inspiration for decades,” the statement adds. “Their presence, and the work they created here, has contributed strongly to the park’s identity as an artistic and cultural center of our city.”

The MCA mid-century building designed by architect Roy Harrover and opened in 1959 is a landmark in Overton Park.

Its opening marked the college’s move to a structure built specifically for its needs and as a statement of the creativity within. The college began as the James Lee Memorial Art Academy at the depths of the Great Depression in the James Lee House in Victorian Village. It became the Memphis College of Art in 1985.

The college was both a shelter and a gathering point for artists including Burton Callicott, Veda Reed, Murray Riss, Ted Rust, Dolph Smith and Ted Faiers who would revitalize the school with new directions in the visual arts that were uniquely Memphis. They also reflected larger changes in American society. The artists not only taught at the college, they created at the college as well with important exhibitions of their work at the nearby Brooks. By the post World War II era they were leading the institution and enrollment was growing.

Hine said she cited that legacy of creativity as she talked to students Tuesday morning.

“We believe in our students and we believe in their creativity and we believe in their ability to innovate,” she said later. “We are going to rely on the thousands of graduates from this institution to just carry on -- go out into the world and be creative people and change the world for the better through their creativity.”

Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News, is chairman of the Overton Park Conservancy board. He was not involved in the editing or reporting of this story.

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