Memphis College of Art to close

Citing “declining enrollment” and “overwhelming real estate debt,” the Memphis College of Art — the storied Overton Park institution that traces its origins to at least the 1930s — on Tuesday announced plans to close. 

The shocking and “heartbreaking” decision comes on the heels of the recent revelation that the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art hopes to move out of Overton Park and relocate downtown.

The departure of both institutions would mark a radical shift in the city’s artistic center and be a double blow for Memphis art lovers and artists who for decades have depended on the Midtown park as a locus of education and inspiration.

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Memphis Brooks Museum of Art contemplates move to Downtown.
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“Facing declining enrollment, overwhelming real estate debt, and no viable long-term plan for financial sustainability, the Board of Directors of the Memphis College of Art has voted to stop recruiting new students, effective immediately, and begin making plans to close the College,” a release issued by the school Tuesday morning stated. 

“The College will now begin the 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,” the statement continued. “The College is not admitting new students, and at the conclusion of fulfilling its obligations to existing students who remain in good standing, MCA will close. The precise period of time for this wind-down (“teach-out”) has yet to be determined; the College anticipates it will last through May 2020.”

Enrollment for the current school year was an unexpectedly low 305 (including 279 undergraduates), a drop from about 380 in recent years and from a historic high of about 450.

The fulltime faculty numbers about 25, with about 30 adjunct instructors working in all aspects of the visual arts, from such classical techniques as painting and sculpting to more cutting-edge disciplines, such as computer design and animation.

College officials informed students of the decision during a 9 a.m. Tuesday assembly in Rust Hall, the school’s primary building. Classes were canceled, so students could meet with counselors about their classes, degrees and other issues.

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

“This has been a heartbreaking process,” added MCA Interim President Laura Hine.

Although its origins begin with the art classes offered at the old Nineteenth Century Club on Union Avenue in the 1930s and possibly earlier, the institution that would become the Memphis College of Art was founded in the historic James Lee House in what is now called Victorian Village in 1936. 

In 1959, Rust Hall, one of the city’s modernist architectural gems and most distinctive buildings, opened in Overton Park, to the school’s main location. Designed by Roy Harrover in the signature style of his Memphis airport concourse, the building included offices, classrooms, an auditorium and gallery space. At the time, the school was known as the Memphis Academy of Art, becoming the Memphis College of Art in 1985.

Many of Memphis’ most celebrated and revered artists taught at the college, including Ted Faiers, Veda Reed, Dolph Smith, the “metaphysical” Burton Callicott and Ted Rust, the sculptor who was the college’s longtime director (and the namesake for Rust Hall). The almost avant-garde approach of some of these creators was a far cry from the more rigid traditionalism of original Academy of Art head Florence McIntyre, described by contemporaries as “an elderly spinster.”

Occasionally, the school attracted a celebrity visitor or student (Amy Carter, daughter of President Jimmy Carter, earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the school).

On Feb. 26, 1973, the day after David Bowie’s sold-out 7 and 10 p.m. “Ziggy Stardust & the Spiders from Mars” shows at Downtown’s Ellis Auditorium, the rock-and-roll star brought his “screwed-up eyes and screwed-down hairdo” to the college, at the invitation of Dolph Smith. “He was just very normal and very easy to be with,” Smith recalled in 2008. He said Bowie toured the school, looked at art and visited with about 40 or 50 students who were “very restrained and very respectful.

Controversy also occasionally visited. In 1971, a photo exhibition organized by photography professor Murray Riss displeased Mayor Henry Loeb; drew cries of “pornography” because of its nude shots; and inspired local brick mason Newton C. Estes to kidnap 14-year-old Eddie Batey, son of Academy of Art teacher Richard Batey, to force the school to remove the offending exhibition. The boy was released, the incident made international news (even Walter Cronkite reported on it), and the nudes were stripped from the walls.

The vote to end the Memphis College of Art occurred at an Oct. 10 meeting of the school’s 15-member board.

Hine, who became interim president March 1, following the retirement of Roy Jones, who had been president since 2011, said the college would have needed an endowment of close to $30 million to ensure its survival for any meaningful length of time.

“Small private institutions like this are extremely-tuition dependent,” said Hine, a lawyer, longtime arts enthusiast and “a lifelong Midtowner who used to drop her kids off at art camp” at the college. “The lower enrollment resulted in higher than projected deficits.”

Although the college owns Rust Hall, it leases the land from the city, for a nominal fee in a contract good through 2050. The college’s debt, then, is not due to its main campus building but to the 11 buildings MCA owns south of Poplar, from about Rembert to Barksdale, which include dorms, graduate student residences and an administrative office. Even selling off these buildings would not save the school because “the valuations and appraisals on those buildings are not $30 million,” Hine said.

In a recent guest column in The Commercial Appeal, Hine described the college as “the heart and soul of the region’s visual arts community,” adding: “The influence of MCA artists is everywhere you look in Memphis: the Edge Triangle, at Overton Square, along the Greenline, in the Memphis History mural on South Main, and in the newly opened Crosstown Concourse.”

In a statement, Hine said: “We remain proud of the creative energy MCA artists have long brought to Memphis, and are eternally grateful to the donors and foundations who have sustained us throughout our 81-year history. The tremendous value of the artistic contributions made by MCA faculty, students, and graduates, over many decades, simply can’t be captured in words.” 

A former chair of the Brooks board, Doggrell said the almost back-to-back announcements concerning the Brooks Museum and the College of Art were “entirely coincidental.” “The Brooks decision is entirely unrelated to our situation,” he said.

In a statement, Mayor Jim Strickland expressed “sadness” over the MCA’s decision to close. However, he said the loss of the art institutions opens other opportunities as the city considers the future of the park.

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

“Since Rust Hall resides in Overton Park, which is city-owned parkland, the question of its future will be an important one for us to consider as 2020 approaches,” Strickland’s statement continued. “Fortunately, that building’s future will be considered around the time two other valuable spaces in the park — the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art and the General Services lot on the southeast side of the park — are likely to be transitioning to other uses. We’ll embark on a deliberate plan for Overton Park with our partners, including the Overton Park Conservancy, to reach an outcome on these uses that enriches this great park in the core of Memphis and continues to make our city even greener. 

More: Brooks Museum director Emily Neff on proposed riverfront relocation

More: Memphis Brooks Museum of Art eyes move to Downtown riverfront

 

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