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After 81 Years, Memphis College of Art Will Shutter Due to Debt and Falling Enrollment

While many remain optimistic that the school could remain open, it would take a miraculous $30 million endowment donation to make this possible.

The main building of the Memphis College of Art (all photos courtesy Memphis College of Art)
The main building of the Memphis College of Art, Rust Hall (all photos courtesy Memphis College of Art unless indicated otherwise)

MEMPHIS — On the morning of October 24, the Memphis College of Art took to Facebook to announce that it will permanently close its doors in 2020, after 81 years of operation. In a matter of minutes, the comment section was filled with responses: past alumni sharing fond memories of their student days at the MCA; Memphians expressing sadness at the fact that the city will lose a pivotal member of its arts community; but above all, many people desperately wanting to know whether anything could be done to keep the institution afloat.

The final decision had been made two weeks earlier, spurred by a combination of declining admissions — down by 35% just this year, according to High Ground Memphis — increasing real estate debt, and the school’s small endowment fund. Tuition at the school is $35,000 per year. While many remain optimistic that the school could remain open, it would take a miraculous $30 million endowment donation to make this possible. The institution immediately stopped receiving applying students, and will focus on the current student body for the next three years. During that time, it will fund its operations partly through the sale of its real estate holdings. The fate of its main building, Rust Hall, has yet to be determined.

An "Experimental Photography" class at the Memphis Collection of Art
An “Experimental Photography” class at the Memphis Collection of Art

While a number of factors contributed to the institution’s demise, the MCA’s Interim President Laura Hines highlights one shift as especially significant: the declining enrollment in fine arts programs and the increasing emphasis on digital and design arts among incoming students. While the MCA offers an undergraduate degree in graphic design, Hines believes the lack of courses in digital and design arts is a major factor in the drop in applications.

“There’s declining enrollment nationally in the traditional Fine Arts, which is what MCA’s curriculum is more focused on,” Hines told Hyperallergic. “So we maybe missed an opportunity to build out Design Arts a little more fully to ensure enrollment.”

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The MCA opened in 1936 and gained official recognition as an accredited Tennessee art institution in 1947. It has since become a member of the National Association of Schools of Art and Design, and remains the only art school within the city of Memphis offering an intensive fine and visual arts curriculum. Though not as widely known as elite art schools like the School of the Art Institute of Chicago or Savannah College of Art and Design, the MCA has set itself apart by being one of the few nationally accredited art schools in the Southeastern region, as well as being more affordable and having smaller class sizes than many competitors.

An exhibition opening and lecture at the Memphis College of Art
An exhibition opening and lecture at the Memphis College of Art

The school is located in scenic Overton Park, close to the bustling arts neighborhoods of Overton Square and the Cooper Young District, and adjacent to the Brooks Museum. With a student body of over 300, the MCA offers a total of 16 fine arts programs — 11 undergraduate and five graduate degrees — in fields ranging from comic illustration to metalworking and art education. A large majority of the MCA’s student body hails from surrounding states and neighboring regions, but students from all across the world come here in search of a quality education in a more low-key setting than major art centers like New York and Los Angeles. The school’s alumni span an impressive range of artists including pattern painter Valerie Jaudon, Palestinian filmmaker Emily Jacir, as well as artist and Warhol mentee Blake Nelson Boyd.

While undergraduate arts and MFA programs will still be offered at nearby institutions — including the University of Memphis, Rhodes College, and Christian Brothers University — the MCA’s closure has left many in the Memphis art community wondering what will happen to the city’s arts scene. To many students, the closure announcement came as a surprise, but Tawny Armus, an MCA senior originally from Colorado and concentrating in sculpture, had a feeling that mounting cutbacks were leading up to this drastic decision.

“When it comes to the students at MCA, most thought everything at the institution was fine,” Armus told Hyperallergic. “Nobody told me, but I did see this coming since the beginning of this semester. I just had a terrible feeling in the pit of my stomach.”

An "Intro to Blacksmithing" class at the Memphis Collection of Art
An “Intro to Blacksmithing” class at the Memphis Collection of Art

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This past June, Time magazine published an article identifying the top 25 cities where millennials are moving, placing Memphis at fourth on the list with a 9.5% increase in millennials between 2010 and 2015. However, without the MCA, many prospective art students looking for an intensive, studio-based program will look to other schools in the Southeast, like the Kansas City Institute of Art or the Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida.

“If you don’t have that magnet drawing students to Memphis then you can pretty much predict that there’s going to be a hole there,” Hines says. “There’s not going to be the pipeline of visual artists who make the culture here so rich.”

However, there are many residencies available for Memphis artists via the likes of Crosstown Concourse and Youngblood studios, plenty of affordable studio and gallery spaces, and Armus is optimistic that this will entice young artists to remain in the city. Still, the MCA served a key functions in teaching young artists how to find and grasp such opportunities.

LaToya Ruby Frazier delivering a lecture at the Memphis College of Art in April 2017
LaToya Ruby Frazier delivering a lecture at the Memphis College of Art in April 2017

“I really do worry about how this will affect young artists in the community,” says Armus. “I think with the school closing there will be a need for some type of space for young artists to be able to consult about all of the opportunities available for them to apply to and how to do so.”

The MCA’s closure reflects a pattern of challenges facing small fine arts institutions, according to Hines. As institutions struggle to shore up adequate endowments and enrollment numbers continue to dwindle, colleges focusing on intensive fine arts studies will face further obstacles. In the past few years alone a number of institutions have been impacted, including the sudden closures of the Brooks Institute in Ventura, California, and the New England Institute of Art in Boston. In New York, the Cooper Union in particular has suffered through years of financial crisis during which the famously free school cut scholarship funds and introduced tuition fees.

In such a tumultuous time, Hines remains holistic and optimistic about the future of the Memphis arts community. She adds: “One can hope that something new and different will rise that will sustain the visual arts after the college’s closure.”

Rust Hall at the Memphis College of Art (photo by Kenneth C. Zirkel, via Wikimedia Commons)
Rust Hall at the Memphis College of Art (photo by Kenneth C. Zirkel, via Wikimedia Commons)
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