MICA's Story

To commemorate MICA’s history from 1825 to 2010 – a lot of years – the college published what is decidedly an exhaustive and elegant visual history. Making History / Making Art by Douglas L. Frost, designed by J. Abbott Miller and Jeremy Hoffman, is an accessible portrait of an institution that came to prominence with the Industrial Revolution. I asked Frost how the narrative of an art and design school became such a page turner. His responses follow:

As author of this tome, what did you learn about MICA that you had not previously known?
I always knew there had been real stand outs on the Board of Trustees since the 1820s.  However, I did not realize how deep the bench was, nor the depth of their commitment.

It was only after reading  thousands of  pages of annual reports and  Board meeting minutes that I appreciated the complexity of forces beyond the Board’s control—and the potential  consequences.  The Fire of 1835—that put Maryland Institute (MI) out of business for more than a dozen years—on top of the bank failure that same year, leading to seven years of depression—are examples.   The Board responded by constructing the Great Hall—“the largest clear space in America” noted the Scientific American—to serve as the city’s educational/cultural centerpiece. Resilience became a characteristic at MICA.

The Board navigated through the Civil War.  But the change in public taste after the War (combined with a severe decline in the economy) made the ‘70s a roller coaster decade—in spite of the fact new art institutions were forming!. Things looked pretty bleak in 1878 for Maryland Institute.  Would it survive?

Instead of throwing in the towel, the Board decided to check out sister institutions. Trustees started by visiting top counterparts in the North East in 1879-80. Additional trips to the Mid-West and Europe a few years later re-enforced Maryland Institute’s core values and stimulated the Board to adopt and adapt.

What about MICA set it historically apart as an art school?
When Maryland Institute began so did the Industrial Age on the East Coast; the chief emphasis was on inventions, designing items related to manufacturing, construction and building the city.  But from the beginning the fine and applied arts had a place at the table, establishing a School of Drawing in 1826, its first year.  Thomas Sully’s daughter attended the first painting class at MI  along with two Harvard professors and others.

After Seneca Falls 1848 (the emergence of women’s rights), MI established a female school for fine and applied arts (1854). That program was so good, the men demanded one exactly like it. Enrollment shot up.

A quarter of a century later the Board visited 16 art schools in the North East, Mid West and Europe and announced the establishment to Schools of Art and Design.  While all art schools had unique characteristics, they also had a lot in common.  MICA was very much in the mix, closest in many ways to Cooper Union.

Skip to the 1960s:  Eugene Leake, president of  MICA, a painter, focused on the fine arts program.  (Design was not his priority.) Fred Lazarus and Ray Allen sought balance.  In 1994, with digital technology a reality in countless ways, said Allen:  “This is the  most exciting time for artists since the Renaissance.” He appointed Ellen Lupton, Abbott Miller, Julian Allen to the faculty and put MICA’s design program on the map. The number of graduate programs has grown significantly.  It is an evolving scene and MICA is right up  there with RISD, CalArts, Chicago, SVA, and others writing tomorrow’s history.

Reading institutional histories can be as exciting as watching standing water. What is it about this richly illustrated book that debunks that notion?
First, we looked at a number of institutional histories to get ideas on organization, content, etc.  Several seemed like yearbooks with a goal of getting every club pictured. From the outset our focus was the larger context in which Maryland Institute existed. Our story evolves with – is part of – the nation’s: such as the symbiotic relationship MICA had with the B&O RR connecting America.  MICA’s tale is stitched into the fabric of America and the times, from the 1820s onward.   Engaged. There’s nothing dull about the history of the United States.  Why should institutional histories be?

Books are rumored to become extinct. How does your volume subvert that idea?
Our goal, from the outset, has been to get this book into the hands of a growing audience.  To that end, we have kept the price within reach.  We’ve been criticized for having it available for less than $100 (we put the cost at $65).  Better to sell a lot of books at a lower price than to sell a few at a higher price only to—and  end up with boxes of books unopened in some warehouse.

Is there one quotation in the book that speaks directly to you?
After receiving an honorary degree from MICA in 2001, Marcella Louis Brenner, {90+ year old widow of abstract expressionist Morris Louis ; she understood what the life of an artist was like) spoke to a hall full of students and faculty. Her remarks ended with the following salute:

“I honor you, your determination, your nerve, your courage, your willingness to take risks, your ability to be alone with your struggle…I  thank you for trying to make real for us what is real for you. And I thank you for your willingness to endure loneliness and anxiety in order to give yourself away.”

[See yesterday's Nightly Daily Heller for more on The Happy Film by Hillman Curtis.]

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7 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you for the write up on this book, Steven. As a follower of your blog and a 2005 graduate of MICA with a BFA in Illustration I was so happy to see this post.  I had a fantastic experience at MICA and there isn’t a day that goes by that I do not use skills that I learned and honed there. What a wonderful institution, I feel so lucky to have been able to attend for 4 years. I hope that this book illuminates for others who are not alumni what a special place MICA is, I cannot wait to buy a copy.
     

  2. Can you please tell me where to purchase this book.  I would like for my son to own this book.  He loved MICA and this book of it’s history will be a perfect gift.
    Thank you,
    Fran Kuhn

  3. This turned out to be such a great, high quality book, and a real bargain. You see it, touch it, flip through it, want it.
    I was so honored when asked to help in its production.

  4. Thank You for sharing this :)
    I would have liked to hear from Marcella Louis Brenner in person and to spend time chatting with her.
    Her remarks ended with the following salute:

    “I honor you, your determination, your nerve, your courage, your willingness to take risks, your ability to be alone with your struggle…I  thank you for trying to make real for us what is real for you. And I thank you for your willingness to endure loneliness and anxiety in order to give yourself away.”

  5. As a recent graduate of the MFA in Graphic Design program at MICA, with Ellen Lupton, I have to say that MICA is an exciting place to be. The moment you step foot onto the small campus you are engulfed with the history of the school. The Main building (which is on the cover of Making History / Making Art) is beyond opulent and a true testament of success of the schools early days. Juxtaposed across Mount Royal Avenue is the Brown Center. Built entirely out of concrete, glass and steel, the Brown Center is a crystal goblet of design and technology.
    MICA along with Baltimore’s History combine to make a visually compelling story and an even greater read.
    If you haven’t ever visited MICA, you should. You will quickly find a new passion for a school and a city that has survived nearly everything that you can think of and is still making a name and a path for itself for a bright future.
    Obviously I love MICA and so should you!
    -Wesley StuckeyMICA GD MFA 2011