Don Tuski is leaving the Maine College of Art after overseeing an expansion that resulted in a boost in enrollment and stronger finances, departing the Portland school to become president at the Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, Oregon.
MECA board chairman Debbie Reed announced Tuski’s resignation Thursday morning, and said a search for a new president would begin immediately. “We were all shocked. It took us all by surprise,” Reed said. “I went from shock to anger to acceptance.”
Tuski, 53, has been at MECA for six years. He said his decision to leave was based on his desire for new challenges in his professional life. He has accomplished most of the goals that he set when he arrived at the college in July 2010.
“You lead an organization to a certain point, and sometimes the responsible thing to do is to hand it off to someone else,” he said Thursday afternoon. “I feel good. I feel that MECA is in a great place, and this is a great opportunity for the next president.”
His last day at MECA is July 8. He begins his new job July 22.
MORE REVENUE, NEW PROGRAMS
MECA has an annual operating budget of about $15.5 million, and a student population of more than 500. Enrollment was about 350 students when Tuski arrived. The incoming freshman class in fall 2016 will be the largest in the school’s recent history, with 175 or 180 students, Tuski said. More than 600 students applied, the school’s largest pool of applicants, he said.
MECA costs about $32,000 a year to attend. The average student cost is $18,000 with financial aid and scholarships, according to the school’s website.
Revenue and fundraising both increased under Tuski’s presidency, Reed said, and the school extended its reach and influence by adding several academic and community programs. Tuski helped create a Textile and Fashion Design major, and added minors in music, writing and public engagement. He also helped secure a $3 million gift from the Crewe Foundation to establish a music program, and recently led MECA’s acquisition of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies.
Under Tuski’s tenure, MECA also has expanded and improved its primary building in downtown Portland, the former Porteous department store, and added two dormitories. It now owns two buildings and leases two others for student housing. “MECA has become a much stronger institution under Don’s leadership,” Reed said in a prepared statement. “His six years as president has made MECA truly competitive in the world of art education.”
Tuski said his biggest accomplishment was changing the perception of the school in the community by securing its finances, becoming a more active community partner, and producing creative workers and thinkers who improve the quality of life for all of Portland. “Our alumni become artists and they become community leaders,” he said. “Artists are creative problem solvers, creative thinkers and they make everything better.”
A LEADER DIFFICULT TO REPLACE
Tuski came to MECA from Olivet College, a small liberal arts school in Michigan, where he got his undergraduate degree and later rose through the administrative ranks to become president. His graduate degrees, from Michigan State, are in anthropology. He comes from a family of artists, and helped raise a son and daughter involved in the arts. “We’re all creative,” he said.
Reed said trustees would convene a committee to appoint an interim president while searching for Tuski’s replacement. She declined to discuss the salary structure for the new president. According to the most recent tax documents available, Tuski earned $185,000 in 2013.
MECA has an endowment of about $6.5 million. Reed said one of the challenges facing the next president will be to increase fundraising and build the endowment.
Members of Maine’s art community reacted with surprise to the news of Tuski’s departure.
Mark Bessire, director of the Portland Museum of Art, called Tuski “an inspiring leader” and said his loss is a blow to Maine.
“Don brought the right balance of great energy, artistic vision and practicality that MECA needed,” Bessire said. “For Don to leave is not only a great loss for MECA, but for Portland and for the state of Maine. He always put students, faculty and community first and served with great elegance and integrity.”
Julie Richard, director of the Maine Arts Commission, said Tuski’s legacy at MECA is his broad vision for the school.
“He has made a concerted effort to truly integrate MECA into the community, from participation in monthly art walks to taking over the Salt institute and making it part of MECA,” she wrote in an email. “He has always been open to new possibilities for the school, and that is really unprecedented. He will be difficult to replace.”