Jason Cornell, the admissions counselor at the Maine College of Art, talks to students from Belfast High School about attending MECA on April 23, 2013.
By Bob Keyes
BELFAST – Don Tuski lists all the usual information on the front of his business card. On the back, he includes all that same info, but written in Chinese.
Tuski, president of Maine College of Art in Portland, had the cards printed up before a recent trip to China. He went abroad to build relationships with art schools and art institutions in China in hopes of recruiting more foreign students to come to Portland to study art.
MECA's international recruitment effort is part of a larger initiative to increase the school's profile. The school, which will confer about 70 bachelor's degrees at its 102nd commencement exercise on May 11, is positioning itself as a landing spot for students who want to learn a variety of skills that will serve them well in an evolving, complicated job market.
An art degree is no longer about learning how to make great art, Tuski said. It's about learning how to think creatively. "We teach our students how to make art and how to make a living," he said, repeating a mantra that echoes throughout the school's downtown campus in the former Porteous department store building.
Tuski instructed his admissions staff to cast a wide net in hopes of luring the best and brightest students not just in Maine and New England, but across the country and overseas. His admissions team visited more than 500 U.S. high schools during the just-completed academic year, traveling coast to coast, including a first-ever trip to Texas for a national portfolio day attended by many of the country's largest art schools.
Tuski spent eight days in China in late March, and returned home with serious interest from one or two prospective students, including one who is interested in a master's degree. He also set up the framework for student and faculty exchanges with three Chinese academic institutions at the high school and college levels.
"There is no reason we can't compete with the best art schools in the country," he said. "The MFA is the new MBA. Corporate America and the non-profit sector want more creativity in their work force. You can't outsource creativity, and that's our core. That's what we teach -- creativity. Art schools need to articulate how we create creative professionals. That's what this effort is all about."
Two weeks ago, Tuski and admissions counselor Jason Cornell made a quick recruiting trip up to Belfast in midcoast Maine. Belfast Area High School has a particularly strong art department, and MECA has always done well attracting students from there.
The school's art department chairman, Chuck Hamm, graduated from MECA when it was known as the Portland School of Art. He has maintained good relations with the school, and welcomes recruiting trips from Tuski, as well as representatives from other art schools.
Art schools from Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New Hampshire all make regular trips to Belfast, Hamm said.
Of the approximately 100 students who graduate from Belfast each year, about five commit to studying art at the college level, he said. Of those five, two or three usually choose MECA.
On this trip, Tuski and Cornell had 45 minutes to make their pitch. They talked about MECA's small class sizes, the appeal of a small city like Portland and the opportunities for work after graduation.
"One of the great things about art schools is that they help you see the world in more thoughtful ways," Tuski told 27 students, who packed one of the art rooms to overflowing. "We teach you how to take feedback and constructive criticism. We teach you how to use to your head and your heart, and your hands. We teach you to take risks. And we teach you how to think creatively -- and the thing about creativity is that everybody wants it. Employers want artists and designers and creative people who know how to think on their feet and how to solve problems."
After Tuski's introduction, Cornell offered a multimedia presentation that touted MECA's academic programs as well as the city life of Portland. Students who choose MECA can learn any number of skills, including painting and sculpture, as well as woodworking, illustration, and textiles and fashion design, he said.
The trip yielded results.
Cody Williams, a 17-year-old senior from Northport, finished up his paperwork that afternoon and left Tuski and Cornell with a completed application, including examples of his work. He's been thinking about art school since his junior year, and he started giving serious consideration to MECA last fall when Cornell made an early recruiting trip.
"That was key for me, because it helped me imagine what it would be like to go to school in Portland," Williams said. "I like the idea of a small school, and I like what I heard."
If he does enroll, Williams will have company. Among the students already committed to MECA for the fall is 18-year-old Celeste Pelletier of Belfast, one of his classmates. She chose MECA because she got a "good vibe" when she visited. "I liked the people and I liked the experience I had when I was there," she said.
MECA has about 400 students pursuing degrees at the graduate and undergraduate levels. About 34 percent of the undergraduate students come from Maine. Tuition is $30,260 before financial aid and scholarships.
The school offers bachelor's degrees in 10 studio majors, as well as an MFA in studio arts.
The among the undergraduates is 28-year-old new media major Chun-Cha Chang from Taiwan.
She toured MECA in 2007 and enrolled in 2009 when she moved to Portland with her husband, who grew up in Maine.
They debated moving to New York and Philadelphia, and settled on Portland in part because MECA's small size appealed to her.
"The schools we looked at down there are so big. You don't get to talk to the president or the dean. But MECA is so small, I actually know the president and the dean here," said Chang, who studied advertising in Taiwan and worked as a graphic designer before coming to the United States.
Another foreign student, Kwan Kha Tsui of Hong Kong, chose MECA sight unseen. "I had been told by many people that Maine is a beautiful place, so that added to my interest in MECA," said the freshman. "I had never visited the school, nor had I been to America before. I had to come to Portland by myself from the other side of the world."
That pleases Tuski to no end, and gives him hope for the future.
While in Shanghai on his recent recruiting trip, Tuski put together a small gathering for MECA graduates and others associated with the school who live there. He wasn't sure what to expect, but 18 people showed up.
That made an impression -- and confirmed his instincts that MECA's appeal reaches across continents.
"Here we are, little Maine College of Art hosting an alumni event in Shanghai and 18 people show up. Who would have thought it? It's wonderful."
Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or:
Maine College of Art President Don Tuski meets with students from Belfast High School about attending MECA on April 23, 2013.
On Friday, May 03, 2013, MECA student Chun-Cha Chang cleans out her cubicle she used at the Maine College of Art of the many items she made and use to decorate her space.