It’s too early to say, but Maine-born artist Kate Farrington may well represent the brain drain in reverse.

Farrington, a graduate of Bangor High School and Bowdoin College (classes of 1985 and 1989, respectively), is living in Cambridge, Mass., and working toward her doctoral degree.

Not at Harvard or MIT or any of the other elite schools down Boston way. She is studying for her Ph.D. with the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts.

The institute, or IDSVA, is a Portland-based low-residency educational program in philosophy and art theory for visual artists, architects, curators and creative scholars. Although chartered in Maine and based in Portland under the purview of former Maine College of Art administrator George Smith, the program lacks a physical presence in the city. There is no campus, and you won’t find students walking through Monument Square wearing IDSVA sweatshirts.

Smith and his colleagues have created a program with learning centers in the leading cultural cities and institutions worldwide, including Paris, Venice and New York.

Farrington is the first Maine student to enroll. Lord knows, she already has enough letters after her name. Since garnering her bachelor’s at Bowdoin, she also has earned an MFA from the Art Institute of Boston and a master’s of liberal arts from Harvard, with a concentration in history, both in 2008.


She opted to enroll in IDSVA because she wanted to sharpen her skills in reasoning and logic.

“I want to be able to formulate arguments on a deeper level than is typically associated with visual artists in the sense of academic training, at least in this country,” she said. “I want the training as a writer. I have done some writing, but I am interested in doing bigger writing projects.”

Smith, who lives in Portland’s West End, sees Farrington as the kind of person who might bring the training she receives back home to Maine.

“We are hoping she can come back to Maine and take a leadership role in Maine visual arts,” he said. “We lost her to Cambridge for a long time. But maybe now we can bring her home.”

In his fundraising efforts around the state, Smith has presented the IDSVA program as a Maine story. The program would not exist if not for the backing he received in Maine — first from the Legislature, which endorsed the school, and later from the various folks from Maine who sit on the board.

When Smith needed a last-minute infusion of capital to help guarantee student loans, he turned to his contacts in Maine, who helped him raise $200,000 in a matter of days.


“To me, the story of IDSVA is how Maine came together to make it happen,” he said. “It’s about Maine politics, Maine fundraising and Maine friends. For something as esoteric as this, where else could this happen but in the state of Maine?”

Smith founded the institute in 2007 as a low-residency opportunity for working art professionals from around the world. Students travel the globe, visiting with and hearing lectures from leading artists and scholars. They return to their homes to do their work independently.

The first wave of students will defend their dissertations beginning in January. Degrees will follow.

To be sure, this program is not for everybody. Smith’s goals when he began the program were to enroll no more than 15 students per year. Tuition and fees run about $29,000 annually.

He’s come close to meeting those goals, with some years better than others. The odds improved last year when the IDSVA received accreditation from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, which enabled students to apply for federal student aid.

That’s when Farrington began paying attention. She was aware of the program before, but when she learned she might qualify for tuition assistance, she became more interested.


Smith used his contacts to secure a scholarship for Farrington. He felt strongly that the program needed a Maine student, and there was no better candidate from Maine than Farrington, he said.

“I told the board, ‘We’ve got to get this student,’ ” he said. “Here is this Maine student who is perfectly qualified. Let’s see if we can get a Maine scholarship for this kid.”‘

“Kid” is a bit of a misnomer: Farrington is 44. She’s spent most of her life in academics, and if she sees the IDSVA program through to the finish, she is looking at three years of study and then more time for writing.

Scholarship in hand, she joined her fellow first-year doctoral students in Italy in the spring. Her studies included a side trip to Venice for the Biennale, where she met with artists and curators. The summer brought a period of intense study, and now she is back in Cambridge working on an independent study.

She knows she is part of a unique learning experience.

“I really feel like I am a part of something very exciting and a new model of education,” she said.


All the while, Farrington is keeping her career as an artist alive and active. She’s a painter by training, and lately has been working on a collaborative public art project at Fitchburg State University in Massachusetts.

She vows not to lose sight of her desire to make art, even while immersing herself in the depths of academic rigor.

“As I go into this program, I’m always hanging onto the fact that I am an artist and I always want to produce art,” she said. “I don’t know where I am going, but I see the possibilities open up.”

Might that happen in Maine?

With family here, Farrington returns often as is. Perhaps with a doctorate in hand, she will come home for good and fulfill Smith’s hope of reversing the brain drain, one student at a time.

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or:

Twitter: pphbkeyes


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