Oregon College of Art and Craft finds another potential partner

The OCAC-PNCA merger is off, and Portland State is OCAC's new suitor

While the Oregon College of Art and Craft was seeking to join forces with Pacific Northwest College of Art this fall, it was also talking to Portland State University about a possible deal. Those talks are heating up. The statement yesterday from PSU: “Portland State is currently conducting a feasibility study of a possible acquisition of OCAC.”

Written mostly from the perspective of PSU, Jeff Manning’s story for OregonLive today framed the story as part of PSU president Rahmat Shoureshi’s efforts to expand his university’s arts footprint.

“We’re committed to investing in expanding our College of the Arts whether or not we pursue this opportunity,” Shoureshi told Manning. Shoureshi said that adding the faculty and facilities of OCAC would make the PSU College of the Arts a top 10 arts department nationally.

Manning also reported that OCAC had incurred $685,649 in expenses beyond its total revenue in 2017, that the school owed more than $1.5 million to lenders at that time, and had a $1 million payment due in 2018. OCAC didn’t reveal whether the college or its foundation had made that payment, but Shoureshi said that OCAC wanted PSU’s decision on the merger made by April. “They’re under financial pressure,” Shoureshi said, “they need answers.” PSU’s involvement in a rescue of OCAC is contingent on raising money to cover the costs of the merger, Shoureshi said.

The Oregon College of Art and Craft campus/Photo by Bruce Forester

The OCAC campus on Southwest Barnes and Leahy roads is a considerable asset. Previous 990 returns by the college have valued it around $10 million, and the acreage right along Barnes and Leahy could easily be developed without disturbing the campus itself. And at the end of its 2015-16 fiscal year, OCAC’s foundation had assets (mostly in the form of investments) of $1,930,700.

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I reached out to OCAC for more information about the fall discussions with PNCA, and the college asked to postpone talks with me until the end of January. I’ve reached out to them again to answer some new questions about their perspective on the PSU acquisition, but they haven’t responded to my queries. If they respond later today, I’ll post their answers here.

UPDATE: Here is the OCAC official statement, which is all they want to say at this point.

Portland State University and Oregon College of Art and Craft are exploring a potential agreement for partnership that is mutually advantageous to both parties.  Uniting OCAC and PSU would establish a more robust foundation for Portland’s higher education in the arts, while expanding and diversifying opportunities for students.

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If you read Manning’s story on OregonLive today, you might have thought, “Didn’t OCAC merge with PNCA this fall?” The quick answer: They didn’t, though we can be forgiven for thinking so. That’s because the public narrative about the proposed merger between PNCA and OCAC plunged into the murky depths this fall. After a round of positive stories about the likely success of merger talks early in the process, two of the city’s legacy journalism companies, The Oregonian/OregonLive and OPB, both published stories announcing that the merger had been approved and was going forward. That was wrong, and six weeks later any possible deal was off the table.

Let’s just look at the bullet points:

  • September 10: President Denise Mullen leaves OCAC for personal reasons. Jiseon Lee Isbara, Dean of Academic Affairs, is appointed Interim President for the college.
  • Early October: PNCA president Tuski announces to PNCA students, staff and faculty that the boards of the two institutions were in talks about joining forces.
  • October 3: The Oregonian’s Everton Bailey Jr. quotes Tuski in a story on October 3: “In our first meeting, people at OCAC were thinking the same thing that we were, that if we could do this, we could really take the next step to be an art, design and craft school that rivals anything in the country, and that’s really the goal,” Tuski said.
  • November 1: Oregon Public Broadcasting’s April Baer reported that the merger was set: “Oregon’s two major, standalone art schools have voted to merge,” she wrote. And then she said the schools were negotiating a memorandum of understanding to determine the shape of that merger. Her quotes from Tuski and Isbarra seemed definitive proof of the merger: “By any measure, OCAC is in a place that needs to explore proactive solutions for a sustainable future,” Isbara told Baer. “The current higher education environment has proven to be precarious. We believe the merger will strengthen the merged colleges’ future.” And Tuski was already imagining that future: “It will be a new culture created by faculty, staff, students and alumni of both schools,” he said. “Art, design and craft schools about creating something new, authentic or original. This is where two strong art schools are going to do this together.”
  • November 2: The Oregonian’s Douglas Perry built on the OPB report: “The Pacific Northwest College of Art and Oregon College of Art and Craft have voted to combine, OPB reports.” He adds later, “A new name and how exactly the two schools and their programs will combine remain to be worked out. Some job losses are expected because of the merger.”
  • December 14: The Oregonian’s Amy Wang reported: “After three months of discussion, the boards of both schools voted Friday against the merger, calling it “not a feasible option” at this time, according to statements from both schools.”

As it turns out, the PNCA board on October 26 resolved “that PNCA will continue to discuss the possibility of a merger with OCAC and will begin the process of negotiating an MOU [Memorandum of Understanding], which, if agreed to by both parties, and voted on independently by each college’s Board of Governors, will begin the merger process.” That was an important step in any merger, but it clearly doesn’t actually constitute a vote to merge. And by December 14, those boards decided against the merger, having failed to agree on a memorandum of understanding.

Maybe there is some humor in this—a misunderstanding about a memorandum of understanding. Typically, merging organizations give themselves several exit ramps during the merger dance. If early talks go well, they often start negotiating an MOU, basically a non-binding agreement that they have enough common interests to keep talking. After they agree on an MOU, they start negotiating the merger itself, a binding legal agreement that actually merges the two institutions. In this case, PNCA and OCAC, for whatever cluster of reasons, were unable to produce a memorandum of understanding, let alone dot the i’s on a contract to merge.

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The idea of a merger between Portland’s two arts colleges—Pacific Northwest College of Art and Oregon College of Art and Craft—has never made real sense to me, if we take financial necessity out of the equation. We’ve heard about talks along these lines for a long time, even before the Portland Art Museum mothership ejected PNCA from its pod in 1994, perhaps simply because few American cities support more than one art and design college, none the size of Portland.

But the cultural differences have always seemed insurmountable to me. OCAC sits on ample acreage on Barnes Road, and its mentorship approach to teaching the fine points of the craft tradition even today recalls the best parts of the Medieval apprenticeship.

PNCA has spent most of its history as an independent institution either in the middle of the transforming Pearl District or, now, situated on busy Northwest Broadway, between the Pearl and Old Town. And its program has adjusted to the constant shape-shifting of contemporary art practice and to the rise of Portland as a significant American design city.

For most of their history, the two have been rivals for students, donors and even for such cultural “prizes” as the Museum of Contemporary Craft. PNCA won that contest, though only a few years after the victory, it shut down the museum and sold off the building. Which still stings in many corners of the city’s arts community.

As American arts and design schools have, both PNCA and OCAC have struggled financially. Costs are up and enrollments are down across the board. But during the past decade, both have had solid leadership and, despite the economic headwinds, they’ve accomplished some major feats that required effective organizing and mobilization of Oregon’s smallish donor base. OCAC expanded its campus and became an accredited college, while PNCA managed to secure that new HQ on Broadway. Still, the fundamentals—especially the decline in the number of college-age students and the society’s hard-right turn toward profit and thus chasing white-collar jobs, entrepreneurial success or both—have been against them.

Their weakness is relative. The PNCA budget is more than twice the size of OCAC’s and its enrollment numbers are substantially larger, 595 to around 180, though Manning pegged OCAC enrollment at 138.

PSU is vastly larger than either PNCA or OCAC. It will spend around $590 million in its 2018-2019 fiscal year. And in addition to the economic, cultural and demographic changes that PNCA or OCAC face, PSU also has to deal with the vagaries of state politics. Manning’s story goes into those in some detail. The cultural differences between an urban state university and a small, private art college are immense.

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We will add to this story (or more likely, write additional stories) as this new chapter in OCAC’s history unfolds. An “acquisition” and a “merger” have different meanings after all.

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