PNCA: Sticking to the path

Pacific Northwest College of Art decided merging with OCAC was a detour away from its future

Two big questions remain from the failed merger talks between Pacific Northwest College of Art and Oregon College of Art and Craft back in the fall.

The first: What are the details of the financial condition at OCAC that led it to seek merger and/or acquisition deals—with PNCA and then Portland State University—in the first place? Until OCAC talks publicly about that one, we’re left with speculations, informed and otherwise. That’s not the question I’m going to try to answer here.

The second: Why did PNCA decide against the idea of a merger with OCAC? After talking to President Don Tuski at PNCA, I think the answer has less to do with OCAC’s balance sheet and more to do with the future PNCA is attempting to carve out for itself.

Interior of the renovated the Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Center for Art and Design at Pacific Northwest College of Art/Courtesy PNCA

That future is extremely important to Portland’s creative economy, which is itself increasingly crucial to the economic health of the city. I’m persuaded after talking with Tuski, that, while the general direction of PNCA’s path isn’t new, its dedication to staying on that path is. And that path does not include a detour through the difficult process of merging with OCAC.

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What makes the decision not to merge more interesting is that in a similar situation a little more than 10 years ago, PNCA DID decide to merge with a major Portland craft institution. Then-President Tom Manley and the PNCA board decided to embark on a last-minute rescue of the Museum of Contemporary Craft, an institution founded in 1937 as the Oregon Ceramic Society by a group of local artists led by Lydia Herrick Hodge.

By 2008, after a bold move by its executive director David Cohen and artistic director Namita Wiggers, the museum had landed downtown on the North Park Blocks, where its exhibitions were a big hit locally and nationally. Unable to link that popularity to fundraising success, by 2008 it was close to the end. Manley and PNCA acquired the museum, its building and its debt and attempted to integrate the craft museum into the programs at PNCA. And although the museum continued to mount excellent exhibitions (I wrote about its Betty Feves and This Is Not a Silent Movie shows, for example), PNCA had a difficult time making the museum work within its budget and for its purposes. In 2016, a few months after Manley had pulled up stakes in Portland for the presidency of Antioch College in Ohio, the college decided to close the museum.

Manley’s tenure at PNCA, though, was filled with successes. He seemed to be part of every important local conversation about the development of Portland as a design center, and directed the college’s move from a curriculum dedicated mostly to helping students develop a fine-art studio practice to one that also could train them to be part of the creative economy. And he developed the capital campaigns that eventually led to the renovation of its Allied Works-designed flagship building on Northwest Broadway.

The Museum of Contemporary Craft acquisition stands out as a bridge too far, even for Manley, who had almost magically changed the future for PNCA after his arrival here in 2003. This is a radically shortened version of a couple of important chapters in Portland’s cultural history that some enterprising scholar is working on right now, I hope.

PNCA has two more residence halls on the drawing board, including one slated to open in 2019/Photo courtesy of PNCA

So, among my first questions to Tuski—when we talked in January, after the holidays and the decision to pass on the merger in mid-December—was about the past. Had PNCA’s unhappy experience with its attempt to absorb the city’s OTHER primary craft institution, the Museum of Contemporary Craft, influenced the decision against merging with OCAC? Was the college gun-shy about another merger with the last remaining large craft institution in the city?

“We were just trying to keep our strategic plan and that drove the whole process for us as we really got into the due diligence,” Tuski said. “You do a strategic plan to focus on what you do well already, what you want to do better, what new areas you want to get into. When I got here through my own research of art and design schools, looking at some of our competitors, we needed to put more design in place. Our faculty embraced that and in fact they are driving that process.”

And the rest of our conversation was about where the college stands now, its strategic plan and what lies in its immediate future.

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Tuski arrived at PNCA in June of 2016. Manley had been gone for several months and the campus was in some disarray as some of Manley’s programs were dropped, including its Critical Theory and Creative Research MA program led by Barry Sanders and Anne-Marie Oliver. Instructor-level teachers argued for more money and better working conditions. The transition to the new building was proving more difficult than expected—it takes time to learn to drive a new building—and students were unhappy, both with the building and the communication process with the administration. The general climate for arts colleges wasn’t very good, as costs went up nationally and the pool of prospective applicants shrank. Enrollment at PNCA had drifted downward.
Tuski arrived from Maine College of Art in Portland, Maine, which he’d led from 2010 to 2016, and found a situation like the one he’d encountered in Maine.

“When I got to Maine College of Art, it was a similar story to what happened here,” Tuski said. “Their enrollment had drifted down over four or five years. When I got there, they were at about 300, and when I left, they were about 500.”

PNCA’s enrollment in 2016 was a little under 500, Tuski said, and he immediately hit the recruiting trail after he arrived. “We were only visiting about 250 high schools [a year],” Tuski said. “Now we visit over 650. I even do some. We reconnected to community colleges—we’d stopped doing that.” Tuski said that when he went to Mt. Hood Community College, the president said he hadn’t seen anyone from PNCA in several years. “There was a philosophy of recruiting from away,” Tuski said, “but not in your own backyard.” The result was that in the fall of 2016 PNCA admitted only 22 students from Oregon; The class admitted in the fall of 2018 included 85 students from Oregon. Tuski said the college had developed an I-5 strategy for recruiting, “from Seattle down to San Diego.”

This academic year, total enrollment is up to nearly 600, he said, the most since 2010, with a record number of freshmen, and he says the college is on track to break the all-time record enrollment of 639 next academic year with another large incoming class of freshmen. Graduate student and transfer numbers are up, as well.

Tuski also dealt with the building issues. The college is expanding into the 24,736-square-foot Glass Building, formerly the home of Uroboros Glass, across the the Broadway Bridge (and a little north) from the main building. It will house graduate studios and all of the college’s 3D shops, including wood, metals, ceramics, plaster/moldmaking, soft sculpture, glass kilns, and a new storefront gallery. And on the housing front, it will add a second student housing building in the Pearl, with a third on the drawing board.

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Increasing enrollment isn’t just the product of good sales and marketing techniques, though those are important. The college’s faculty and curriculum have to offer a reasonable educational return on the student’s investment, both in time and money. PNCA’s tuition is $39,375, though the average tuition cost is less than $20,000 after PNCA scholarships are applied, according to the college’s website.

Former president Manley, who recognized and embraced Portland’s relatively rapid emergence as a design center, began adding design classes and programs to the curriculum almost from the start of his tenure at PNCA. Tuski is emphasizing that direction, too. The strategic plan calls for adding 3-4 new design programs by 2019, for example, including the gaming design program that moved to PNCA from the defunct Art Institute of Portland.

PNCA’s sculpture and other 3D studios are moving to the Glass Building in 2019/Photo courtesy of PNCA

A lot of the new classes are driven by conversations with major design companies in the area. “We’ve already had a lot of conversations with companies like Nike and ZIBA,” Tuski said. “In fact, ZIBA helped us develop our interactive design major that we’re putting in place now.” Conversations with Adidas, Keen and Under Armour made the college’s partnership with PENSOLE Footwear Design Academy make perfect sense, Tuski said. And going forward, that partnership will expand to include apparel design. Recent initiatives in film, sound, and video are going forward, and the college is exploring the intersections of science, art, and design with an art and ecology major.

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The process of arriving at the strategic plan was an open one. Tuski led PNCA through a months-long process that anyone could attend and that attracted lots of participants – more than 30 regulars, he said, including faculty, students, board and staff.

That Tuski landed amid a period of turmoil at PNCA is reflected in the document they produced. The first category is “Empower,” and its goal reads: “Build a supportive, inclusive, and equitable culture that empowers creative risk-taking; expresses appreciation; embraces humor; and practices open communication and critical discourse.” That category goes on to establish the priority of student experience at the college, increase “transparent and regular communication at and between all levels of the college,” and extend the culture of studio critique to the rest of the college’s communications. It ends with “cultivate participation in shared governance within the school.”

The other three categories of the plan—Learn, Reach, Thrive—include similar language to underscore what might be called democratic practices: inclusion, equity, shared cultural experiences, responsiveness to different learning styles and teaching approaches, an active role for the college in the outside world.

There are also items that target increased support and pay for faculty, new programs for public engagement, and preparing students for the rigors of the creative economy outside the walls of the college. Those include increasing internship opportunities, staying on top of technological changes, and continuing the evolution of the curriculum.

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Tuski also is making headway on the fundraising front, critical to small colleges because it makes scholarship money available for students. The intensive capital campaign a few years ago left a certain amount of donor fatigue, but it also left a list of likely future donors, once some time had passed. “A lot of people gave to the campaign for this building, and what we’re doing now is really ramping up our contact with a lot of those people,” Tuski said.

“It’s improving for us,” Tuski said about fundraising overall. “When your enrollment is going in the right direction and you’re developing some new programs, people understand. They understand that when I talk about growing to 1,000 [the target enrollment at PNCA] we’re talking about economies of scale. When you’re down below 500 [students} with a small endowment, you have no margins, but now, you get up to 600-700, it really starts to look good.” PNCA’s endowment goal is $50 million, roughly three times the size of its overall budget.

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Why did PNCA turn down the opportunity to merge with OCAC? One of the lessons of the Museum of Contemporary Craft acquisition was that swallowing another institution takes a lot of resources, financial and human, and diverts energy away from other issues.

Tuski and the PNCA board realized they had momentum going in a positive direction. Several complex initiatives on various fronts were under way, and they needed to be dealing both with student expectations and rapid changes in the local economy. Investing the time and financial resources to integrate OCAC, physically and academically, into the mix simply didn’t make sense, unless OCAC was strong enough to thrive independently. In which case, it wouldn’t have been seeking a merger partner in the first place.

Read more by Barry Johnson.

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