Memphis College of Art: A $30M 'miracle' could save the school from closing

Following a rich 81-year history in Memphis, including nearly 70 years at its campus at Overton Park, the Memphis College of Art announced this week that it will stop recruiting new students, effective immediately, and begin making plans to close the college.

The news comes on the heels of a recent announcement from the adjacent Memphis Brooks Museum of Art that it will move from its Midtown location sometime in the next couple of years.

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Declining enrollment, overwhelming real estate debt, and a lack of a viable long-term plan for financial sustainability were the primary reason the MCA board of directors voted to shut the school’s doors by 2020.

“The most striking factor is the macro environment in higher education and the trends we are seeing across the country in terms of declining enrollment,” said MCA president Laura Hine. “Small liberal and fine arts schools have been hit particularly hard in the post-Recession era, and we are certainly no exception to that.”

Hine cites the destruction of the middle class in the U.S. in recent years and how many families are considering the high cost of education and the value of a degree.

Enrollment at MCA is down 35 percent this year to just over 300 students, and there has been a downward trend in enrollment for several years. Tuition at the private art college is $35,000 a year. 

“When you are small like we are, we’re tuition-dependent and can’t suffer swings in our enrollment,” said Hine, who describes the mood at the school as grief-stricken with the recent announcement.

Adding to the problem is the fact that the school does not have a large endowment to balance the scales and it is under the financial burden of 11 pieces real estate purchased years ago for student housing south of Poplar Avenue near the campus. In 2010, the college spend $2.5 million in rehabbing a South Main building to house its graduate school. MCA abandoned the effort in 2015 and sold the building to a hotel developer in 2016. 

The college will now begin to sell off its remaining real estate and other assets to fund its debt obligations and other liabilities, including providing sufficient funding to serve existing students who remain at MCA.

MCA is not admitting new students, and at the conclusion of fulfilling its obligations to existing students who remain in good standing, the school will close. The precise period of time for the wind-down has yet to be determined, but the school anticipates it will last through May 2020.

Hine is not ruling out a miracle that could keep the school open, but that would require a major endowment to get the school closer to its $30 million goal.

“We’ve been the recipient of donor generosity throughout our entire 81-year history,” said Hine. “We would need to have a striking increase in the amount of our endowment [estimated at $5 million currently]. If the community stepped forward and we started to see a trend towards our fundraising goal, anything is possible. But we don’t anticipate that kind of response.”

MCA’s popular Holiday Bazaar, now in its 67th year, will take place as scheduled on November 17 and 18, with proceeds funding existing student scholarships.

Read more articles by Michael Waddell.

Michael Waddell is a native Memphian who returned to Memphis several years ago after working for nearly a decade in San Diego and St. Petersburg, Fla., as a writer, editor and graphic designer. His work over the past few years has been featured in The Memphis Daily News, Memphis Bioworks Magazine, Memphis Crossroads, the New York Daily News and the New York Post. Contact Michael.