Memphis College of Art puts the creative craft to work

Nestled in the heart of Overton Park, more than 400 students are learning to hone -- and leverage -- their creative talents. Memphis College of Art is exploring new strategies to help young artists discipline their craft while also engaging with the community and using their skills in a professional environment.
Carrie Corbett loves pulling into 1930 Poplar Ave. in Overton Park every day for work.

She thinks it is a thrilling time to be a part of Memphis College of Art.

“There are so many positive changes going on. It is a tremendously exciting time to be here,” Corbett, Vice President for Communications and Marketing, said.

Over the past few years, the 80-year-old institution has implemented several career-advancement programs; this summer it will begin the process for the big move from downtown to Midtown; and beginning the first of April, it is looking forward to a knockout speaker series.

Much of the moving and shaking resulted from working with a consulting group and undergoing an extensive assessment process.

“We did a lot of surveying, offering surveys to students and different constituent groups. We did a lot of looking at ourselves, an intensive self-study of what we could do better and how,” Corbett said.

One of the more conspicuous issues they came across during the study was the location of the graduate center.

In 2010 the school decided to merge with the burgeoning art scene on South Main and restored the building at 477 S. Main to house a leading-edge gallery, studios, classrooms and tenant spaces for its newly envisioned Nesin Graduate School.

Over time it was discovered that most of the graduate students felt isolated from the rest of the student body and had limited access to the high-quality facilities at the Overton Park campus.

“We found that the students at the graduate center did not feel like they were really part of the rest of the college,” Corbett said. “Plus they were missing out on some of the things the undergraduates were getting on the main campus, and our undergraduate students were missing out on interactions with our graduate students.”

The MCA directorate decided to reconsolidate all of their programs on or around the Midtown campus, called Rust Hall.

They plan on converting five buildings on Tucker and Rembert near Rust Hall currently used for student housing into studio spaces for their graduate students. The buildings have been rezoned as “campus,” and construction will begin this summer.

“The current tenants have been moved to a month-to-month lease and been given a 60-day notice, so they know it’s coming, and that should be plenty of time for them to find a new place,” Corbett said.

School officials also partnered with Artspace Consulting and held a series of meetings last fall, inviting community members to offer input on what could be done with the 477 S. Main space.

“A lot of ideas were generated, very creative ideas such as arts organizations going in there, while still maintaining the galleries. We felt like there were a lot of good options for the future of that building, so we didn’t feel like we were leaving the neighborhood bereft,” Corbett said.

Being part of the community is core to the college's strategy. Administration has been hard at work making sure their students can be active and resourceful members of society once they leave the paint-splattered doors of art school. They have developed several programs to approach this from different angles, with the end goal to “Make Art Work,” as their school slogan states.

“MCA is dedicated to teaching students skills to help them be successful artists, no matter what they choose as their medium,” Carrie Brooks, Director of Career Services, said.

One such program is the Career Connections system, which matches talent with approved employers via an online portal.
Employers, once approved, may post freelance, part- and full-time jobs, and internships available to students. They can also view resumes and portfolio links, and students may find job postings and information about employers on the system as well.

“The system is being implemented this semester, and we are currently getting 2015-16 graduates’ accounts ready for view and employers on the system for our annual career fair on April 1,” Brooks said. “Anyone interested in getting on the system may contact me via phone or email.”

The school also developed a unique career assessment tool called the Career Path Inventory that was created alongside local psychologist Ginger Whelan. The CPI assists students in identifying individual professional goals, career roles, the necessary non-art skills, and similar information.

“The process integrated into the report teaches students a self-guided learning process that helps them reflect and think about what they want to learn about specific careers or skills and create smart goals for action,” Brooks said.

They recently revamped their Professional Practices (P2) program, which works to develop the skills and confidence necessary to meet the needs of the modern workplace. The P2 program implements its initiatives both vertically and across curriculum, from freshman to senior year and in every department.

“Each course works to build the P2 promise through project assignments and exercises,” Zark Strasburger, Director of Professional Practice Programs and Outreach, said. “One class may focus, for example, on communication skills and professional writing, while another course may focus on the development of a professional portfolio and website. Over the course of a four-year degree, students gain deep exposure to their discipline and creative craft and concurrently learn to use their skills in a professional environment.”

Administrators do not limit their vision for the P2 program to just inside the walls of Rust Hall and its satellite buildings. They make regular visits to businesses in the community to further their understanding of artists’ roles in the workplace and the advantage of having someone on staff who can execute design thinking.
Google Creative Director and Facebook Communication Designer Ji Lee will speak April 5 at 6:30 p.m.
“Outside the curriculum, our increasing P2 outreach is about building partnership systems that demonstrate the problem-solving potential of creatives and creative process, creating new value for community organizations, civic entities, and companies,” Strasburger said. “The outcome of such partnership activities is ongoing creation of applied experiences for students and a broad new array of employment opportunities for our graduates and further meeting our community’s need for innovative talent and solutions.”

Real-world experiences are also brought to the campus through their consistently successful visiting lecturer series.

This semester includes Guggenheim-winning photographer Sally Mann, local Guggenheim-winning filmmaker Ira Sachs, and Google Creative Director and Facebook Communication Designer Ji Lee, who will speak Tuesday, April 5 at 6:30 p.m.

“He will be speaking on the transformative power of personal projects. He has always felt strongly about making time for personal projects. He says they really contribute to the thinking he brings to the table at the workplace, and they keep the flow of his creativity going,” Corbett said.

“We are thrilled to have these speakers. The last two years we have developed a new attitude at MCA. We got some funding for some new positions and are creating more bandwidth. It’s hectic and exciting and all good,” Corbett said.

Read more articles by Lesley Young.

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