“We have got to have faith in our ability to do something; we’ve got to prepare ourselves and make it happen. If we aren’t moving forward, we will move backward.”
Alonzo G. Decker Jr., Chairman, Black and Decker Company, 1968-79; MICA Trustee, 1978-92
Since 1825, leadership in education, art, design, culture, and social engagement has been fundamental to the MICA mission.
Leadership in innovation is the very reason Maryland Institute College of Art was created. Concerned that the still-infant country could not compete with Europe in designing products and structures for the emerging industrial age, John H.B. Latrobe convinced the most prominent individuals in Baltimore to help establish the institution that would become MICA. Since that November day in 1825, creative leadership in education, art, design, the promotion of culture, and community and social engagement has been fundamental to the MICA mission.
MICA’s 186-year history as an incubator for art and design ingenuity has been painstakingly chronicled over the past several years by a key figure in that history—Douglas Frost, the College’s first development officer. The resulting tome, Making History/ Making Art/ MICA, explores in more than 300 pages the birth and growth of MICA and its impact on education and society. Resplendently accented by artwork, period photography, portraits, illustrations, maps, and historical documents, the College’s official history book vividly illustrates how MICA has been, and continues to be, the flag bearer for culture in America.
According to Making History, Maryland Institute for the Promotion of the Mechanic Arts (MICA’s original name) was created to “put education within the reach of all, advance scientific knowledge, and maintain the city’s leading role in industry.” From the very beginning, alumni, faculty, staff, and supporters of the College have helped to shape the impact of the creative fields on society.
At the time of its founding, MICA’s educational model was revolutionary. Instead of training students in only one field, as in traditional apprenticeships, students were instead taught to be draftsmen as well as craftsmen so that they could visually present creative solutions to problems. The focus of the school—developing the scientific principles behind art—produced graduates uniquely prepared to be leaders in the industrial age. Thus began a tradition that endures to this day. MICA has consistently created first-of-their kind programs designed to embrace the needs of students, expertise of faculty, and emerging technologies in a way not duplicated at any other art school. In 1980, for example, MICA President Fred Lazarus IV co-created a program with the Ford Foundation to address the paucity of minority faculty members with MFA degrees at art colleges. Five years later, 100 Ford Fellows had obtained MFA degrees. In 2005, MICA created the first Master of Arts in Community Arts program, just one of many innovative MICA programs unique in the nation.
MICA students have always had the privilege of learning directly from instructors who are art and design trendsetters. In 1857, decades before overhead and LCD projectors, night school principal David A. Woodward patented the first successful solar camera, which used direct sunlight to enlarge photographs. Since then, gifted faculty members have shared their insight and talent with students while making their own mark on the world. In 1998, for example, faculty member Whitney Sherman ’71 and former trustee Ethel Kessler ’71 collaborated to create the first fundraising stamp for breast cancer research, which has been reproduced in seven other countries and has raised more than $70 million.
The faculty at MICA have long been considered among the best in the world and have a longstanding tradition of sharing their expertise globally with other students and academicians. As far back as 1849, the College’s principal, William Minifie, authored The Textbook of Geometrical Drawing for Use of Mechanics and Schools, heralded by Scientific American as the best book on the subject and adopted by schools throughout the United States and Europe. Recently, MICA’s Center for Design Thinking, under the leadership of director and faculty member Ellen Lupton, published at least five books, including the hugely popular DIY: Design It Yourself, published in English, German, Korean, and Chinese. Lupton was inspired to write another book, Thinking With Type, when she could not find a textbook for her own MICA classes on typography. It has since been adopted as a standard text in design programs around the world.
The MICA tradition of learning by doing has deep roots. During World War I, the United States Department of War enlisted students at the College to help save lives and improve the effectiveness of military operations by designing camouflage for equipment, planes, and ships. Other students supported the cause by designing and printing posters promoting the purchase of Liberty Bonds during World War I. Likewise, the US Treasury Department printed 1.5 million copies of a poster designed by MICA graduate Walker Wilkinson ’38 and his father that promoted the purchase of defense bonds. In 2010, Video and Film Arts Department Chair Patrick Wright co-produced the documentary Music by Prudence, using students and alumni in the filming and editing process. The film won an Oscar, and alumnus Errol Webber Jr. ’08 became the youngest cinematographer for an Oscar-winning film in history.
Members of the MICA family have also been influential in the development of novel artistic techniques. Morris Louis ’32 and Kenneth Noland, central figures in the development of color-field painting, pioneered a method of applying acrylic paint directly on a canvas that sparked a movement known as the Washington Color School.
Since its founding, MICA has had a unique vantage point on civic, community, and social engagement. During the War of 1812, future MICA president Samuel Sands set the type for the first printing of a handbill featuring the Francis Scott Key poem Defence [sic] of Fort McHenry, eventually renamed The Star Spangled Banner. Jacob Blaustein, who was a student in the early 1900s, eventually rose to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Indeed, future US President Franklin Pierce was nominated on MICA’s campus in 1852, President Abraham Lincoln spoke on campus in 1864, and President Rutherford B. Hayes visited the College’s major annual exhibition in 1878.
Though MICA’s Board of Trustees presciently made community and social engagement an official focus of the College in its Strategic Plan for the 21st Century, released in the early 2000s, that focus had been a reality at the school for generations. For example, in 1935, almost 30 years before television cameras called attention to the murder of civil rights workers Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, MICA hosted an intensely probing and controversial exhibition titled An Art Commentary on Lynching, though protests had caused the show’s cancellation in New York City. In 1964, six years before the first Earth Day, graphic design instructor Robert Wirth ’49 led students in drawings and photographs designed to call attention to the dangers of development on the ecosystem of Maryland’s Assateague Island. An exhibition of the work featured on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, during Senate Committee hearings helped lead to the island being named a national park by the Department of the Interior.
From its founding focus on making art education available to all of the nation’s talented students to its current position at the forefront of art and design education, MICA has used its ability to innovate as a key competitive advantage. As stated in Making History, “The courage to change, dramatically if necessary, has marked the Institute’s entire history.” As past is prologue, Latrobe’s motto remains at the core of the MICA philosophy today. It is, quite simply, “Forward.”