MCAD’s president discusses the school’s efforts to update its campus for modern arts education—within the existing architecture

Interview by Joel Hoekstra

The visual arts have changed considerably since the Minneapolis College of Art and Design was established in 1886. Aesthetic trends and technological advancements have altered and expanded the definition of art itself and transformed the way art is taught to students. Contemporary instruction in the visual arts now involves not only the basics of figure drawing and color theory; it also encompasses everything from digital animation to 3D printing.

MCAD already had a long history of adapting to such changes when sculptor Jay Coogan, appointed as college president, arrived on campus from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2009. Now, seven years later, Coogan talks about how the institution’s buildings are being reshaped to meet the needs of 21st-century arts education.

What did the campus look like when you arrived?
I would say we had a few immediate challenges: There was no visible campus signage, some of our open space was underutilized, and two single-family houses on the property were blocking future development. We addressed those issues by donating the houses to the neighborhood and moving them, developing a way-finding system, and creating a sculpture garden and parking. The sculpture garden in particular has been a really great addition. Students create large-scale outdoor works, which signals to people driving by that we are an art school. If we had more indoor and outdoor spaces like the sculpture garden, we could encourage more kinds of artistic activity and exploration.

Shortly before I arrived, the school completed a campus master plan. It was developed with the idea that the college would grow to 1,000 students (we’re currently in the high 700s) and that we would need to renovate and/or build lots of square footage. But the economic downturn changed that trajectory. I felt we needed to ask what kind of growth the school could reasonably expect and what students needed for shaping fast-changing art and design careers.

I wanted MCAD to be a good steward of its resources and utilize opportunities we already had within the existing campus footprint. That led to a new campus planning process. What could we do to capitalize on space that was underutilized? Architecturally, what did we need to do to meet the needs of the student body?

How had the campus developed over MCAD’s history?
The oldest building on campus—the Morrison Building, constructed in 1915—has evolved from being primarily an academic space to a facility that also houses student services. In 1974, the college added the Main Building, as we call it, designed by Kenzo Tange, a Pritzker Prize–winning Japanese architect who also did additions to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and Children’s Theatre Company. The Main Building allowed us to migrate many of our academic programs from Morrison, and it provided space for ongoing expansion of the college. We’ve added to the Main Building twice, putting painting studios on the east side of the building and 3D studios on the west side.

Has the architecture met the needs of the college?
The Main Building has been incredibly flexible. Prospective students are drawn to the amazing facilities inside, and we love how daylight penetrates the building and the way the exterior white brick comes into the interior, linking inside and out. By contrast, the historic Morrison Building is up against its limits. We need to do a major overhaul to make it truly meet current needs.

You selected Minneapolis architect James Dayton to help evaluate needs, create a new master plan, and redevelop a portion of the Main Building into M/LAB, a space for new media. What moved you to work with him?
I liked what Jim did for the MacPhail Center for Music, the Minnetonka Center for the Arts, the Blake School, and Highpoint Center for Printmaking. There’s a strong material quality to his work that resonates with the Tange building and the feel of an art and design school. He has a great sense of how to give a visual punch to space.

What other renovations do you have on the horizon?
Our primary focus is on updating our academic facilities to meet new program needs. For instance, we have a new Entrepreneurial Studies program. We’re hoping to build out a floor with two new classrooms that can be combined via a movable wall for collaborative work. We’re including formal and informal client-meeting spaces for students who are looking to manage and develop business ideas—an area that offers both access to a range of technology infrastructure and the kind of comfortable seating you don’t often find in a typical art or design studio.

Do MCAD buildings need to inspire students? What’s important aesthetically as you continue to refresh the campus?
It’s important that MCAD buildings reflect the dynamic visual education we offer students. Our biggest aesthetic challenge is our housing, most of which was built in the 1930s and 1940s, in a range of styles. It wasn’t particularly elegant when it was built, and it certainly isn’t dramatic or eye-catching 70-plus years later. We now have Cuningham Group Architecture renovating the exterior of one of our dorm buildings to give it more appeal and link it visually to the Main Building. I’d like to see us gradually unify the campus by playing off the black-and-white Main Building in future projects.

And on the wish list?
Flexible space! We need to find ways to convert more of the Main Building into space that can accommodate the changing needs of classes, exhibitions, and even performance art. Longer term, we want to move our MFA onto the main campus, increase space for interdisciplinary collaboration and learning, and strengthen student community by centralizing resources and services for all students.