Oregon’s two major, standalone art schools have voted to merge.
The governing boards for Oregon College of Art and Craft and Pacific Northwest College of Art will spend the next month working on a memorandum of understanding that will guide the consolidation of hundreds of staffers and two campuses.
Both schools have long histories — OCAC traces its formation back to 1907 and founder Julia Hoffman, the doyenne of Portland’s branch of the arts and craft scene that sprang up as a response to industrialization. The college’s identity stands squarely at the intersection of art and the maker culture powering everyone from Etsy users to contemporary quilting to the handwork at the heart of Portland’s contemporary art world identity. OCAC's campus is tucked into the forested southwest hills of Portland, its modest studios and classrooms laid across rugged slopes, offering instruction in ceramics, fiber, book-making and industrial design.
PNCA came to life at nearly the same time, as the Portland Art Museum School. It offers a more downtown experience, with courses in fine art painting, video and sound, and graphic design and animation, at a beautifully renovated post office on Northwest Broadway. Placed amid a cluster of galleries and tech firms in the heart of the Park Blocks, PNCA’s board is filled with real estate power players. Its capital campaign was big enough to transform the fortunes of the surrounding area.
Both programs have shared the pain that's hit higher education in recent years. Since 2016, a national trend toward lower enrollment and rising costs led to a rash of college closures and mergers, including respected institutions like the Boston Conservatory and the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies. Portland's Art Institute foundered this year when its for-profit parent company drastically downsized, taking more than 30 campuses with it, and — perhaps most mourned in the Northwest — 125-year-old Marylhurst University ceased operations last summer.
It appeared at first as though Portland's art colleges might help pick up the pieces, with PNCA recruiting from the pool of stranded students, and OCAC's President Denise Mullen pledging to provide a new home for Marylhurst's celebrated Art Gym.
But Mullen’s abrupt resignation in September left the Art Gym stranded. And PNCA has had problems of its own related to its new building. The two colleges have worked together, most recently to start a joint MFA program in 2009 for applied craft and design. Some staff have crossed over through the years, but generally they’ve come to embody very different ideals.
Mark Takiguchi worked at both colleges over the past two decades, as a dean of students at PNCA then as chief enrollment officer at OCAC.
“There are students that have gone back and forth,” Takiguchi said, adding there’s a sense of strong sense of identity associated with both schools. “Sports teams, are probably a bad analogy in this case, but you spend time in a place there's a strong feelings of belonging and connection."
The two schools held serious merger discussions two years ago, before PNCA President Don Tuski was hired, but the institutions weren’t able to reach agreement.
Neither college has disclosed details of the merger, but OCAC Interim President Jiseon Lee Isbara indicated financial factors led her college to the negotiation table.
“By any measure, OCAC is in a place that needs to explore proactive solutions for a sustainable future," Isbara said. "The current higher education environment has proven to be precarious. We believe the merger will strengthen the merged colleges’ future.”
The hope is that by joining forces, the combined institution might reach enrollment of around 1,000 students — a benchmark many art schools look toward for financial sustainability. Tuski said no decisions have been made about the merged institution’s name, curriculum or identity. He said he hopes it can reflect more than the sum of its parts.
“It will be a new culture created by faculty, staff, students and alumni of both schools,” he said. “Art, design and craft schools about creating something new, authentic or original. This is where two strong art schools are going to do this together.”
But there are ghosts haunting this merger. In 2009, the Museum of Contemporary Craft accepted an agreement to join PNCA, bringing with it a collection of 1,000 artifacts in ceramics, glass, wood, metal, fiber and mixed media, and a reputation for progressive programming. In 2016, the art school closed the museum and sold its building on a coveted corner of downtown real estate for $5 million.
The corner is still a hub for art: New occupants include the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education, which has busily programmed contemporary art and cultural exhibitions nonstop since taking the building. But the blow to the 79-year-old craft museum sent a chill that remains for some at OCAC.
Asked if there’s any assurance OCAC would not suffer the same fate, PNCA’s Tuski said, “not as long as I’m involved with the process.” Going into the merger conversation, that topic was top of mind, he said.
But the risk to OCAC lies less with the current administrations, and more with the uncertainties of the future. MOCC was absorbed by PNCA under the leadership of then-president Tom Manley. It was after he left that interim president Casey Mills made the decision to dissolve the museum.
The two organizations have a long negotiation ahead of them, as academic programs get sorted out — including some duplicate programs and less popular tracks at both schools — and involved logistics of merging two multimillion-dollar nonprofits. It may be that PNCA, with an annual budget roughly three times larger than OCAC, has a stronger hand at the bargaining table.
Namita Wiggers, the former head of MOCC, is now director of a masters program in critical craft studies at Warren Wilson College. She said the power dynamic will almost certainly come into play during the negotiations over the colleges’ shared future.
“What happens in these situations,” Wiggers said, “is people are told to not speak out publicly, to be quiet, not disturb the process. I think we live in times where that doesn’t work anymore. People have to be given room to talk about this openly and publicly. Otherwise things are going to disappear.”
Wiggers said it’s inevitable that some staff will lose jobs in a merger of this size. But the city, she said, cannot afford to lose another creative asset. Just as the arts and crafts movement came about in the early 20th century in response to several bruising decades of industrialization, Wiggers sees a through-line to modern-day Oregon’s struggles with gentrification.
“It can’t just be about restaurants and whether you have the chance to buy the latest handmade canvas bag. There’s more to Portland than that,” she said.
Takiguchi has his own concerns about both schools.
“I hope that when people go to the galleries or shows," he said, "they started of realize that these two institutions have been important for a very long time — are really producing the next generation of creatives.”
During his more recent stint at OCAC, students came from as far away as Nigeria and Japan to dip into Portland’s creative headwaters.