James Baker, the new president of the Maine College of Art in Portland, joins the school during what college officials have dubbed a time of “transition” — fall enrollment numbers are below projections by 35 students (roughly 10 percent of the usual number); several faculty and staff members departed over the past year, including the dean of students, the dean of the college, and the curator and assistant curator of MECA’s Institute of Contemporary Art; and the school has revealed plans to eventually sell the Baxter Building, a MECA anchor on upper Congress Street, to consolidate the campus at the Porteous building a few blocks down (administrators say this sale is years away and the building isn’t currently on the market). MECA is also almost two years into a $15 million capital campaign; much of the money raised will be used to renovate unused portions of Porteous (see “MECA Slims Down.”)
Baker, an accomplished photographer with a degree from the Rhode Island School of Design, is known for his ability to lead by consensus. As executive director of the Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Colorado, Baker distinguished himself by streamlining the retreat’s creative goals, expanding its workshop curricula, and raising the caliber of its visiting instructors.
On July 27, the Phoenix met with Baker, four days after he officially started as president, to chat with him about his leadership philosophy, where he hopes to take the college, and what he might want to change.
Do you plan to bring some of programs you had at the Anderson Ranch to MECA?
Of course, we’re all informed by our experiences. I’m very much aware of that. On the other hand, what I’m even more aware of is the absolute importance to respect the culture, history, and the innate . . . trying to think of the word . . . the innate opportunities, maybe that’s the way to put it, that an institution has. When I use the word ‘innate’ what I mean is, in other words, not me coming in saying, ‘Oh, I have all these ideas, let’s try them out,’ that can be extreme and kind of presumptuous, but rather saying, ‘What are the strongest attributes of, in this case, Maine College of Art. What is Maine College of Art best at? Or what can it best at?’ So, while I’m not just sitting here passively responding to everything that comes across as ideas, I’m sort of actively investigating that. That’s kind of the attitude I bring in. So you can see it partly as a facilitator, partly as an investigator, as a leader, as a coach, as a support person.
Is there anything you know you want to do?
Well, it’s really a continuation of what I just said . . . but I would love MECA to realize its potential. Its full potential. It really doesn’t realize a lot of its potential.
What does that mean to you?
That’s a good question. I kind of actually answered it last time.