MIAD President Jeffrey Morin Wants to Make Art School More Accessible for Future Generations

Q&A with MIAD President Jeffrey Morin, who knows firsthand how hard it can be for first-generation college students to succeed.

In the three and a half years since Jeffrey Morin became president of the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, the college’s enrollment numbers have risen steadily, even as university enrollment declined nationally. And nearly half of MIAD’s freshman class is made up of first-generation students, like Morin himself, who grew up in a remote Maine town where college is, literally and figuratively, too far away for many residents. 

Morin’s parents ran a small gas station near the Canadian border. Morin knew from a young age that he wanted to teach art, and he understood that he’d need to leave his home and enroll in a university to realize that dream.

Today, Morin holds a bachelor’s degree from Temple University and two advanced degrees from UW-Madison. He also maintains an art practice of his own – working on paintings, drawings and art books in addition to overseeing MIAD’s administrative operations. Under his watch, the university has been recognized as a top design school.

We recently sat down with Morin to chat about Milwaukee’s art scene and the value of higher education.

When did you become interested in art?

I knew exactly what I wanted to do in kindergarten – I wanted to be an artist, and I wanted to be a teacher, and I always saw those things as going hand in hand.

My earliest memory in school relates to a drawing. I was working on what was in my mind a very large, very ambitious drawing of a barn. I remember a nun coming by to correct its perspective, and I became so indignant.

For the longest time I’ve known what I wanted to do, and my career has felt like a straight line with very few deviations from it.

Did your family encourage you to pursue art?

Short answer? No. Long answer? I grew up in Madawaska, Maine, in the state’s northernmost county, Aroostook. When people think about Maine, they never think about poverty, because they see the tourism and wealth on the coast, and they don’t think about remoteness. But Aroostook is the largest county east of the Mississippi, with a sparse population and deep pockets of poverty.

My brother and I were the first members of my immediate family to graduate from high school. And I was the first in my family to go off to college. For a lot of reasons my parents were not initially supportive of my studies. I think they were afraid that I would become such a different person that I would no longer fit in the family, and they were suspicious of the application process. I received a full, four-year scholarship, and they could not understand why an institution would give someone four years of free tuition – the idea of getting a scholarship was just so foreign to them. I think they also worried that if I was going to go off to college I should have been studying something more practical than art.

But you were sure that’s what you wanted to study?

Yes, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. And being forced to pay my own way gave me confidence, because I knew that if I failed, I wouldn’t owe anyone else as a result of it. I had a full-tuition scholarship, but I still had to figure out how to pay for my own room and board and how to live in a big city like Philadelphia, and I was OK with that.

Did you feel like your high school adequately prepared you for the college application process?

I was very fortunate. I had a wonderful high school art teacher, Martha Keezer. She was actually the only art teacher in our school system. When she started, I was in the seventh or eighth grade, and I remember walking up to her and essentially saying “You’d better be good at your job, because art is what I want to do with my life.” I don’t know where I got that much cheek, but I remember that encounter clearly.

Martha was a single person in a very remote town and an outsider in an area where people were very conscious of outsiders. I’m sure the experience was isolating for her, but she would absolutely dedicate herself to getting her students into college or putting them on a path toward a career in art. I know that she came in on the weekends, and we worked on my college application portfolio for a year and a half.

When you initially enrolled at Temple University, to earn your bachelor’s degree, you wanted to teach at a high school level. What prompted you to pursue collegiate teaching instead?

I was pursuing a teacher’s certification as an undergraduate, but I had to choose between spending a year studying art history in Italy or completing my teaching practicum. I decided to go to Italy and let the chips fall where they may.

What brought you to MIAD?

I did my graduate work at the University of Wisconsin Madison. I originally came to the Midwest because I had a great undergraduate advisor who told me to spend my graduate years somewhere I’d never been before, and I’d never really spent time in the Midwest, so I applied to several schools in the area. When I arrived in Madison, I didn’t think I’d be here 30 years later – I assumed I’d move back to the East Coast – but here we are.

Wisconsin definitely feels like my second home now. I love Milwaukee, and I think there’s so much good happening here. People are trying to move the needle, they’re trying to move the city forward, and that’s exciting to see.

If you could change something about the Milwaukee art scene, what would it be?

Its size and visibility. But, in making that change, we might change some of what’s so great about it – because Milwaukee is an affordable city, and artists are typically looking for inexpensive studio spaces. Look at the Third Ward in the 1980s, for instance. Artists moved in. MIAD moved in. And now there are so many more established art and design spaces in the neighborhood. Art and artists have driven much of the change in the neighborhood.

There’s a sense of national anxiety around the idea that automation will eventually eliminate jobs. Do you think the creative sector is more or less robot-proof than others?

The process of making things is being automated. The process of designing things is going to be difficult to automate. So I feel confident that the people we educate here are working in a sector that’s secure.

What do you think of the stereotype that art schools are prohibitively expensive?

When I introduce people to MIAD, I assume that that’s their preconceived notion: it’s private, it’s non-profit, it’s independent, it has a high published tuition. What people don’t realize is that 44 percent of our students are Pell-eligible, which means they come from lower-income backgrounds. So we have a fairly high level of need, and we work very hard to meet that need. About 25 percent of our students are first generation. And this year, 38 percent of the incoming students identify as people of color.

A college education moves one up and out. To me that’s central to the mission of this school. And when I look at the demographics of the students that we attract, that’s what I think of. We’re one of the top three art schools in the country when it comes to moving graduates from low-income backgrounds to upper-middle-class jobs.

What about the stereotype that art school graduates struggle to find work?

I’ve worked since I was 12. Initially I worked in my parents’ gas station pumping gas. When I turned 16 and could legally work elsewhere I spent a short stint working at a drugstore in town, then I got a job at our local newspaper as a darkroom technician, and eventually as a photographer. From that moment on, I’ve never worked outside of the arts, and I’ve never been unemployed. So personally I’ve also felt that, if one really wants to pursue a career in the arts, it’s always possible to pave a pathway.And when I look at our students and our local creative economy, I see MIAD graduates everywhere. Of the top eight advertising firms in Milwaukee, I believe that 100% of them have MIAD alums. And we’re well represented in the fine arts scene in this city too – Var Gallery was founded by MIAD grads, for instance. We’re a vital part of the creative economy and the creative life of the city.

You maintain an active art practice yourself. What are you working on now?

I definitely try to remain active in the studio. I have three studios at home. One is a letterpress print shop where I make artist’s books. Another is a paper-making studio; once a year I invite a group of people from around the country to join me in the studio, and we spend about a week working intensely on making paper – we produce enough to last each of us the rest of the year. And I have a third studio devoted to drawing and painting.

When I was a faculty member I could produce an artist’s book once a year or so. Now I’m producing one about every four years. But I never want to give the work up entirely.

What do you think of the sentiment that art can’t be taught?

I completely disagree with that sentiment. If art can’t be taught then what we do is a lie, because we’ve built an entire curriculum around teaching people how to approach the fundamentals of art- and design-making, and I just don’t think that’s true. I would say that about 98% of art and design is teachable. There is a tiny sliver, 2% or so, that’s something else: a drive to create or a unique, idiosyncratic way of thinking. But I know from the years I’ve spent teaching that students, almost across the board, improve dramatically from the first day of any given semester to the last day.

What do you think drives people to make art?

I believe, as an artist, that I’m having a conversation with history. If I decide to do a Saint Sebastian painting, I know that artists have been depicting that subject for centuries, and I can look at their work and ask myself whether, and how, I can bring something new to that conversation. Art can only exist as part of a conversation. In my mind, if I were to hide all of my work away from the world, it wouldn’t be art.

What do you want people in Milwaukee to know about MIAD?

We’re open to the public. We have two galleries that mount beautiful, thoughtful exhibitions that add to the community conversation. And the exhibitions are free.

Also, we’re in the early stages of developing an innovation center that’s going to be very outward-facing. It’s designed to fill three needs. It’ll help our students understand and harness the value of intellectual property. It’ll also be a place to partner with organizations around the community to help them satisfy their design needs. And for the broader public, we’re going to present a lot of information on how to succeed in art and design.

“Drawn to Milwaukee” appears in the December 2018 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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Lindsey Anderson covers culture for Milwaukee Magazine. Before joining the MilMag team she worked as an editor at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and wrote freelance articles for ArtSlant and Eater.