Under new leader, MIAD continues transforming Milwaukee

The Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design was a pioneer in transforming the Third Ward from an area of urban decline into one of the city’s trendiest, most vibrant neighborhoods. Now MIAD, which opened in 1974, is a leading force in transforming Milwaukee from a Rust Belt city into an artsy hipster oasis, a city of galleries, smart shops and foodie destinations that Jeff Morin said feels like parts of Manhattan, only without the urban canyons that swallow you up.

By Louis Weisberg

 

The Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design was a pioneer in transforming the Third Ward from an area of urban decline into one of the city’s trendiest, most vibrant neighborhoods.

Now MIAD, which opened in 1974, is a leading force in transforming Milwaukee from a Rust Belt city into an artsy hipster oasis, a city of galleries, smart shops and foodie destinations that Jeff Morin said feels like parts of Manhattan, only without the urban canyons that swallow you up.

Morin, who became MIAD president in June, doesn’t like to hear Milwaukee referred to as “the new Portland.” He said Portland is the Milwaukee of the West Coast.

Morin has spent 30 years in higher education, most of it in the University of Wisconsin system. Most recently, he was dean of the College of Fine Arts and Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

In addition to teaching, he’s an award-winning artist, writer, exhibiting artist, curator and lecturer. Some of his works hang on the wall of his office, including a rendering of Matthew Shepard against a coyote fence, pierced with arrows. Shepard is the gay University of Wyoming student who was beaten, tortured and left to die near Laramie, Wyoming, in 1998. His death became a rallying point for a new generation of gay activists.

Does the picture indicate that MIAD is a gay-friendly school? “You’ll have to ask my husband,” Morin quipped.

When WiG caught up with Morin in October, he was in the throes of a honeymoon regarding his new hometown and employer. He was spilling over with ambitious ideas for MIAD’s role in a city he considers at the vanguard of the nation’s emerging arts economy.

Majors include interior architectural design, industrial design, fine arts, communication design (graphic arts), illustration and new studio practice. Students in all areas of design have capstone projects. They develop them during their junior and senior years. Capstones include everything from art installation to models of building interiors to designs of tools.

Morin says students leave well prepared to work in design, where jobs have increased by 43 percent over the past decade.

The institute, which has a student population of 630 and offers only undergraduate degrees, is constantly creating new programs to reflect the design needs of the real world. As Morin described it, MIAD has a strong academic program but focuses equally on real-world training that will result in post-graduation jobs.

Although 40 percent of MIAD students come from out of state, roughly 80 percent of them remain in Milwaukee, where they play an integral role in helping to develop the city’s arts economy. MIAD grads are heavily represented in fine arts awards and gallery shows. They also work for Milwaukee Tool, Kohl’s, Harley-Davidson, interior design firms, publishers and advertising/marketing firms. Thirty-three percent are entrepreneurs who start small businesses in the area.

MIAD’s placement rate within one year of graduation is 83 percent.

Wear comfortable shoes

If you plan to walk through the sprawling five-floor former factory that MIAD occupies, bring comfortable shoes. Cement covers each floor, which is about the length of a football field. It’s perfect for artists, because you can’t mess it up by spilling paint or dropping something heavy, Morin pointed out.

The building’s galleries are open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday.

The massive raw space lends itself easily to being temporarily divided into classrooms, galleries, supply spaces — whatever is needed at the moment. The huge floor-to-ceiling windows not only provide great views of the city, river and lake, but also infuse an abundance of the kind of natural light so prized by artists. No nearby buildings get in the way.

The light and water are two of Morin’s favorite things about the city and MIAD.

Since graduating from Temple University’s Tyler School of Art, Morin has lived in Philadelphia and New York City, where he worked in advertising, before deciding to check out the Midwest, a region of the country wholly unfamiliar to him at the time but, as it turned out, very agreeable to him.

The first member of his family to attend college, Morin ended up at UW-Madison, where he earned master of art degrees in both studio art and fine art. He also holds a certificate in fundraising management from the Lilly School of Philanthropy at Indiana University-Purdue University.

For the first couple of weeks at MIAD, he lived in the student resident across the street from the main building, which features two-bedroom, two-bath units. “I loved it,” he said. “(The apartments) are gorgeous, absolutely gorgeous.”

Now he’s settled on the city’s east side, from where he enjoys a brief commute on North Lincoln Memorial Drive along the lakefront and through “some of the most beautiful components of the city.”

Public vs. private

After working in public higher education, Morin is basking in the relative freedom of a private college.

“We’ve had some of the same tough financial discussions here that we had in the UW system,” Morin said. But, “we’re less legislatively encumbered. The conversation is taking place at the table here and then we don’t have to have a conversation in Madison or anywhere else, as long as we meet the rigors of our creditors. We can be nimble. We can think outside the box … and the staff has the level of ingenuity to make things happen here.  

The thing that keeps MIAD fresh is that we’re left to solve all our own problems.”

MIAD recently won a $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to expand its internships, which are at the heart of its programs, particularly in industrial design. Sometimes partnering with engineering students at Marquette University, MIAD students work on design challenges presented by real companies, including such heavy weights as GE, General Motors and Harley-Davidson. The results of some of those challenges are scattered throughout the building — everything from airplane toilets to football helmets to motorcycle designs. The right design can make the difference between a successful and an unsuccessful product, even when the basic engineering is the same, Morin said. Think of Steve Jobs and the iPhone.

The institute highly recommends internships before graduation. “With design challenges (students) get “great experience, a great design portfolio and a great knowledge of the area they’re entering,” Morin said.

In addition to MIAD’s partnerships with Marquette University and dozens of well known national and local corporations, from Delta Airlines to Kohler, US Bank to Manpower, the school is developing relationships with Milwaukee Public Schools for design academies for pre-college students. The goal is to give them experience working in the field before they commit to it academically.

Ultimate goal

Morin grew up in northernmost Maine’s Arroostook County, considered one of the poorest counties east of the Mississippi, he said. The county is vast in area but sparsely populated. His description made it sound as if everyone is so isolated that each family needs a different ZIP code.

At an early age of his rural childhood, Morin figured out he wanted to be a teacher and an artist — even though “there’s nothing in our family’s history that points in that direction,” he said.

But it might never have happened without a teacher who recognized his talent and mentored him through high school. When it came time to look for colleges, she drove him about 15 hours in her pickup truck to look over the Rhode Island School of Design.

But Morin wound up at Temple University Tyler School of Art because it was his mentor’s ideal art school.

“If it wasn’t for her, I know that I would have had a totally different life,” Morin said. Now Morin’s ultimate goal is to make the kind of difference in his students’ lives that his greatest mentor made in his. He’s been teaching since 1986 and he hears back from students on a regular basis, he said. That’s encouraging.

“But I wouldn’t have the arrogance to assume I could provide that level of influence,” he added. “I don’t think I could be as generous as she was.”

He’s still trying, however. And, luckily for MIAD, he’s brought that experience and that goal with him.

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