Staying the Course

Pandora LaCasse’s sculptural light installation illuminates the façade of MECA’s headquarters, the Porteous Building on Congress Street in Portland.
The door to the Artists at Work gallery and offices, a program that connects students and alumni to professional opportunities.
Tucked underneath the stairs in the Porteous Building is the interactive installation Gathering Connections made by students minoring in public engagement.

The president’s office at Maine College of Art (MECA) in Portland is simply furnished, with a small, Thos. Moser Parsons table as a desk and a conference table made by associate professor Matt Hutton centered on an Oriental rug—the highceilinged room’s only adornment. The spare space seems to suit its current occupant, interim president Stuart Kestenbaum, who is focused less on leaving his own mark than on maintaining the momentum established by former president Don Tuski. After six years in the post, Tuski left last July; he is credited with leading the college through a period of major growth, increasing enrollment and revenue, adding programs, purchasing two buildings to serve as dormitories, and, most recently, acquiring the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. “My first rule is just to make sure things are functioning smoothly,” says Kestenbaum. “Salt, the Textile and Fashion Design program, and the Bob Crewe Program in Art and Music are all recent additions, so we need to make sure we’re managing them well.”

Kestenbaum’s entire career has been in the arts and in Maine. In 1977, four years after he graduated college, he became director of the Children’s Museum of Maine (now the Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine), the only employee in what was then an all-volunteer organization located in Cape Elizabeth. He then went to work for the Maine Arts Commission before becoming director of the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle, a position he held for 27 years, and the place where he and his wife, artist Susan Webster, raised their two sons. Kestenbaum left Haystack in May 2015, feeling that “it was time” and because he had other projects he wanted to pursue, including writing poetry, his primary calling as an artist. He has published four collections of his poems, which have also appeared in literary journals and magazines. In March 2016, Kestenbaum was named Maine’s fifth poet laureate. On Fridays, he reads what he calls “poems from Maine, about Maine, by poets from Maine and elsewhere,” in “Poems from Here,” a radio segment on Maine Public’s Maine Calling program. “What I like about the radio is, you might not wake up in the morning thinking, ‘I’d like to read a poem,’ but maybe in the middle of the day you hear it and you realize you needed to hear it,” Kestenbaum says.

Poetry can feel exclusive, as if we must have a special, intellectual key to understand it. But Kestenbaum’s poems—which often involve moments in everyday life—invite us in, a quality that mirrors his view of arts education and dovetails with his work at MECA. “When Don Tuski was president, the school worked on a strategic plan that emphasized community engagement for students, being entrepreneurial, and educating artists for life,” he says. “There’s a serious dedication to and emphasis on having students think creatively, not only about art making but also about living life and how they will go about that once they get out of school.” This pragmatic approach to creativity has had a positive impact beyond the college community. In November MECA was honored by the Portland Development Corporation (PDC) with their 2016 Economic Development Achievement Award. In its announcement of the award, the PDC cited the fact that more than 50 percent of the school’s 2,200 graduates live and work in Maine. “When creative people and entrepreneurial thinkers come here for school and end up staying, it’s good for the city and the state,” Kestenbaum says. “We’re a net importer of people.”

The integration of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies, which MECA acquired in April 2016, is of particular interest to Kestenbaum. He knows the formerly independent, 44-year-old program well; one of his two sons, a multimedia journalist and artist living in Brooklyn, New York, met his wife while both were studying at Salt. “There’s a lot of potential,” he says of the documentary storytelling program. “It brings other art forms in, but it also allows MECA to be engaged in other parts of Maine.” In November MECA announced that it would begin accepting applications for the 2017 Salt Graduate Certificate in Documentary Studies, a one-semester program in which students can focus on radio, documentary film, photography, or writing.

After he retired from Haystack, Kestenbaum began working as a strategist for a consortium of craft schools across the United States, including Haystack, Penland in North Carolina, Arrowmont in Tennessee, Pilchuck in Washington, and Peters Valley in New Jersey. Part of his work for the group has been to increase the visibility and awareness of all five schools, to “get to audiences who don’t know they should know about us,” he says. Included in the effort is a series of podcasts called Make/Time, in which he interviews creative makers and thinkers about how they view the world.

Kestenbaum feels the same kind of storytelling is important at MECA. “The more I think about what MECA does in this community, the more I realize it’s important to let people know that this creative vitality is going on here every day,” he says. “I want to tell a story of its success and engage more people in what’s going on here.” As an example of the stories he believes should be shared, he cites the 2016 United States Artists fellowships, in which $50,000 unrestricted grants are awarded annually to artists in nine disciplines. In 2016 three of the 45 awardees were MECA graduates or faculty members: Portland-based artist Lauren Fensterstock, Eastport sculptor Anna Hepler, and New England furniture maker Vivian Beer.

In 2009 Kestenbaum was asked to give the commencement address at MECA. In it he mixed practical advice for the graduates (“Wear a seatbelt, and don’t skimp when buying tires”) with art-focused guidance. “Be part of a community,” he said. “We live our lives in common; make art for your neighbor, who will come to know you in a new way.”

If, as another New England poet wrote, “good fences make good neighbors,” art must make even better ones. “Living right across the street I can see MECA glowing at night. It’s an alive place,” says Kestenbaum. Under his watch, the college will continue to be a good neighbor, not just to Portland but wherever its growing community of artists engages with Maine.