MassArt sees bright picture with new president

Dawn Barrett was welcomed by members of the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston, including Kay Sloan (left), outgoing president. Dawn Barrett was welcomed by members of the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston, including Kay Sloan (left), outgoing president. (Bill Greene/ Globe Staff)
By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / March 2, 2011

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The Massachusetts College of Art and Design plans today to name Dawn Barrett, dean of architecture and design at the Rhode Island School of Design, as its next president.

Barrett, a 54-year-old graphic designer who has been an art school administrator in the Netherlands and has served as dean at the prestigious private art school in Providence for a decade, will be responsible for raising the international prominence of the Fenway college.

MassArt, as the school is better known, is the nation’s first and only freestanding public art school, established in 1873 so the state could develop its own pool of textile designers and metal workers. Today, it offers training to 1,600 undergraduates and 200 graduate students in a variety of disciplines, including architecture, fashion design, digital media, photography, and the fine arts, combined with a liberal arts education.

Barrett, a Massachusetts native who received her bachelor’s degree in art history from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, will also oversee the college’s expansion along Huntington Avenue, along with its $140 million fund-raising campaign. She will begin her tenure this summer, succeeding Kay Sloan, the school’s first female president, who will retire after 15 years.

“I’d like to use the unique positioning of MassArt to engage in the creative economy of this area, and increase the level of participation of our graduates in Boston civic life,’’ Barrett said in a phone interview yesterday. “I feel passionate about students’ right to an arts education.’’

Under Sloan, a former community college president who was not an artist, MassArt broadened its academic offerings, expanded enrollment, and grew its endowment. It also underwent the beginnings of a physical transformation, said Richard Shea, chairman of the school’s board of trustees.

The college’s campus center and dining commons, which it shares with the nearby Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, was recently renovated. It is also in the midst of building a 21-story residence hall — its third dormitory — that will allow the school to guarantee housing to all freshmen and sophomores in fall 2012. It has plans to renovate two of its professional art galleries, which are free and open to the public. And it has received state funding to build a $30 million center for design and new media.

“We would like to have more of a presence on Huntington Avenue. Sometimes when you drive by, it may not be clear that you’re seeing this fabulous art and design college,’’ said Shea, who is also the associate dean for planning and facilities at the nearby Harvard Medical School.

The MassArt campus is in the Fenway Cultural District, close to the Museum of Fine Arts and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, both of which have recently completed or embarked on their own expansions.

Faculty credit Sloan with raising the school’s visibility and setting it on the course for what they hope is greater success under Barrett.

The college recently started an exchange program with an art school in Kyoto, Japan, and offers short-term courses overseas, including one in Venice. Barrett, with her international experience, is a good fit for the school at this time, said Ellen Shapiro, professor of architectural history and chairwoman of the history of art department who was a member of the presidential search committee.

“We are very confident that Dawn Barrett will increase the internationalization of MassArt on every level,’’ said Shapiro, referring to student recruitment and study abroad programs.

The Massachusetts Board of Higher Education is expected to confirm Barrett's appointment at its March 22 meeting.

Raised in Northampton, Barrett received her master’s in product design from North Carolina State University’s School of Design after graduating from UMass.

She has run her own design and consulting firm since 1981, and has curated international exhibitions and worked for Dutch corporations as a designer.

Despite the efforts of former governor Mitt Romney to withdraw state funding in 2003, MassArt remains a state college, receiving approximately $13 million from the state each year and charging a relatively low tuition of $9,000 a year for Massachusetts undergraduates.

Still, the school, like other public universities, needs to beef up its $11 million endowment to offer more scholarships so an arts education will remain accessible for a diverse pool of students, MassArt officials said. The goal is to increase the endowment to $20 million within two years, said Hunter O’Hanian, the college’s vice president for institutional advancement.

It also hopes to expand its recruitment of students nationally and internationally. Seventy-one percent of its students are Massachusetts residents.

“When people think about the top art and design schools in the country, we want to be in the conversation,’’ Shea said.

Editor's note: This story has been revised to acknowledge that the Mass. Board of Higher Education must approve the hiring of the new president of MassArt.

Tracy Jan can be reached at