But in May, MICA broadened its course offerings, and it is preparing to confer its first master's degrees on about 200 students planning careers in fields ranging from engineering to public health to computer science. The next step: an MBA program that will start next fall and provide classroom instruction at both MICA and the Johns Hopkins University's Carey School of Business.
The Baltimore school is among a dozen colleges of art and design nationwide that are attracting a new breed of student by expanding their offerings beyond traditional studio courses.The California College of Art has been offering an MBA in design strategy since 2007. In Manhattan, the Parsons School offers a program in using design skills to bring about social change.
About a quarter of the nation's small, independent arts colleges are venturing into similarly unorthodox territory, said Bill Barrett, executive director of the 41-member Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design.
"This is partly out of a desire to reach a broader audience, and partly out of a recognition that the traditional fields for arts graduates are changing," he said. "People are moving out of these highly specialized career silos, where if you're a print-maker you only work with other print-makers. Now, a graphic designer will work with a copywriter and an economist and a marketer, and an industrial designer might work with biologists."
MICA's new graduate programs have attracted students such as Genny Cox, a Monkton resident who dreams of running her own product development business. She enrolled in the Business of Art and Design program, pursuing a curriculum with a heavy focus on such pragmatic skills as developing a business plan and managing employees.
"I know that studying business at an art school sounds bizarre," says Cox, who is working toward a master of professional studies degree. "At first, when I tell people what I'm doing, there's a lot of confusion. They say: 'You're getting a business degree? From MICA?'
"But it's been really great."
MICA President Fred Lazarus IV acknowledged that such radical program changes have caused some disquiet on campus. But he said the school must adapt to remain relevant.
"There are evolutionary changes going on in the nature of what artists and designers do," he said. "The students have expressed interest in learning how to apply their skills to new fields. We're following where they lead."
MICA seems to have found a niche that has been left unfilled by most MBA programs. Running an art gallery might have more in common with operating a mom-and-pop grocery store or pet-grooming business than with trading on Wall Street. As a result, MICA is starting to draw students who dream of careers in technology and real estate, not fabric arts and photography.
Kathleen Tront of Wilmington, Del., was about to shelve her plans for earning a master's degree in business when she read an online article about the new programs being offered at MICA.
"I could not find a single program geared toward small businesses," says Tront, who handles marketing for a federal credit union. "The rules are different when you work for a corporation with 250 employees, and when you work for one with just five that has no human resources department.
"MICA's program is designed for people who are a little more creative, but you don't have to be working an art-based business. The classes are spot-on, and they can be applied to any small company."
In addition to the Business of Art and Design, the online program in which Tront is enrolled, MICA launched a second master's level program this fall that's not conceived exclusively for future artists: Social Design. Like their counterparts at Parsons, students meeting in a traditional classroom learn to use communication strategy to bring about behavioral change in large populations.
In September, MICA will offer an online master of professional studies degree in information visualization. Students planning careers in fields as diverse as homeland security, urban planning and architecture will learn how to convey complex data visually.
But the most ambitious new offering may be the master of business administration program, which will allow MICA to tap into a growing field. About 20 students will be accepted into the first class, though that number is expected to increase in future years.
MICA has a chance to tap into the growing demand for advanced business degrees.
According to the Washington-based Council of Graduate Schools, applications to graduate schools in the field of business increased at an annual rate of 11 percent between 2005 and 2010. Meanwhile, master's degrees awarded in the field increased at an annual rate of nearly 5 percent.
"A few years ago, we offered a continuing studies certificate program in business planning through the University of Baltimore, but we found it wasn't adequate," Lazarus said. "The students told us that they wanted more business training. They wanted to go more in-depth. So we began to discuss adding new programs and partnering with Hopkins."
Both Barrett and Lazarus say that adding the new degree programs isn't a last-ditch effort to boost attendance. MICA's enrollment has grown from 1,200 students a decade ago to 2,106 this fall.
"This isn't a desperation move at all," Barrett said. "The schools that are starting these programs aren't the ones with enrollment problems."
But MICA's board of trustees has been concerned that the share of graduate admissions — currently 15 percent of the total student body — is too low, especially when compared to similar arts colleges.
So the school began planning to increase and broaden graduate offerings. And last summer, it secured the funding necessary to support them.
In July, officials announced they would receive a $10 million donation from former trustee George L. Bunting Jr. and his wife, Anne, to expand graduate enrollment. It was the largest gift in the school's history.
Just this fall, the number of graduate students at MICA jumped from 100 to 306. By the end of the decade, officials expect graduate enrollment to increase to about 500 — or about 20 percent of the student body.
Despite the influx of students who are more comfortable designing computer software than couture, Lazarus insists that MICA isn't competing with Hopkins or the University of Maryland. And he notes that the other three new master's programs introduced this fall — in curating, illustration and community arts — are based in the arts.
"They all have design as their core," he said.
Still, some on campus told Lazarus that they feared MICA is broadening its horizons so much that it was losing its focus on the fine arts. Others were concerned that the student sculptors and painters, who so often feel marginalized in the wider world, would begin to feel out of place in their own school.
"MICA has always had a strong reputation built around traditional art-making. I had wondered, at first, if the addition of these new programs would dilute that reputation and possibly cause fragmentation within our institutional community," said Theresa Bedoya, the college's vice president of admission and financial aid.
"But what I have found is that MICA students continue to be united by the fact that they are art-centered, even as we reimagine the possibilities of art and design education."
Lazarus says MICA will never abandon its commitment to teaching the fundamentals of art. But he has come to believe that what the school has always done best is help students — a range of students — learn to imaginatively solve problems.
"We're become increasingly aware that artists are creative thinkers," he says. "And they may want to do things that go well beyond painting and sculpture.
"There's a lot of interest in the art world today about using the arts to address social issues and real-world problems. It's not surprising we're moving in this direction."