To understand what Fred Lazarus accomplished during his 35 years as president of the Maryland Institute College of Art, one need only look at the gleaming concrete-and-glass structure housing the school's Brown Center for new media. The rakishly angled building rising above the school's Mount Royal Avenue campus symbolizes the future of both art and higher education in America as surely as the stately neoclassical building across the street from it reflects its past. Mr. Lazarus, who announced this week that he will step down as president in 2014, had the genius to see that future and the skill to build it in Baltimore.
He will be a hard act to follow. When Mr. Lazarus took over as president in 1978, MICA was a sleepy, second-tier art and design college that drew most of its students from Maryland and seemed far from the revolutionary changes that were transforming the visual arts in New York and other cultural capitals. Today it's a world-class institution offering state-of-the-art instruction with a reputation that attracts gifted young people from around the globe. As a bonus, much of that talent chooses to stay in Baltimore after graduation, enriching the city's artistic and cultural life as well as contributing to its economy.
That's wholly in keeping with Mr. Lazarus' vision; early on he saw that investing in Baltimore and its future was as essential a part of his job description as educating MICA's students. He realized that the success of his institution was inextricably tied to the success or failure of the community it was located in, and he made revitalizing the neighborhoods along the Mount Royal Avenue corridor as much a priority as building new classrooms and dorms. He helped pioneer the idea of institutions of higher learning as neighborhood anchors that could foster development and organize programs to improve education, health care and housing for all community residents.
In that spirit, Mr. Lazarus helped launch what may be one of his most enduring civic legacies, the free annual outdoor public arts festival known as Artscape, which has become the largest event of its type in the country. For Mr. Lazarus, Artscape wasn't just about a festive weekend where aspiring young artists could exhibit their work and draw inspiration from their peers; it was also an engine for building community that reached far beyond the academy's walls. Artscape became the signature Baltimore event that drew people together from all walks of life and from every neighborhood in the city and suburbs to celebrate the creative spirit in each of us and reaffirm our common humanity.
At the same time, Mr. Lazarus was overseeing a thoroughgoing transformation of MICA's traditional curriculum and instructional methods. With the opening of the Brown Center in 2003, he put MICA on the cutting edge of new media and digital technology studies, adding advanced programs in photography, video production and graphic design while strengthening instruction in the time-honored skills of drawing, painting and sculpture. He understood that the change from mechanical to electronic production of images not only would require adding new courses but that it had forced a sea change in the entire traditional curriculum in order to take them into account.
When the Brown Center opened, Mr. Lazarus told a reporter from The Sun: "This building makes a statement from the design viewpoint that represents 21st-century innovation and who we are as an institution. It reflects the great changes that have occurred in art and art education over the last 20 years." He could as truly have said the same of himself. For more than three decades he has been the sage of Mount Royal Avenue: honest, admirable and a leader in the community who has worked tirelessly to make Baltimore a better place for his students and for everyone who lives and works here. He will be missed.