MICA president Fred Lazarus will retire at the end of the 2014 academic year.
MICA president Fred Lazarus will retire at the end of the 2014 academic year. (Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun photo)

As President Fred Lazarus IV expanded the Maryland Institute College of Art over the past 35 years and helped turn it into one of the nation's leading arts colleges, supporters say, he has also focused on Baltimore — to the betterment of his college and his city.

Lazarus, 71, announced Monday that he would retire in May 2014. Upon hearing the news, the city's cultural and civic leaders praised his foresight, saying he realized early on that improving life both in Baltimore and at the 187-year-old school went hand-in-hand.


"He's a true visionary, not only for his institution but for the way he saw his institution as part of the city," says Jed Dietz, founder and director of the Maryland Film Festival. "He understood how important it was for the city to prosper, and how that would affect MICA. He saw those as not separate things but as totally integrated things."

The MICA Lazarus will be leaving next May is far different from the school he took over in 1978. Enrollment has more than doubled, from fewer than 900 students to more than 2,100. In 1978, roughly 80 percent of MICA's enrollment came from inside Maryland; today, 85 percent of the student body is from outside the state, including some 50 countries.

The size of the campus has increased tenfold and now includes such showpieces as the Brown Center and the Gateway building. Eighteen graduate and undergraduate programs and three research centers have been created. The school's endowment has increased by more than 25 times, to $72 million.

In addition, Lazarus was in on the ground floor of Artscape, the city's annual free summer arts festival that's now the largest in the nation. He's worked on and made MICA a key contributor to the Station North Arts District, which has revitalized the area surrounding the intersection of North Avenue and North Charles Street, north of the school. He chairs the Central Baltimore Partnership, sits on the board of directors of Americans for the Arts and helped found the Baltimore Design School, a themed public middle-high school.

"He's the most fiercely community-minded person I know," says Rebecca Hoffberger, founder and director of South Baltimore's American Visionary Art Museum. "His value goes well beyond his contributions to Artscape, which he helped start. His focus was always on the well-being of the entire community."

And the world has noticed this Baltimore institution.

"MICA is definitely one of the very leading art and design colleges in the country," said Larry Thompson, president of Florida's Ringling College of Art & Design and current president of the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design. "Fred Lazarus has been such a visionary leader for MICA; he is the one who has brought it from a good art design school to one that is really top-notch and top-tier."

MICA's master of fine arts graduate programs are ranked in the top 10 nationally by U.S. News & World Report. Its undergraduate studio arts programs have been tagged as one of the two best in the country by Parade magazine. Graphic Design USA magazine named MICA one of the country's top 20 design schools.

"He has been a visionary," says Fredye Gross, chairwoman of the MICA board of trustees. "He looks at the big picture, while the rest of us are still looking in the weeds."

Lazarus himself sees his accomplishments as a whole, rather than in parts: "I've always felt that we didn't get ahead by doing one or two things," he says. "I had to move the whole bar up."

In some ways, Lazarus was an odd choice to take control of Maryland's premier art school. Other than three years as a staffer at the National Endowment for the Arts, he had no discernible background in art. As a student at Southern California's Claremont McKenna College, he had taken only one art course — and audited that one. ("I didn't want to memorize all the slides in my art history class," he recalls with a laugh.)

Then again, MICA's choice was maybe not so strange for a college that, Lazarus remembers, was forced to borrow money every summer just to pay its bills. After all, he had concentrated on economics and business at Claremont and Harvard Business School.

Coming to MICA "brought together a lot of things I cared about," Lazarus says. "I cared about higher education. I cared about young people. I cared about communities and cities. I saw this as a place to be able to spend some time working on those. Of course, I had no idea I would be here so long."

Cultural leaders throughout Baltimore were quick to laud Lazarus as a friend, mentor and reliably straight talker. "I'm devastated," said Doreen Bolger, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art. "He's someone who has taken MICA to a new level as an art school, but also he embraced new ideas that make Baltimore a greater city."


Agreed Bill Gilmore, who as executive director of Baltimore's Office of Promotion and the Arts is responsible for putting on Artscape every summer: "There's no down side to working with Fred, unless you don't want to hear the facts or the truth."

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said, through a spokesman, "Under the leadership of Fred Lazarus, MICA has become a strong anchor institution, helping to spur new growth and development in the neighborhoods surrounding the college. MICA graduates enhance the diversity of our thriving arts and culture community. They are committed to improving the quality of life for others in Baltimore."

Gross, who said she was told of Lazarus' intention to retire about a year ago, says plans are under way to scour the world for a successor. A search committee including MICA trustees, faculty, staff and students will choose from among three firms to conduct an international search for candidates. Sometime around Thanksgiving, she says, the top candidates should be ready for a campus visit and extensive interviews. With luck, Gross says, the school should be ready to finalize its selection in early January.

Lazarus says he and his wife, landscape designer Jonna Lazarus, plan to remain in Baltimore after his retirement; in fact, they've just bought a new home in Roland Park, about a mile-and-a-half from their old home. "I don't have firm plans," he says. "I'm sure I'll be active doing something, I just haven't decided what that is yet."

Replacing someone still at the top of his game presents special challenges, says MICA Provost Ray Allen, who was a member of the school's faculty when Lazarus arrived in 1978. "The toughest thing about all of this," he says, "is there's nothing to react against. I think the board would have been happy if Fred had stayed on forever."