Maine College of Art & Design hires new exhibitions director

Jan. 25—Iris Williamson doesn't start her new job at the Maine College of Art & Design until Feb. 6, but she's already thinking about ways to connect with students and the greater arts community.

"I'm a community-driven curator, so the first thing I want is to learn about sense of place," Williamson said in an interview last week. "What's wonderful about this school is the strength that's already there. I get the chance to work and collaborate with people who are so inspirational and with artists who are amazing."

Williamson was chosen in a nationwide search for the director of exhibitions at the Portland school's Institute for Contemporary Art, which hosts five exhibitions each year, as well as other public events and artist talks. She succeeds Julie Poitras Santos, who moved into a full-time teaching position at MECA&D.

"We were honored to have so many wonderful people apply. I think that speaks to the history of the (institute) as a place of creativity, innovation and collaboration and to Portland in general as an attractive place to live," said Ian Anderson, dean and vice president of academic affairs at the college. "What stood out about Iris is that she's incredibly creative, diplomatic, bright. She's both a teacher and a curator and has shown a willingness to try things and create her own types of shows."

Williamson comes to Maine from the New Harmony Gallery of Contemporary Art at the University of Southern Indiana but has held positions in Portland, Oregon, as well, where she earned her master's degree at Pacific Northwest College of Art.

The president of that school at the time, Don Tuski, was previously the head of MECA&D.

The school, located on Congress Street in the heart of downtown Portland, serves more than 400 students each year and its history dates to the late 19th century. It's one of 42 private, nonprofit professional art colleges in the country and awards bachelor's degrees in 11 studio majors and also offers master's in fine arts and master's in teaching programs.

The Institute for Contemporary Art serves as both a gallery for living artists and a sort of learning laboratory for students.

"We do everything from short shows to longer national exhibitions that are interwoven into our curriculum," Anderson said.

Williamson said MECA&D and Portland at large both have reputations in the art world that extend beyond Maine.

"I started as an artist, so I love art and artists," she said. "Being able to help them stretch creatively and think about what they need next in their career is important."

MECA&D has continued to expand its offerings over the last decade, including in 2016 by integrating the previously independent Salt Institute for Documentary Studies.

Early next month, the school will open 49 Oak, a new, street-level space for students and alumni to exhibit work and hold public-facing events just around the corner from the school's main building on Congress Street.

The 470-square foot gallery space is meant to give students an opportunity to curate, install, promote, document, sell and staff exhibitions.