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MIAD celebrates founders during Women’s History Month

Black and white photo of Charlotte Partridge and Mariam Fink in their living room

Charlotte Partridge and Miriam Frink in their living room

There’s no more appropriate time than Women’s History Month to honor the founders of the Layton School of Art, MIAD’s predecessor college. Charlotte Partridge and Miriam Frink, partners professionally and in life, lived MIAD’s values of courage, integrity, kindness, community, innovation and inclusion as they began in 1920 to build one of the most progressive art colleges in the country.

Espousing the philosophies of the famous Bauhaus in Germany, Partridge, Frink and thoughtful faculty members created the innovative curriculum. Beginning with 30 students, the college grew to more than 400 full-time and several hundred part-time students after World War II, outgrowing its Jefferson Street location.

Partridge was the driving force behind what would become the college’s new east side location in 1951, supervising the design of the beautiful modernist building, which was built with the aid of students, as enrollment continued to grow.

In 1954, both Partridge and Frink were forced to retire from their positions based on a vote by the board of trustees, possibly for being older, queer women. Partridge continued her commitment to the college, was granted the title director emeritus and stayed on as a trustee until her death in 1973. Edmund Lewandowski, an artist and Layton alum, was voted in as director.

During this time, the college launched international exhibits, new degree programs and even a local television series called “The Layton Story.” In 1970 the college relocated to Glendale, Wis., as the city tore down the Layton School to make way for a freeway. Lewandowski retired and Neil Leiberman was made director.

Because the college was no longer centrally located, enrollment dropped. Salaries were low, discord grew, and the board of trustees ultimately voted to cease admitting new students.

At its closing in 1974, the Layton School was considered one of the most progressive schools in the county. Layton was one of the first art schools to require a core year of foundations courses, what we now refer to as FYE (First Year Experience). Other art schools followed suit, and now foundations courses are standard in arts schools across the country.

The decision to close left many students and faculty stranded. Seven of the faculty members were highly invested in the college’s quality and mission and broke away, creating their own independent art school.

Originally called the Milwaukee School of the Arts, MSA was created on a razor-thin budget. The seven founders pitched in $100 of their own money, rented space in what was aptly named the Phoenix Building in the Third Ward and went to work. By the beginning of the fall 1974 semester, what was to become MIAD was born, and well-known artist and founder Guido Brink became president.

An immense amount of credit is given to the first few classes of students, mostly Layton enrollees, who matriculated through the college. They not only helped physically build the institution, they also took great risk in enrolling at the fledgling college. Founder Roland Polska stated, “These students are not just educated in art and design but educated to be resourceful and entrepreneurial.”

All were excited to be a part of something new, something that felt owned by all.

Once the first academic year was behind them, the college was incorporated, accredited by the National Association of Schools of Art and Design, and the name changed to the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. Brink’s tenure was followed by that of Jack White and Terry Coffman.

Success built steadily and slowly. By 1989, MIAD purchased its current home at 273 E. Erie Street in the Historic Third Ward and enrollment continued to climb.

Current President Jeff Morin compares MIAD to a one-room schoolhouse, as we all share the same, singular building. As the college flourishes and grows, we continue to make improvements to our campus to create modern spaces that serve all students. MIAD celebrates its past, present and future. Enrollment is at an all-time high of nearly 900 highly qualified young people, and the physical campus continues to expand. The recently completed remodel of the 4th floor, and other spaces such as the Equity & Inclusion Center, allows students to fully utilize the building and all of its resources, including the latest technology for art and design making.

As a community, we are grateful to the college’s founders and for 50 years of growth and learning, as we look toward the next 50 years of educating students to become creative professionals.

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