Following lengthy rounds of quiet negotiations, the Museum of Fine Arts has signed a memorandum of understanding with Tufts University to transfer the School of the Museum of Fine Arts to Tufts.
The agreement, which has been initially approved by both institutions' boards, would become effective June 30, paving the way for the art school's more than 700 students and roughly 145 faculty members to come under the Tufts banner.
Under the agreement, Tufts would assume operational responsibility for the school — including recruitment and admissions — but the buildings would remain under MFA ownership. The nearly 140-year-old school, which was founded at the same time as the MFA, would become known as the SMFA@Tufts.
"I think it will be more attractive to fine arts students," said Tufts president Anthony P. Monaco. "The university can offer a lot more to them than the museum school standing on its own."
The director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Matthew Teitelbaum, said the decision to transfer the SMFA to Tufts was the best path forward for the school, which has struggled financially amid low enrollment numbers and a lack of full accreditation. (The school is a candidate for full accreditation from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, which would confer upon it the authority to grant degrees. It is accredited by the National Association of Schools of Art and Design.)
"We'd done a strategic plan and came to the conclusion that the best place to position the students was in the context of a broad liberal arts education," said Teitelbaum, who called the agreement "a big positive."
"Artists needed and wanted to be part of a larger conversation," he said, "and to have access to courses and skills that put their own art in a larger context."
A partnership between Tufts and the SMFA goes back roughly 70 years. The university currently offers a dual degree program through the school, and the SMFA, which has recently sought full accreditation, relies on Tufts to award its degrees.
The new agreement would provide Tufts with the opportunity to acquire a highly developed arts program that Monaco said could be integrated into the school's administrative structure.
He added that it would enhance academic opportunities for all students, providing access to the MFA's collections and staff while making Tufts one of the few universities in the country to offer an arts program affiliated with a major museum.
"It's quite distinctive," said Monaco. "There are going to be programmatic opportunities not only with the arts, but also with science and engineering."
Founded in 1876, the SMFA was conceived as a crucial part of the MFA's mission to educate through the arts. Over the years, it has trained such artistic luminaries as Cy Twombly, Jim Dine, and Ellsworth Kelly.
More recently, however, as one of the few independent schools of art and design that remains unaccredited, it has faced mounting challenges, according to a 2012 strategic plan for the school. That plan, which argued that accreditation was an "essential precondition" to increasing enrollment and to the school's future viability, noted that the school has "weathered an extended period of financial fragility."
"We were confronting, as many standalone art schools are confronting, a challenge in enrollment," Teitelbaum said. "We didn't feel that it was fatal. The patient wasn't in critical condition. But we did feel that it was a smart thing to find a partner that could build back the enrollment numbers more quickly than we could."
Teitelbaum added that while the MFA had originally pursued accreditation on its own, both students and faculty had expressed an interest in being part of a larger academic institution.
"We realized that we could best achieve the accreditation through this new relationship," he said. He added that when the MFA considered the challenges of trying to increase enrollment on its own, it was possible they'd find the institution was "not in balance."
"It wouldn't have been worth the investment we would have had to make in the school, and that would have been a very sad moment," he said. "That sad moment would have been the closing of the school, or the diminishing of scale of the school."
Monaco said he was confident the SMFA would thrive under the Tufts umbrella.
"It will be much more attractive," said Monaco, who added that the SMFA is likely to retain its relationships with other institutions, such as Northeastern University and the ProArts Consortium.
Teitelbaum added that along with the current agreement, the museum was also exploring new partnerships with other area institutions.
"The reality is that the MFA needs strong relationships with all the teaching institutions in our city and region," Teitelbaum said. "It's also wonderful for us, because the school is being received by an institution that will care for it. It's the best alternative among a number of outcomes. It's the best outcome for artists."
Malcolm Gay can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @malcolmgay.