Karen Wirth

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This spring Karen Wirth will retire as Vice President of Academic Affairs. 

Karen began her career at MCAD as an adjunct faculty member in the foundation program in the early 1990s. She returned in 2003 as a professor and Chair of the Fine Art Department following ten years at the College of Visual Arts in St. Paul, MN, where she was a department chair and Academic Dean. In 2010-2011, Karen was awarded a Bush Leadership fellowship and an American Council on Education fellowship, providing a year-long residency and leadership mentorship at the Parsons School of Design in New York/New School University. Following a national search, Karen was promoted to Vice President of Academic Affairs in 2011. She served as Interim President of MCAD for the 2018-2019 academic year. 

In addition to her academic career, Karen has maintained an active studio practice that includes sculpture/installation, public art, and artist's books. She has been awarded arts fellowships including McKnight, Bush, Jerome, National Endowment for the Arts, and Minnesota and New York State Arts Boards. She codesigned four of the Blue Line light rail stations in Minneapolis and the sculptural staircase at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts. Her work is in the collections of the Walker Art Center, Museum of Modern Art Library, the Getty Center, and Yale University among others. Karen was the first artist to serve on the board of the Minnesota Center for Book Arts and was a founding board member of the College Book Arts Association. She holds an MFA in sculpture from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, and a BFA in art education from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

“I am grateful for all of the many experiences I have had at MCAD, shared with so many wonderful people. I still remember the students in the first Visual Studies foundation class I taught in 1991- and their projects! From adjunct faculty member to interim President, I have experienced the depth of the MCAD community, its strong commitment to students, and enduring belief in what we do. It has been a gift to be a part of it, and I look forward to seeing the next generations of artists and designers lead the way.” —Karen Wirth

Kinji Akagawa, Karen Wirth, and Brad Jirka



See what Karen's colleagues, students, and friends have to say about her exceptional contributions to MCAD.

Howard Quednau

In her service to the college as Chair of Fine Arts, Chief Academic Officer, and the first woman to hold the office of MCAD President, Karen Wirth has given so much to this institution it is hard sum up in these few words. Yet, amongst all the roles Karen has played, I suspect the most important to her is that of educator. She has mentored countless students and faculty with zeal, focus, and compassion. It is telling that her “retirement” plans include teaching a newly created textile class for MCAD students in the fall.

Karen’s life as a teacher and artist suffuses all that she undertakes. This was clear in the 2012 exhibition she curated, Intersections: Women, Leadership and the Power of Collaboration, which showcased art by pairings of mentors and students. Indeed, her influence and vision is manifest in the voices and teaching of the many former students who themselves now hold teaching positions across the country.

The endless demands of the college have not prevented Karen from maintaining an active studio practice. An eclectic and intuitive maker, her creativity is seen in a diverse body of work including installations at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts and the Hiawatha Ave. Light Rail station. More recently she has focused her energy on a series of quilts to be auctioned to benefit MCAD student scholarships.

Karen will undoubtedly approach her next adventures with the same grace and sense of purpose that have been the hallmarks of her long and varied career. While I can’t quite imagine MCAD without her, I know that she has left the college a better place; one that will owe much of its future successes to her diligence and presence.

Amanda Lovelee

Karen,

You are a magical teacher, mentor, and artist.

As a teacher you taught me the meaning of confidence combined with grace and vulnerability. I am not talking about fake confidence. No, the confidence that comes after so many failures, after you learn to be vulnerable enough to listen to other’s opinions, and to know the moment when, with grace, you hold strong to your own ideas. 

As a mentor you taught me how to care deeply for someone while pushing them to a point they did not even know existed. That love does not always look like coddling, bending, and holding up, but that true love can also be challenging someone, breaking the limits they have set for themselves. You showed me that growth is hard work. 

As an artist you taught me how to bend mediums and labels. How your practice can sit at the intersection of many different fields and the strength of not truly belonging to one, but how that power also comes with loneliness. That being the other is not a bad thing and keeps you curious, always learning and transforming. 

Thank you for all you have done for MCAD, for all the students’ lives you have altered and shifted, and the high standards to which you hold the world. I know no stronger warmth than that of knowing a project, a lecture, or a moment would meet the bar you have set for me. Thank you for sharing some of your magic with me. I am grateful to you in a way these words do not do justice. 

I look forward to watching your practice grow and to seeing the many more marks you will make.

Love,

Amanda

Gerald Ronning

One of the first pieces of advice Karen gave me, or maybe her first rule, is as good a place to begin as any: “An idea is not a plan, and a conversation is not a decision.” I soon learned its value when trying to administer my own small corner of MCAD’s riotously anarchic intellectual and artistic community. Though our relationship at first seemed a bit rocky–Karen is an unapologetic visual thinker and probably still impatient with my tendency toward narrative–I grew to trust in and depend upon her formidable organizational skills (limited only, and if at all, by the number of open windows a computer could simultaneously support) and her fierce intellect. Her commitment to MCAD, its students, faculty, and staff is unparalleled. Part of her legacy is already apparent in the ways that we have risen to the challenge of pandemic, and when the college clears the immediate crisis, I am certain we will have time to reflect upon her extraordinary contribution to MCAD’s enduring strength. She has been a great mentor and champion and has contributed to the most satisfying years of my professional life. I am grateful for the opportunity to have been her colleague and friend. Now it is time for well-deserved and unburdened ideas and conversations, time to close old windows and open new ones, and time for making art!

Julie Reneé Benda

I knew from the moment I met Karen that she had something I wanted one day. Her energy gave away a strength and ownership that I rarely saw in the women around me, in the arts, in academia, let alone administration. She resonated a self-trust that was strong and powerful, and I knew I would need to find that if I were going to live into my whole potential as an artist, and as a human.

Of course, when I had the opportunity to work with Karen one on one, I got a crash course in what will undoubtedly take me a lifetime of practice to master. None-the-less, Karen gave me exactly what I needed in a guide, a mentor, and a leader. She gave me a vision of a future I want to see more of, and that is fuel to keep you going through anything. My question now is: is it too late? Wirth 2020?

Naomi Sack

Karen Wirth’s service to MCAD epitomizes dedication. Her diligence and tenacity have helped to lead MCAD through many challenges. All the while, Karen has upheld the core ideals of MCAD, with student learning always at the center. Leading with strength and compassion, Karen has been an inspiring leader to me in numerous ways—I thank her and wish her many fulfilling years ahead for her to pursue her own passions.

Tanvi Kulkarni

I had bookmaking courses with you and also the marbling workshop. I am so glad that you gave those opportunities to me. You gave me the confidence to explore bookmaking as an art form. I ended up doing exhibitions of my books. I wanted you to show you the exhibition at the MCAD library gallery but it ended early because of the current situation. Thank you so much. Wish you all the very best.

Stephen Rueff

I have learned so much from you that I cannot even articulate it in words. Many difficult and heartfelt conversations that have helped guide me and shape me. I am a better listener, leader, and learner because of you.

Dana LeMoine

Thank you for your dedication to MCAD! And a personal thank you for the great masks during this pandemic. They are so helpful and actually look nice!

Laura Bray

I'll never forget you taking the time to make a mask for us during such a busy time. Enjoy your well-deserved retirement.

Autumn Amadou-Blegen

I still remember meeting you for the first time during my interview at MCAD back in 2018 and being simultaneously inspired and affirmed by some of the questions you asked. You have left a strong legacy at and an indelible mark on MCAD. It has been a pleasure working with you! I wish you the best for the future.

Arlene Birt ’02

Congratulations, Karen! I appreciate all you've done for students and MCAD throughout the years.

Tom DeBiaso

Long before Karen came to MCAD I began to follow her incredibly lively and interesting work with books, sculpture and installation. I always admired how her creative voice and accomplished practice has been a consistent core underpinning for her work as a teacher and administrator. When I first met Karen I immediately could feel that she was devoted to her teaching and that the role model of artist/teacher would be a guiding principle in her incredibly successful work as both. We first worked together when she was an adjunct in Media Arts and offered to step up and teach a Foundations class in Lens Media - not her core area but for Karen with her incredible methodology it worked with aplomb and was a great success. Karen came fulltime to MCAD as chair of the Fine Arts department where she was a champion for the area making a positive and indelible mark on the program, students, and faculty. Her students were consistently devoted to her and simply loved her classes and the creative experience she provided. She always remembered her students and supported them throughout their careers and they loved her back! Karen became the best Vice President of Academic Affairs that the college has had and we are all beholden to her for taking on the area when it was in difficult straits and carrying us forward with vision, creativity, and clarity. Not only does Karen give everything she does 100% commitment and immense talent, she was always very fun and inspiring to work with. Not to be forgotten–in addition to her many talents, she has great style and an eye for a good pair of shoes!

Several years ago I was on leave and she sent me a cryptic email (Karen could send the best!) requesting a lunch meeting. I always liked Karen and was truly looking forward to seeing her but thought – she might be firing me. Fortunately, she asked me to take on the MFA program and this meeting led to the most gratifying experience in my career at MCAD. I will always be grateful that Karen didn’t fire me and gave me this wonderful opportunity. I learned a lot from Karen and always appreciated her humor and commitment to our students. She was one of the best graduate mentors and always to my delight a little intimidating for the students in reviews. I feel lucky to have worked with her as a partner and supporter of all things MCAD! I miss her and know that there will be a void in our community after she leaves. Best of luck to you Karen and thank you for everything!

Shannon Gilley ’13, MFA; Media Arts Professor

Karen, I'm so grateful for the support you've shown me since we first met all the way up through this year. What a crazy way to wrap up this chapter, in a series of undoubtedly crazy chapters. Every time I saw you in the hall you were running to your next thing. No doubt you've earned some quiet time and a few glasses of wine. Thank you so much for everything and enjoy your next (calmer) chapter!

Jody Williams

Hey Karen, I think you know something about how I feel about your leaving admin. So many mixed emotions, including worries about the future of the college without your leadership (or co-leadership), my missing having you around as a super-safe person to look to for advice about anything at all, not hearing your delightful, distinctive laugh at school, etc, etc. Uppermost in my thoughts, however, is pure happiness for you that you will be able to do things (like artwork!) for yourself. And undoubtedly things for others. You are so sweet and kind while remaining an incredibly strong, brilliant woman who always seems in control and ready to achieve the impossible. With love and many thanks.

Julie Van Grol

Karen, you have always been such an exemplar of strength, thoughtfulness, and care since I entered MCAD's doors in 2012 as a grad student. Since joining the faculty in 2014, I've seen how you've advocated for students and faculty, particularly now, during such an incredibly trying and unprecedented time. You were put up to truly difficult tasks during your final year at MCAD, and you always rose to the occasion and did so with grace. I want you to know that we saw that. Thank you, truly, for all of the service you have carried out for our students, and for us faculty. I can't wait to see you back in the classroom some more! From what I hear, the students LOVE your classes. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Karen at an exhibition

Tom Milbrath

Karen, I hope your retirement is injury-free! Good luck on the next stage of life.

Isa Gagarin ’08

In the spring of 2007, during my undergraduate studies at MCAD, I studied abroad at the Burren College of Art in Ballyvaughan, Ireland. Karen Wirth accompanied my group as our guiding faculty and fellow adventurer. I have vivid memories of traipsing across the Irish countryside with Karen and getting to know the local community during weekly evening dances at the pub. Karen participated in the Burren program as our teacher, but also as a member of our community and as a friend. 

After I graduated from MCAD, Karen invited me to collaborate with her on a project for the 2012 exhibition Intersections: Women, Leadership, and the Power of Collaboration at the MCAD Gallery. We developed a process of ideation and collaboration inspired by Virginia Woolf's The Waves (1931), which resulted in an artist book and video piece. 

I look forward to when social distancing measures are eased and we can safely gather again, because I hope to offer a toast to Karen in person. Cheers, Karen!

Lara Roy

I just want to thank Karen for her support of Continuing Education and her encouragement over the years for experimentation, new ideas, new programs, and ongoing ideas for improvement. Thanks for being a great supervisor and mentor and I wish you all the best in your retirement. Thank you for everything you've done for MCAD.

Frannie Kuhs

Best wishes Karen! I enjoyed working with you and appreciated all your support for Continuing Education. I loved learning about your artwork in Double Shift this spring. The piece was beautiful and your process was interesting.

Kiley Van Note

Things I will miss about Karen after she retires:

  • Her infectious laugh. When Karen laughs, then you know it's something good/funny!
  • The quick clicking of her heels as she's speeding from one place to another off to check another thing off her list.
  • Her struggles with the office printer, which usually leads to quick chats about art or things happening inside and outside of MCAD. They're brief, but always meaningful.
  • Delivering sweets in the afternoon to everyone in the office; knowing very well that 3:00 p.m. in the afternoon is about the time that one needs chocolate or a salted caramel to get through the rest of the day.

I don't think I've ever met anyone as hardworking and passionate as Karen Wirth. Seriously. Even after all these years of working together, I still can't wrap my head around how she does all that she does and gets it done! And still has time to make art! Not many people can do that or choose to do that. She simply amazes me with her work ethic and I feel confident saying that this is not something that can be duplicated or replaced. I'm happy I had the chance to work with Karen and will miss her greatly.

Diana Eicher

Dear Karen, I will really miss working with you at MCAD. You have been such a strong mentor for me over the years. I feel lucky to have been your colleague. I've benefited from seeing how you led meetings when you were Fine Arts Chair, how you problem-solve, your attention to detail, your creativity, and your skill at budgeting!  I've also taken a Japanese Book Art class you taught, and so I've witnessed your depth/breadth as an artist/educator. The entire class was planned out, almost to the minute, and the supplies organized and prepped (many supplies donated by Karen/prepped), the demos were excellent.  Students were so pleased because in the class we made one book that contained many smaller books, each of a different type of book. For one book we even made our own handmade tassel! So as I write this, I am both happy for you and sad for me and MCAD that you are retiring. Happy that you will have a new chapter in your life and sad because we will miss you (but I will see you when you are teaching at the Printshop!)

Kerry Morgan

Karen's creative leadership and dedication to serving others has been exemplified in numerous ways over the ten years I have had the joy of working with her. But what stands out is the exhibition she organized in 2012 at MCAD that highlighted the collaborative efforts of fourteen teams of artists composed of women art department chairs from the Twin Cities and their students or alumni. Intersections was an outstanding exhibition that foregrounded the deep bonds that develop between teachers and students and reminds us of the transformative power of higher education.

Karen and Natasha Pestich at Intersections
Karen Wirth and faculty member Natasha Pestich at Intersections

Lauren Zimitsch

Karen has been such a joy to work with and always has the needs of others on her mind. She responds quickly and kindly and though I didn't know her well, she was someone well respected.

Eleanor Fuchs

In 2014, a colleague and I attended the NASAD conference here in Minneapolis. Coming from an AICAD school, we made sure to visit MCAD for a NASAD reception. I remember seeing Karen on the second floor, looking down into the main gallery. The thought that came to mind, "That woman is a badass."

That impression only deepened as we interacted through AICAD channels and NASAD events. Her humor, insight, and willingness to drop an f-bomb cemented in my mind that one day, I wanted to work for her. When the job opened up, I jumped on it and It’s been more than I could have hoped for. 

Since joining MCAD, working for Karen has been educating, terrifying, and enriching. She’s more than a badass. She’s a beast, she’s a force, she’s a delight. These past two months, her wisdom, fortitude, and commitment to the College played a tremendous role in setting us up for success beyond her tenure. She could have phoned it in, but she didn’t. Instead she worked tirelessly to lead Academic Affairs through unprecedented turmoil. I will always be grateful for getting the chance to work with and learn from her, for the chance to get to know her more as a professional and better yet, as an incredibly strong woman.

Virtual hugs and a raised glass of whiskey to salute you, Karen. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.