Visual arts enhance education, campus life

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 239 views 

Outside of most art classrooms, examples of student work lines the hallway, demonstrating the increasing expertise and talent that can be found in the college or university’s art department.

Learning about art and culture is for more than just art students and that learning doesn’t have to happen only in the classroom.

Area colleges and universities are making a concentrated effort to have permanent art displays on their campuses, both in the form of fixed displays that are purchased or donated, or in the form of a permanent gallery space that features traveling art exhibits. The visual art includes work from local, regional, national and even international artists.

“It gives our students an opportunity to see the best of the best. They can study the technique, but also set their aspirations of ‘this is the level of high quality artist I want to reach,’” said Charles Peer, professor of visual arts and gallery director at John Brown University in Siloam Springs. “We also work hard to bring the community into the gallery with special events. We try to show that it’s something they can relate to. We choose our exhibits carefully so that they are challenged, but so they can also relate.”

JBU’s campus has a new student gallery and a gallery space that focuses on national and international exhibits that are changed monthly, Peer said. Sometimes the exhibits are rented, other times they come from national clearinghouses or are procured through visual arts associations of which JBU is a member. The exhibits are funded largely through grants and donations, including those that are built into an endowment.

“We are working on building a permanent collection here,” Peer said.

Peer said they try to select exhibits that correlate somehow to the various studies that JBU offers such as a printmaking show.

“It enriches our offerings on campus,” he said. He also agreed that having a strong visual arts presence on campus helps add validity and credibility to the program.

“We want the art department to be known as a destination place on campus,” he said. “It’s a multi-faceted concept. It shows that we have a good education, but also that we value these things. (Visitors) will know they will be exposed to quality work.”

When Paul Beran was named chancellor at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, the idea of public art had not been developed on campus but he soon found that there were many people eager for the opportunity.

“Once I opened the door, I just had to get out of the way,” he said. “They’ve embraced the whole concept. There’s been so much energy around it for five or six years.”

He started the Chancellor’s Coalition for the Visual Arts, which is an organization dedicated to developing various forms of the arts on campus. So far, some of the work is from professors and students, other work is from local, regional and national artists.

UAFS has art pieces throughout the campus with several locations dedicated specifically for celebrating the visual arts. The Mary Tinnin Jaye Gallery is in the administration building, there is an established gallery on the second floor of the student center mostly with alumnus’ John Bell’s work and in downtown Fort Smith the college owns a building currently called Second Street Live, which is used for performing arts.

That space is also planned for gallery space to feature student and professor art.

Perhaps the most noticeable piece is the large, 15-foot leaping lion bronze statue named Numa. The lion is permanently placed in front of the Stubblefield Center and was dedicated in April 2010.

The university obtains the artworks through various means, including traveling shows, from art repositories or donated works. Sometimes the funding for the art is donated, other times it comes from money raised specifically for the public arts program. There is a rigorous process for deciding which art will be accepted as a donation and where it will be placed. If the art does not meet teaching standards, it is used in another place rather than the permanent galleries.

“We need to make sure that it’s complete enough for student instruction,” Beran said. “The art on campus goes along with the overall campus approach, which is to create a strong quality of place.”

In some ways, the entire campus is a work of art in that the architecture and grounds are designed so that they coordinate. The outdoor art adds to that quality of space, he said.

The quality of place concept is intended to provide a high-quality learning environment for students, faculty and staff, but also for the community at large. The local chambers of commerce use the campus as one of the first stopping points for area tours, Beran said.

The idea of having art throughout a college campus is growing throughout the country and in some places like Oklahoma, Beran said, there is even a requirement that any publicly-funded building have a percentage of its budget dedicated to the arts.

“It has an economic factor that is perhaps not as explicit as some might want, but there is a definite positive impact on the community,” he said of the arts.

Becky Paneitz, president at NorthWest Arkansas Community College, said in 2007 the idea of using some of a building’s construction budget for the arts was not as common, especially for community colleges. That’s when the discussion started on the NWACC campus and in 2008, the President’s Advisory Council on Art (PACA) was formed. It reports to the college’s Land Use and Facilities Committee and has 15 members from the community and college staff.

“It was a situation where we knew that if we didn’t do it up front, we would be trying to catch up,” she said.

At the time, Burns Hall did not have planned arts spaces except for places to exhibit student artwork in the art wing. The same was true for the Shewmaker Center for Workforce Technologies. The second Shewmaker Center building and the new health services building, however, had art configured into their budgets from donated funds.

“We decided to allocate half a percent of the (construction) budget,” Paneitz said. “If you don’t have funding (for the arts), there’s not a lot you can do. It was one of the best things we ever did.”

Paneitz also dedicated $10,000 from her presidential fund to help establish permanent art displays in buildings like Burns Hall and the first Shewmaker Center building.

Instructor Eric Smith is leader of the PACA and he said that there are now three different venues for traveling art displays from mostly local and regional artists. The Peterson Auditorium, the Wal-Mart Auditorium and in the student center there is space for art to be displayed on a rotating basis.

“It allows us to showcase what’s happening in our community,” he said.

Besides providing aesthetically pleasing art for students and visitors on campus, the artwork also gives the artists the ability to sell their art. NWACC does not operate as a curator for the art or take a commission, but several artists have been able to sell their work after it was on display at the college.

Smith said the PACA and the college’s dedication to having art on campus shows s a lot of insight.

“They realize that the presence of art is an expression of the college’s values and (it’s commitment) to well-rounded lifetime learners,” he said. “It’s more than background, it’s more than decoration. It’s there to educate and challenge the staff, students and the community.”

Officials at several of the colleges and universities agree that having art on campus not only increases the educational value for the local community, but it ratchets up the institution’s reputation on a national level.

“You can’t have a great university if you don’t strengthen the arts and the value of art,” said Chancellor David Gearhart with the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. “When you’re educating the youth of the state, demonstrating the value of the arts is very, very important. Expressing that value can really help promote the university as a place people want to come.”

In August 2012, the University dedicated its first commissioned piece of sculpture, a sculpture dedicated to Silas Hunt, the first black student to be admitted for graduate or professional studies at an all-white, Southern university.

Cynthia Nourse Thompson, curator and director of exhibitions for the UA’s fine arts gallery, is also excited about the University’s second piece, which has been purchased and will be dedicated in February. It happens to coincide with the upcoming display and programming at the gallery that will also be unveiled in February. Both will support the ideas of sustainability and diversity, she said.

The UA does not currently set aside money in construction budgets for the arts because the state already requires that money be set aside for maintenance of those buildings, he said. The University’s growing public arts displays come from private gift support both for art inside and outside the buildings.

Several years ago, Gearhart started the Public Arts Oversight Committee, which works with the chancellor’s office and many departments throughout the University to decide which art should be on display and how it best fits into the overall campus.

“The purpose is to engage student and the public in critical thinking through having visual art forms on campus,” said Jeannie Hulen, PAOC member and art department chair. “It’s part of the academic mission.”

Hulen agreed that “any kind of major institution has an impressive art collection on campus. If we want to compete nationally, it was an important move in that direction (to use visual arts to engage the community.”

The overall economy is also benefitted, Hulen said.

“People travel from all over to see our art on campus,” she said. “It’s revenue creation on the part of the creative economy of Northwest Arkansas.”

Although not specifically speaking to visual art on campus, a recent study in Northwest Arkansas verifies that more people are traveling to the region for the arts.

The Arts & Economic Prosperity Study IV conducted by Americans for the Arts in 182 regions across the country accumulated economic data and included surveys of arts consumers to develop an overall view of the arts and culture industry’s economic impact on the given regions. Tourism related to the arts is on the rise in the region, according to the study.