Westphal Family donates property to Community School of the Arts for new arts facility

by Michael Tilley (mtilley@talkbusiness.net) 1,278 views 

The Community School of the Arts (CSA) plans to build a modern arts and learning facility in downtown near the planned U.S. Marshals Museum thanks to a land donation of about 10 acres from the Robbie Westphal Family.

The property is along the Arkansas River and immediately north of the area where the U.S. Marshals Museum will be built.

The CSA was formed in 2016 by Dr. Rosilee Russell and others for the purpose of providing students in the region access instruction in music, theatre, dance, and visual art. Children, youth, and adults also are able to participate in after-school, evening, and weekend classes and lessons.

“I am deeply grateful to the Westphal family for their philanthropy and their vision for developing the next generation of leaders,” Russell, executive director of CSA, said in a statement. “Like us, they understand the importance of the arts in shaping young lives. I’m pleased to be part of something that promotes both artistic excellence and quality entertainment for the entire family.”

Continuing, she noted: “CSA would like to thank the Westphal family for their profound commitment to the economic and cultural development of Fort Smith and surrounding region.”

“This donation is a vote of confidence and a gift to our youth. May we do well with this gift for the youth and our city and make the Robbie Westphal family very proud,” said Philip Merry Jr., chairman of the CSA Board of Directors.

Russell, a classical pianist, has a long history in the arts. She earned a bachelor’s degree in music from Baylor University, and a master’s degree in music and a doctoral degree in music from the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music.

She founded in 2006 the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith Academy of the Arts, a preparatory program which provided instruction in the visual and performing arts to children and youth.

Russell told Talk Business & Politics that the “very early” projection are for a facility around 65,000 square feet, with the total project cost estimated between $20 million and $25 million. She stressed those numbers could change as they “define details.”

“It’s a pretty good sized facility because it has multiple performance spaces within it,” she said. “An arts facility is expensive. … It’s not a small undertaking, to say the least.”

According to the CSA, the new facility will include:
• A children’s theatre;
• A chamber music hall for small music ensembles, solo recitals and lectures;
• A large theatre for major music concerts and large-scale theatre productions; and
• An art gallery and educational space for the center’s art program offerings.

Russell was uncertain about when work might begin, but said CSA board members and others will be aggressive in raising money to make the project a reality as soon as possible.

“I know that this is very important in the arts and education realm. So for me it is imperative to me that we get moving on this so that we get it done for our future generations,” Russell said.

Russell said the facility also will help with the region’s quality of place and be another amenity for downtown Fort Smith.

“It will help strengthen the arts, support education, promote new cultural opportunities and enhance Fort Smith’s overall quality of place. It will also contribute to economic growth in the area by attracting new corporations, small businesses, residents and educators,” noted the CSA statement.

The Westphal Family also gave 16.3 acres to the U.S. Marshals Museum. In January 2007, the U.S. Marshals Service selected Fort Smith as the site for the estimated 50,000-square-foot national museum. A ceremonial groundbreaking was held in September 2015, and museum officials initially hoped to have the facility open by late 2017.

Patrick Weeks, president and CEO of the U.S. Marshals Museum, said Sept. 24, 2019, remains the planned opening date for the museum. The opening date is significant because, Weeks said, it marks the 230th anniversary of the agency created under Congressional approval of the Judiciary Act and signed by President George Washington.

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