Editor’s note: Updated with many additions throughout the story.
The Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation of Bentonville will donate $120 million toward growing the University of Arkansas’ art department into a school of art. The gift, announced Wednesday (Aug. 23), is the largest outright donation ever made to a U.S. university to establish a school of art, university officials said.
“This gift creates the first and only school of art in the state of Arkansas, and will propel art education and research in the state forward while also providing unparalleled access and opportunity to students,” noted a UA statement. “The gift will also help position the school of art as a center of excellence in art education, art history, graphic design and studio art curriculum.”
The school will be housed in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts.
Fulbright Dean Todd Shields said, “We’re aiming to create an artistic hub for this region of the country, and to do that on a national scale you have to be a school of art.”
According to the new arts school website, the UA art department also has seen growth in recent years, with more than 400 art majors now. The graduate arts program has doubled in size during the last 10 years, according to UA. The Office of Institutional Research and Assessment website shows 21 students sought master’s degrees in art in 2016.
“All of the other top art programs across the nation are schools, and at some point you grow beyond a department to become a school because the need for it and the demand from students is so great,” Shields said. He also indicated the UA’s commitment to “infusing art education in all that we do.”
“The school of art is needed because this is going to go beyond one department. Art curriculum will be a part of how we educate the next generation of students studying marketing and business, and in STEM fields like engineering and architecture,” Fields said. “Having a school of art will allow interdisciplinary work across campus to flourish in a way a department wouldn’t be able to support.”
Most of the funding, $110 million, will go toward an endowment that will be spent on expanding graduate and undergraduate degree offerings, community outreach and public service through partnerships with arts organizations and financial support for art students in the form of scholarships, travel grants and internship opportunities.
About $50 million of the endowment will go to financial support for students, with $36 million for graduate students and $14 million for undergraduates, said Mark Rushing, assistant vice chancellor for University Relations. About $16.5 million will go toward endowed faculty positions, and $33.5 million will go to program-wide support including developing curriculum, programs and classes, Rushing said. Programs the school may expand include art history, art education and graphic design.
The program will be housed in existing facilities at the UA, and about $10 million will support the Fine Arts Library and the renovation of the historic Edward Durrell Stone-designed Fine Arts Center, Rushing said.
‘HOPE’ IN ART
Alice Walton, daughter of Wal-Mart Stores cofounders Helen and Sam Walton and the money and push behind the Bentonville-based Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, said the school will help bring the “hope” found in art to communities. She is also chair of the Crystal Bridges board.
“The school of art will shape a new generation of artists, historians, designers and teachers with a unique understanding of the hope art can bring to communities,” Walton said in a UA press release. “The unparalleled access to meaningful American art will connect the heartland to the world.”
In a newsletter distributed by the Walton Family Foundation, Walton expressed support for the integration of arts education into other subjects.
“Art broadens our minds and expands our horizons — everyone’s horizons. It shifts our perspective and elevates our creativity. Every student can learn about art and apply creative thinking to excel in his or her chosen field of study. This will help develop not only inspiring artists but stronger business leaders, engineers and scientists as well,” she wrote.
UA Chancellor Joseph Steinmetz said the school will place a strong emphasis on American art and art of the Americas, which complements the mission of Crystal Bridges.
“The vision to create the school of art could not have come to fruition without the cooperative, close and mutually beneficial relationship between the world-class Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and the university,” Steinmetz said in the UA release. “With an emphasis on cross-disciplinary collaborations and signature outreach efforts with the museum, and a focus on student, faculty and staff diversity, the school will be uniquely positioned to develop programs to rival the top competitors in the field.”
Crystal Bridges is working with the university during expansion of its art program, said Margie Conrads, director of curatorial affairs for the museum.
“It’s incredibly important to me, as someone who believes art has the power to transform lives. Having a significant school of art in our state will bring opportunity for everyone across the state and beyond,” Conrads said.
Because the UA’s vision for its art school “beautifully aligns” with Crystal Bridges’ vision of access to and engagement with the arts, Conrads believes the partnership will be mutually beneficial.
“What Crystal Bridges brings to the mix is a collection of art. It provides students encounters with original works instead of pictures in books and on the internet. It’s a type of engagement you can’t otherwise get,” she said. The museum also has a staff that can collaborate with the UA to “make really rich experiences for students and faculty.”
Conrads also praised UA’s vision for “art to infiltrate the entire university environment.” She said the approach will only benefit students.
“It is going to make a huge difference for education for Arkansas,” Conrads said, adding, “There can also be a public and community impact that could end up impacting nationwide.”
The Walton gift was also praised by Steve Clark, founder of Fort Smith-based Propak Logistics and founder of “The Unexpected Project,” which three years ago brought unique murals, sculptures and other elements of urban art to downtown Fort Smith. The project has been praised by Gov. Asa Hutchinson and other state officials and has put the blue-collar town on the international art map.
The “Green Candy” art project underway by the Fayetteville Advertising & Promotion Commission was directly inspired by Clark’s “Unexpected” effort. Clark said the Walton gift will be “transformative” beyond what can now be predicted.
“The gift by the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation to establish a school of art at the University of Arkansas is the absolute perfect example of vision, thought leadership and philanthropy intersecting with higher education and economic development. It’s brilliant. The transformative power of this gift for our region, state and country cannot be underestimated. Kudos and a gracious thank you to all involved,” Clark noted in a statement to Talk Business & Politics.
U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, on Wednesday issued this statement: “I am very appreciative of the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation’s commitment to the University of Arkansas. A gift of this magnitude is transformational for developing a premier art institution within the University of Arkansas. The Waltons have blessed us with a world-class museum in Crystal Bridges, and this gift further demonstrates their commitment to education for generations to come.”
Talk Business & Politics executive editor Michael Tilley contributed to this post.