The Chronicle of Higher Education this week features UCA’s extraordinary efforts to promote world-class culture for its campus and surrounding community, calling UCA an “academic incubator for the arts.”
University Strives to Be a Cultural Hub in Central Arkansas
By CAROLYN MOONEY
You might not immediately think of this city of 55,000 as an arts hub.
Just a few years ago, its downtown emptied out each evening. “You could shoot a gun down the main drag and not hit anyone in either direction,” one local businessman says. You couldn’t get a drink at a restaurant, much less attend a live telecast of the Metropolitan Opera here at the University of Central Arkansas, or see a play at the university-sponsored Shakespeare festival, or work as an intern at Oxford American’s offices on campus.
But Conway is growing and changing, and the university’s artistic aspirations have played a role. In recent years this campus of 13,000 students has become home to two prestigious literary magazines: Oxford American and Exquisite Corpse Annual, a reborn print edition of the cutting-edge magazine edited by the writer and NPR commentator Andrei Codrescu. The university also founded the Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre, which produces an annual summer festival, and recently began playing host to the opera telecasts.
Last fall it commissioned and staged an original opera, The Scarlet Letter, and it helped arrange for the National Symphony Orchestra to spend a weeklong residency in Arkansas, which will include a campus performance, later this spring. An artists-in-residence program has brought distinguished writers and artists – including Mr. Codrescu, a professor at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge, earlier this month – to an audience that used to have to travel 30 miles to Little Rock for cultural offerings.
Central Arkansas, like a number of regional institutions outside major cities or college towns, has become a kind of academic incubator for the arts.”I’d say it’s a hydroponic grow room,” says Mark Spitzer, an assistant professor of writing and the managing editor of Exquisite Corpse Annual. Having worked with the magazine before, he suggested that it start an annual print edition on the campus; the university helps pay printing costs. Oxford American, previously based in Oxford, Miss., and briefly in Little Rock, moved here after the university provided money to help it survive, along with office space near the campus’s graceful main entrance framed by green ash trees and willow oaks.
Mr. Spitzer and others have visions of Conway becoming a mini-Austin, Madison, or even Fayetteville, the lively home of the University of Arkansas main campus. And they have wish lists: an alternative-music scene, a used-book store, a Thai restaurant.
“You’re still in Arkansas, no doubt about it,” says Terry Wright, a writing professor and Exquisite Corpse Annual’s associate editor. When he first arrived here, 23 years ago, “this was kind of a cow college, and there were lots of Jesus billboards.” As Conway grew, it attracted new kinds of people – and many former students who liked the area so much that they stayed on. Now, Mr. Wright says, “to have such an avant-garde magazine at our university is phenomenal. People were like, ‘You’re kidding. How did that happen?’”
Warwick Sabin, the university’s spokesman, puts it this way: “There’s a whole country out there, and not all the cultural activity lives on the coastlines.”
The Campus as Patron
Although campus arts projects are too far-flung and decentralized to track, observers believe the number is growing – at regional and rural institutions as well as at wealthier and urban ones. Colleges and universities are commissioning original works of music and dance, inviting established artists to campus, and encouraging fresh ways to inspire creativity and expression (see box, below).
“I think the time of the arts has come again,” says Marjorie Garber, an English professor at Harvard University and author of the new book Patronizing the Arts (Princeton University Press). Why now? Ms. Garber believes the rise in cultural multitasking – the easy shift between old and new forms of media – and the demand for a new type of “visual intellectual” have helped democratize the arts. And give some credit to new media like YouTube and Photoshop, she says.
In her book, Ms. Garber argues that universities are natural but underrecognized patrons of the arts: They appreciate creativity, are used to collaboration, and know how to evaluate projects for outside grant money. She calls upon them to support “Big Art” as they do “Big Science” and “Big Sports” – an evolution that would require them to reconceive the notion of faculty work and make the arts a meaningful part of the curriculum.
Harvard took such a step in December, when a special panel, asked to examine the role of the arts in campus life, called upon the university to end the “curricular banishment” of the arts and make them part of its core educational mission.
Steven J. Tepper, associate director of Vanderbilt University’s Curb Center for Art, Enterprise, and Public Policy, thinks momentum has been growing since 2004, when a group of research universities and arts advocates collaborated on a project called the “Creative Campus.” The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation has since financed creative-campus grants of up to $200,000 for innovative projects. The grants are administered by the Association of Performing Arts Presenters, a Washington group that works closely with organizers of campus arts events.
But whether the current economic crisis will slow that momentum remains to be seen. Brandeis University recently said it would close its Rose Art Museum and sell off the collection to help combat financial problems, but its president later backtracked amid campus criticism and said the museum would remain as a teaching site with a broader educational mission. The Harvard report acknowledged in its opening paragraph that its sometimes costly recommendations came at a time of “grave economic hardship,” but added that “the measures we propose are, in our view, necessary.”
Ms. Garber and others point to creative ways to support the arts that aren’t particularly costly, including forming partnerships with outside groups and offering office space and nonfinancial support. The issue is not one of achieving “parity” with sports and science, Ms. Garber writes in her book. “Money makes things easier, no question,” she says. “But the issue here is also one of imagination and commitment.”
Says Mr. Sabin, the Central Arkansas spokesman: “The fact that UCA could do any of this stuff is proof of what you can do on a limited budget.”
An Artistic Evolution
Central Arkansas had the right mix of ingredients to raise its arts profile: It had a good performing-arts facility. It had money for visiting artists, after a student fee for the arts was adopted in 2000. It also had a catalyst: Rollin R. Potter. Since coming to the campus five years ago as dean of the College of Fine Arts and Communication, he has encouraged faculty members to develop arts programs, including the Shakespeare theater festival and other projects. “The campus has some very talented faculty,” the dean says. “I open the door, light the fire, and get people moving.”
Finally, Central Arkansas had strong backing from the city and formed a local arts alliance to build continued community support. Mr. Potter calls the arts “another window to the institution” after athletics, and one that has helped build its public image. (Any good news was especially welcome last summer, when the university made headlines after Lu Hardin, its president, resigned amid controversy over his bonus pay.)
Conway, whose diverse economy is based on manufacturing, agriculture, and a growing service sector, is also home to Hendrix College and Central Baptist College. It has big-box stores (including two Wal-Marts) and big churches, along with small boutiques in the newly thriving downtown area. You can order an elegant meal in one of the town’s new restaurants and find a recipe for deep-fried turkey in a local magazine. As for politics, some people here describe the area as solidly conservative with a strong progressive streak – voters heavily supported John McCain for president, but voted for a Democratic congressman.
It’s not an either-or town, says Brad Lacy, head of the Chamber of Commerce. “I think our unwritten goal is to make Conway that hip, artsy college town that central Arkansas has never had.”
High on the fine-arts dean’s own wish list is for Conway to be listed one day in The 100 Best Art Towns in America (Countryman Press, 2005), by John Villani. (Not surprisingly, a fair number already on the list, such as Lawrence, Kan., are college towns.) And while Conway has a ways to go, many people believe that a change in liquor regulations several years ago – which allowed local restaurants to serve alcohol by treating them, in effect, as private clubs – was a crucial move in making the city more appealing.
Not everyone saw it that way. Terry Kimbrow, president of Central Baptist, resigned from the Chamber of Commerce over the issue, because he believed the community should have voted on it. “I don’t think it’s healthy in a town with three colleges,” he says.
Mr. Villani cautions against making assumptions about alcohol and quality of life (or quality of art, at least). “Having access to creative energy is much more important than having access to liquor,” he says. A case in point: He cites the art museum at Bob Jones University, a Christian institution whose strict religious code of conduct prohibits alcohol use, as a campus institution with strong community ties. The museum seeks to give a panoramic view of Western culture through its large collection of Italian and Old Master paintings.
College towns that successfully support the arts share a sense of “collaborative purpose,” Mr. Villani says: “It takes a willingness by the administration to step outside the confines of the campus and network into the broader picture.”
Administrators and faculty members at Central Arkansas have shown such a willingness, but it isn’t clear whether their efforts have trickled down to the average student. Many students said they had never heard of Oxford American, for example, or listened to Mr. Codrescu on NPR (though that may change as a result of Mr. Codrescu’s recent visit).
Matt Chiorini, the producing artistic director of the Shakespeare theater here and a faculty member who teaches theater courses, estimates that half of his students have never seen a play. So he urges them to take advantage of the arts on campus. He himself has taken advantage of the rare opportunity to create something fresh and beautiful in a place that’s hungry for the arts. “Boston doesn’t call with these kinds of offers,” he says. Here, local officials return his phone calls – and are happy to help.
All he needs now is for that Thai restaurant to open.