The University of Central Arkansas is now home to the Windgate Center for Fine and Performing Arts and is poised to strengthen its position as a leader in the arts community and make Conway an artistic anchor for the region. The 114,000-square-foot facility situated at the corner of Donaghey Avenue and Bruce Street holds a concert hall, a percussion suite, a recital hall, a photography studio, a 190-seat black box theater, rehearsal and design spaces, classrooms and much more.
The much-anticipated project is made possible by a $20 million gift from the Windgate Foundation, the largest single gift in UCA history. The Alice L. Walton Foundation dedicated $3 million to the project. The UCA Foundation also received significant contributions for the project from the Sunderland Foundation, the Bridges-Larson Foundation, the Hearst Foundation, and the Munro Foundation.
“In addition to generous donations from foundations, the Windgate project also received more than $419,000 from 121 individual donors and couples. These gifts are an excellent example of how private funding allows us as a university to do things we would not be able to do otherwise,” said Mary Bane Lackie, vice president of University Advancement and president of the UCA Foundation. “These funds all count toward our UCA Now comprehensive capital campaign to raise $100 million.”
Along with the Windgate Foundation’s generous gift of $20 million, the UCA Board of Trustees authorized the university to issue more than $25 million in bonds for the project.
“The more private money we can raise, the more we can advance academic prosperity and pedagogy,” said Greg Weber, senior director of development for the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences.
Before arriving at UCA, Weber spent three decades as an arts executive and producer of opera and other theatrical works. His toolbox of knowledge has been instrumental in anticipating various needs for equipment and other accompaniments needed for Windgate.
“A performing art space is only built typically once every 50 to 70 years,” Weber said. “So you have one shot over three generations to get this right. You have to make certain not only that it’s built but also that you have all the necessary equipment. Understand those core needs; that it’s not just the space we want, we also want the tools the students need to make this a world-class facility.”
“We programmed this building five years ago,” said Shauna Meador ’92, chair of UCA’s Department of Film, Theatre, and Creative Writing. “When Greg found out we had not originally specked projectors for this space, it became his goal. He made a great effort to help us achieve a grant for $60,000 worth of equipment. This is important equipment that our students learn how to use because projection is happening a lot in the production of theatre now.”
Meador has a long history with UCA theatre that began in 1973 when she saw her first play on campus as a child.
“I remember where I sat in the audience, and I remember being completely in awe of it. But I didn’t remember I had seen it here until I was going through some old cards and stuff. I found the program and realized the play I’d seen was in the theater I’m teaching at now.”
Meador also earned a theater degree from UCA and met her husband, associate professor of art Scott Meador, while they were undergraduates at UCA. She became chair in 2019, making her journey with UCA full circle.
She said support from the Bridges-Larson Foundation has changed the program, the university and the community. The James M. Bridges Black Box Theatre is named in honor of UCA’s 2012 Distinguished Alumni award recipient, a Hollywood movie producer, director and screenwriter who kickstarted the foundation along with actor and writer Jack Larson.
Windgate, Meador said, will allow students to work with all brand new, state-of-the-art equipment and take full advantage of learning the technology that goes into the production of theatre as well as stagecraft and other practical skills they can use beyond theatre.
“We’re not just training students to go into theater; we’re training them to go into other parts of the entertainment industry,”Meador said. “They can work on a lighting system here, and ultimately, they may be able to do concert lighting on tour with somebody. This will provide our students with familiarity with equipment that is being used in the industry.”
Trey Ewart, a junior theatre major from Bentonville, was still in high school when he learned UCA would be getting a brand-new art center. The Windgate Center is a big reason Ewart chose UCA.
“I had gotten really into the theater after I quit playing football due to a nasty concussion. I wanted to step away from that, so I got into the technical aspects of theatre,” Ewart said.
Ewart started working backstage jobs as a stagehand or assistant stage manager; then, he landed professional opportunities in northwest Arkansas with a few companies. By his senior year of high school, he started doing lighting designs for his school’s theatre productions.
“After my first one, I said, ‘Okay. I might try to make a career out of this’,” said Ewart, who is now the lead student lighting designer for UCA theater. “You get to be a part of the story in a sense. Because you control the feel of the room, you can make colors pop and choose what to highlight and what to hide. There’s a lot of cool stuff you can do with lights and thematic things you can bring to the forefront.”
Ewart is looking forward to working in the new space, which he says already has a lot of aspects not yet available in most shops.
The Windgate Center allows UCA to foster collaborative partnerships between students across art disciplines within the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences.
“One of the examples is Kristin Lewis as an artist-in-residence where she will be performing with the Conway Symphony Orchestra. Her residency will also include an art exhibit to feature her garments and a four-dimensional art-and-time concepts class focused on her visit,” said Amanda Horton ’95, UCA’s executive director of Public Appearances. Lewis ’99, a world-renowned opera singer, received the 2022 Distinguished Alumni award. “The students not only get time with the professional artists, but their visits in Windgate also allow for greater collaboration between the arts.”
Bryan Massey Sr., chair of the UCA Department of Art and Design, has already been in discussions about collaborating with students in the College of Business and the interior design program. He says his students are already enjoying the extra space they have in which to create. The art studio allows Massey to expand the program and its outreach, and students can now have more hands-on experience even in the introductory classes.
“In the [Schichtl] sculpture area where I taught students, we had one small room where we taught wax making, mold making and plaster work. In the new studio, each area has its own space,” Massey said. “The students have given a lot of positive feedback so far about their new work area.”
Massey also donated to the Windgate Center by having the sculpture studio named for both his grandmothers.
“My grandmothers were instrumental in getting me to where I am today,” Massey said.
“There is nothing like having praying grandmothers, so in order to keep their memory alive, I decided to name the sculpture studios after my grandmothers. My father’s mother’s name was Beulah Cogdell, and my mom’s mother was named Lille Mae Penny. It is called the Cogdell-Penny Sculpture Studio, and it’s where we teach all aspects of sculpture from stone carving to fabrication to casting.”
Massey and his wife made an additional donation to the Windgate Center that will name the main art office inside Windgate after him (after some encouragement from his wife). It is named the Bryan W. Massey Sr. Chairs Office Suite of Art and Design.
The Windgate Center will be an addition – not a replacement – to the robust and world-renowned performing art events held annually at the 1,200-seat Donald W. Reynolds Performance Hall. Windgate will allow UCA to offer a variety of performances. Amanda Horton oversees events at both Windgate and Reynolds.
“We will be presenting public appearances with professional artists in the Windgate concert hall,” Horton said. “This gives us an opportunity to present niche artists and acts we would not typically feature at Reynolds. Reynolds is built for big, spectacular broadway shows and large concerts. Windgate offers spaces that are more intimate with incredible acoustics specifically designed for classical, jazz and alternative music, to name a few.”
The optimized acoustics will make for a better performance venue for some plays as well. Many modern plays have much smaller casts. “When performing in a space better suited to be an auditorium, the actors can tend to get lost,” Meador said.
The James M. Bridges Black Box Theatre will serve as the premiere venue for Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre, the state’s only professional Shakespeare theater. Chad Bradford ’06, who was named managing director of AST in June 2022, has worked with the program since 2007. He is grateful and excited about the new space for the intimate and immersive experience it will offer the audience and actors.
“In my intro to theatre classes, I talk about what makes theater, and one of those things is the actor-audience dynamic – that makes it different from film,” Bradford said. “This space, with its size, scope and state-of-the-art technology, will allow a special, sublime kind of feeling to emerge from our shows. Because, at the end of the day, theater is really a transformational art form. I really do think that the theater is going to allow us to do our art even better than we could before. It is so nice to be able to say that this is our new home for a new season.”
Those interested in making a gift to the building or to student scholarships can contact Greg Weber, senior director of development, at email@example.com or (501) 852-2606.