Inspiring Campus & Community
Since its beginning more than 20 years ago, the University of Central Arkansas’ artists-in-residence program has been inspiring faculty, students and the surrounding community. Showcasing nationally and internationally recognized artists, authors, design specialists, journalists, musicians, vocal artists and others, this program has become a vibrant part of the curriculum – inspiring graduate and undergraduate students alike. An additional benefit that sets UCA’s program apart from other universities is that it is also free to a community that may not otherwise have access to such acclaimed artists.
The earliest known artist residencies began in 16th century Europe and expanded as academics grew worldwide. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, artists would isolate to find inspiration. The pendulum swung back in the 1960s when British visual artists Barbara Steveni and John Latham founded the Artist Placement Group, which became one of the first major residencies to introduce visual artists into institutions of higher learning with a focus to bridge the gap between academia and the working class.
Increased globalization in the 1980s and 90s made artist residencies even more popular, and by the turn of the century, UCA embraced this program model to meet the needs of students and the community.
In February 2000, the UCA Board of Trustees approved the Fine and Performing Arts Fee with the express purpose of “expanding artistic opportunities that supplement and enhance university life and academic programs.” The fee ensures a consistent revenue plan while providing a significant budget.
Gayle Seymour, associate dean in the UCA College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences, says the budget funds between 15 to 20 artists each year with around 100 activities that include readings, performances, showcases and workshops. With this sustainable budget, UCA can reach more artists, bring them to campus and schedule events for students and the community, thus spreading impact and inspiration and bridging the gap between academia and the community.
The purpose of the artist-in-residence program is to offer more than just quantity. Quality is at the forefront of the experience. Students are inspired by artists in their field of study when meeting the artists and learning more about their profession. This connection inspires students to forge ahead with their career goals and continue to graduation.
“Students report that there is nothing quite like having an accomplished artist work alongside them,” Seymour said. “They report being inspired by the experience especially when artists are able to convey to students, ‘I was here just like you, and this is what I did to achieve my goals and make a difference in my life.’”
The impact offered by the program adds to UCA’s national prominence as a university offering artist-in-residence experiences throughout the academic year. By bringing artists from different attitudes, experiences and geographic locations, students who may otherwise feel isolated get to relate to fresh, new perspectives. This expansion in worldview adds to the inspirational impact and knowledge base felt by students on UCA’s campus.
Community members are also encouraged to attend artist-in-residence readings and performances. The events are free to the public and are held on UCA’s campus or in close venues. This sharing of artistic riches inspires students in area K-12 schools by providing a view of UCA’s campus life and what the school has to offer. It also furthers the artistic interests of people in Conway, Little Rock and other towns in Arkansas.
In addition to bolstering student and community interest in the arts, the program offers great inspiration and opportunity to the visiting artists. Seymour says artists become inspired when they visit the campus. She believes that UCA’s location makes it unique in that students here are hungry and appreciative of the experience.
“What I hear from our artists is without exception how inquisitive, interested and hungry our students are,” Seymour said. “We get lots of artists who come and they say ‘You know, you guys are doing stuff at UCA that nobody else is doing.’ Sometimes they will say that from the stage and I like to think ‘Okay, I hope everybody is listening to this.’”
The UCA artist-in-residence program has hosted diverse artists working in varying genres including authors, musical artists, visual artists and writers. Past authors include Ibtisam Barakat, Sarah Broom, Jericho Brown, Marita Golden and Kiese Laymon. Musical performances included artists such as opera star Cecilia López or the Ivalas Quartet. Dance performances have also been offered. One such experience included dance as healing via “Akeem Ayanniyi and Core Dance Public Performance: Planetary Dance for Community Renewal” as part of the Facilitating Pandemic Healing through the Arts series in spring 2022. Most recently, world-renowned paper sculptor Fabiola Jean-Louis who, as part of a $30,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, spent a three-month visual art residency at UCA in spring 2023.
Seymour says interesting developments are on the horizon for the future of UCA’s artist residencies. Since the fusion of the former College of Fine Arts and Communication and the College of Liberal Arts, there will be more professors who submit proposals and with that, new artists being brought to campus. The word “trust” comes to mind for Seymour as she believes the artist-in-residence program is one where the artists, students and community trusts the university to bring inspiration by way of diversity, vision and impact, thus making “the artist-in-residence program supported by the fine and performing arts fee the jewel in UCA’s crown.”