When spring classes begin Jan. 16 at UA Little Rock, the 650 students enrolled in fine and applied arts classes will find themselves in a sleek three-story, steel-panel-clad heaven of an arts facility: The 64,000-square-foot Windgate Center for Art and Design. Built with a $20.3 million gift to the university from the Windgate Charitable Foundation of Siloam Springs, the center pulls together into one space the various segments of UA Little Rock’s art and design department, once scattered across three places on campus.
The gift is yet another manifestation of Windgate’s considerable investment in the arts in Arkansas. College artists also have Windgate to thank for the recently announced $40 million gift to UA Fayetteville to create what will be called the Windgate Art and Design District and the $15.5 million arts center at UA Fort Smith as well, to name just two examples. Windgate also funds two artist-in-residence programs at UA Little Rock, and has made gifts of more than a million dollars to UA Pulaski Tech’s Center for the Humanities and the Arts.
Even more Windgate generosity will be on display when the arts center opens: the inaugural main gallery exhibition, “Building a Collection: Recent Acquisitions Made Possible by the Windgate Charitable Foundation,” artworks added over the past seven years to UA Little Rock’s permanent collection of 1,600 objects. In return for Windgate’s gift, UA Little Rock is raising $3 million for scholarships; it’s a third of the way there.
The faculty, which began moving in in December, is ecstatic: Rather than kicking back over the Christmas break, photography’s Joli Livaudais was setting up the photography studios; small metals’ David Clemons was putting together shelving, furniture’s Peter Scheidt was painting. They are, as development officer Joseph Lampo put it, “happy as clams.”
Who wouldn’t be? The 3D facility alone — which accommodates the sculpture, metalsmithing and jewelry, ceramics, furniture and woodworking studios — is nearly 30,000 square feet. The applied arts program was formerly located in a former storefront in University Plaza south of the campus. Now, gallery director Brad Cushman said, the distance between disciplines will be removed, so that there can be crossover influence among students who draw and paint with students who craft and weld, in a single building open 24 hours a day. All it lacks, artist-in-residence Clemons said, is a barista.
The WCAD, as it’s being referred to, will “allow us to be better stewards of our budget,” Carey Roberson, interim chair of the department of art and design, said, because it will allow disciplines to share equipment. While the building does not represent a significant increase in square footage, it does include technological advances and new “maker” and digital equipment space.
When students aren’t busy in the north-lit painting and drawing studios, the Fab Lab (fabrication area), the drafting studios, printmaking studios, the photography studios, etc., they can congregate in their own lounge, decked out with silicone and fiberglass tree sculptures by 2015-17 visiting artist Heidi Hogden. The hallways of the 2D building stretch its length and have windows at either end; on the west side, the view is of mature oaks that line Coleman Creek, a wooded area intentionally preserved by architects.
Students will be initiated into the building, gallery assistant Nathan Larson joked, by spinning in one of three red Magis Spun chairs in the lobby, irresistible furniture that demonstrates design and physics at the same time. Students also have a reading room on the first floor; like the 75-seat theater on the first floor, the walls are felted to dampen noise. The room looks out onto property that Roberson wants to see developed with studios for students and the public.
Besides attracting new students, the new building is likely to have an economic effect on the Fair Park neighborhood, something Windgate Foundation Executive Director John Brown noted at the groundbreaking in October 2016. Asked why he thought WCAD would have other benefits besides art education, Brown said, “Two words. Crystal Bridges.” Alice Walton’s investment in the arts in Bentonville has literally transformed the Northwest Arkansas town from its reputation as an undistinguished Walmart vendor hub to a mecca for people seeking fine arts, fine cuisine, fine lodging and arts-related entertainment.
WER Architects, which designed the arts center, is seeking a LEED silver certification for the building for energy efficiency and water use. Studios have important mechanical features that draw off fumes from palettes, printmaking inks, photography chemicals and sawdust; exterior plantings are local species that can thrive without watering.
Almost every classroom in the 2D is outfitted with a ceiling projector; the classroom for drawing with a model has lights that can be computer programmed both for intensity and direction. Photography students have access to printers the size of Volkswagens and can learn the historical gum bichromate processing technique, which Livaudais teaches along with other processes. She’s working to get an MFA program in photography created at UA Little Rock, to “raise things a notch.”
Also opening Jan. 16 is an exhibition in the Lower Level Gallery, “Discovering Kate Freeman Clark,” impressionist works by a turn-of-the-century Mississippi artist. The show, which will include a portrait of the artist by William Merritt Chase, will mesh with Floyd Martin’s art history class that is exploring the same period. Annette Trefzer, an associate professor in the English department at the University of Mississippi, will lecture on the show at 2 p.m. Jan. 21.
The public is invited to tour the new building at a $100-ticket grand opening event from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Feb. 16: The steel anvil will be pounding away in the blacksmithing studio, molten bronze will be poured in the exterior foundry, students will paint and draw. Proceeds go to the scholarship fund.
Cushman will give a talk on the “Building a Collection” exhibition at 2 p.m. Feb. 25. The catalog for the show, which includes large-scale drawings by Delita Martin (who has decamped from Little Rock to Houston) and Anais Dasse, and the Serie Project Portfolio of work relating to the Mexican-American experience will be released at an event in March.
The art school faces competition from the School of Art being developed in Fayetteville, which the Walton Charitable Foundation is funding over the next five years with a gift of $120 million to the UA. But, Lampo noted, UA Little Rock will have its art facility, which has been in the planning for 16 years, open now. “The strength will be in the offerings here, and some things are being taught that aren’t taught in other places,” such as the applied design program’s furniture design, and faculty. That the community supports UA Little Rock’s new emphasis on the arts, Lampo said, is exemplified in the more than $1 million it’s raised since the beginning of the 2017 fiscal year. Here’s what also should make supporters happy: At last, the arts center will have visitor parking, right at its front door.