Where the Art Students Aren’t

Joey Hill

In a collection entitled “Big 5 Ideas,“ the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce advocated in 2011 for the relocation of UMKC’s arts programs to the Crossroads to “expose students to the city’s new world class arts facilities,” namely the Kauffman Center. It’s hardly surprising that the University would want to establish an arts campus in the heart of a district teeming with galleries, theaters+ and vibrant community, but as the details rolled in throughout the coming months it became clear that the “arts” campus was to consist largely of the conservatory. The theatre department was still mentioned as part of the project, but the fine arts department was now designated as part of phase three.

In 2011, the College of Arts and Sciences had suffered a major blow to its state funding, dipping from around $95 million to roughly $75 million, and all included departments were still feeling the fiscal squeeze in September of this year. At his most recent state of the college address, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Wayne Vaught explained the current budget: 93 percent is faculty salaries and 7 percent is operations. In the Fine Arts Building alone, there was a spring semester water pipe burst that flooded two classrooms.

The financial issues affecting the departments was not the main reason for the fine arts getting knocked back on the schedule; it largely came from a lack of personal donors.

“I remember being very excited about the prospect of having a downtown campus,” said Davin Watne, lecturer in art and art history and curator of the UMKC Fine Arts Gallery.  “I thought that was a good move, however I remember seeing the steps that led up to it and then being frustrated that one of the major disciplines in the arts, being visual art, was left behind. Then we were assured that we weren’t left behind, we were more categorized under being the third iteration where we’d be with other groups like urban planning and communications. … When we first met with some of these focus groups that were asking us to put together a wish list of what we would like to see happen we got very excited. Everything from a new gallery to studio spaces to sculpture spaces and woodshop, there was this prospect that things were going to really blossom out but we were told if we wanted to participate in this downtown arts campus then we would need to find the funding ourselves.”

The Conservatory would have no trouble acquisitioning their funding from private donors.  By July of this year, they had already raised $27 million toward the project, including generous leadership grant from the Muriel McBrien Kauffman Foundation announced in June 2013. At this announcement, Mayor Sly James was a speaker.

“It is vitally important that we as a community seize this opportunity,” he said. This isn’t a pie in the sky endeavor. We’re not talking about potential here. There aren’t any maybes. We’re not hoping that the stars will somehow magically align and make this investment come true. We’re talking about a major, tangible asset in the urban core of this great city.”

The fact that Peter Witte, dean of the Conservatory of Music and Dance was the only faculty member of UMKC besides Chancellor Leo E. Morton to appear at this conference should have hinted to everyone exactly which way the wind was blowing.

“The real world UMKC art students will encounter upon graduation is changing,” Witte said. “The Kauffman Center and Bolender Center, our rich diversity, our bohemian crossroads district, our nationally revered and historic jazz district, our futuristic Google fiber network, and our storied entrepreneurial culture. This is the 21st century setting of what we call America’s Creative Crossroads.”

The entire arts campus project asssumes that it’s a good option for any of the departments to move off campus at all.

“This whole idea of having an arts campus downtown I think is not going to be helpful to creating a better campus,” said Michelle Boisseau, professor in English language and literature. “We’ve spent a lot of time into building dorms, making it less of a commuter campus, trying to integrate the student body to be closer and now they’re spreading us apart. They built dorms over at Hospital Hill and they’re going to move more students down there. This is not a way to create a cohesive campus. … There’s been talk about building this new building and now there’s talk about funding. One of the things is that donors like these capital projects rather than supporting the basic resources of the university.”

The English department, after all, wasn’t even approached to be included in this arts campus. The phase when the literary arts will be involved is yet to be seen. Boisseau knows very well the frustration of this distinction between the performing arts and the visual and literary arts.