In October 2008, Kansas University announced it would be splitting up its School of Fine Arts. By January 2009, the changes were being made. The breakdown:
- The School of Music is formed.
- The departments of Dance, Theatre, Film and Visual Art studies are located in the new School of the Arts within the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
- The new Department of Visual Arts contains: ceramics, fibers/textiles, metals, painting, printmaking, expanded media and sculpture.
- Industrial Design joins the School of Architecture.
At the time, Richard Lariviere, then provost and executive vice chancellor, called the reorganization a step toward modernization.
“The arts play a critical role in society, providing enlightenment, education and entertainment. The way the various artistic fields are studied and practiced at universities is changing, with an increased focus on collaboration and interdisciplinary work,” he said.
“The plan we’ve developed recognizes those changes and ensures KU students will have an opportunity to be part of a vibrant arts community for decades to come. It is the result of input from faculty, staff, students and alumni, as well as professionals in these fields. I thank them for their thoughts and ideas, as they will help ensure a bright future for the arts at KU.”
Three years later, the pieces of the former School of Fine Arts have had time to adjust to the changes. The verdict? It was painful but worth it. Painful because the split meant new curriculum for some, and new jobs for others, as the untangling ensued. But the result for many of the disciplines became more freedom, especially financial.
Tanya Hartman, associate professor of visual art, says the creation of the new School of Visual Art just makes sense on a lot of levels.
“For us, it’s a bigger department, but it’s actually stronger now because it’s bigger. Because those people in fibers, metals and ceramics ... were always our colleagues anyway, because they’re artists, so we just get to work with people we always worked with anyway,” says Hartman, who runs the grad program. “It’s nice to be our own school, because it gives us our own autonomy.”
On a larger scale, the same can be said for the School of Music. Dean Robert Walzel says that with its change from a department to a school, the program automatically leapt into a more appropriate role in academia.
“The name ‘School of Music’ just the name, is indicative of the large, comprehensive program that we have,” Walzel says. “I can tell you that almost all the great music schools in the United States are independent, stand-alone schools or colleges with a dean that reports to the provost.”
Besides esthetically, Walzel says this chain-of-command change means more freedom financially. The same goes for the departments that were once divisions. Professor Michelle Heffner Hayes, chair of the department of dance and a graduate of the old School of Fine Arts, says that before, her division of dance had to pool its tuition funds with a dozen other disciplines. Now, those tuition funds go straight back to the department.
“Every credit hour earned by dance goes back to dance,” she says. “And that means we have access to a lot more funding to bring in guest artists ... (and) we have a dance-specific student travel fund. Those things were not possible in the old configuration because as a component of music and dance, the money that dance earned went back into the larger departmental budget and they were split among all the different divisions.”
Creatively, Robert Hurst, assistant professor of film and media studies, says that his film students in the School of the Arts are most certainly benefiting from the move because it causes them to reach out of their inner circle. That interaction with other artists can be a catalyst for better stories, he says.
“I think that if you’re speaking from the perspective of film, if you’re making films and all you have to study is film, you’re going to make really boring, derivative films. I mean, the best filmmakers, or I’d say (artists) in any media are people who look outside of their specific discipline and look at traditions in theater, traditions in dance, and incorporate those,” Hurst says. “That makes your work more interesting. It makes it more mature and ... gives it a better chance to succeed because it has a sort of fuller vision. And you only get that if you’re not focused solely on a single discipline.”
Yet, for some students like John Stringer, all this change has been a bit hard to swallow. Stringer started out in 2008 as a design student, which meant he was sent to the School of Architecture in the split. The change didn’t work for him and he’s now in the School of the Arts, studying painting. He’s not sure the change was the right one, but, at this point, he’s come to some sort of peace with the shift.
“I’m happy where I’m at. I have yet to work with a faculty member that hasn’t earnestly shown that they hold the students’ needs as their top priority,” he says. “I haven’t ever had to feel like a professor did not want the best for me or want me to be successful.”