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story.lead_photo.caption Visiting professor Fletcher Larkin demonstrates wheel throwing techniques to students in a ceramics class at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s new Windgate Center for Art + Design. - Photo by Benjamin Krain

The move started at the end of October with kilns.

It continued throughout the rest of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock's fall semester. And once the winter break hit, professors at the university's art and design department helped load all their things into moving trucks for the trek to their new home -- the Windgate Center for Art + Design, off 28th Street and East Campus Drive.

Once housed in three different buildings -- University Plaza on the southern tip of campus, the Fine Arts building to the north and the Donaghey Student Center in the middle -- the university's art and design department is for the first time under one roof. And it's all thanks to a $20.3 million grant from the Windgate Charitable Foundation, based in Siloam Springs, announced in 2015.

"I love the fact that I walk in in the morning and there's already students here and that they are hanging out," said Carey Roberson, the department chairman. "They're actually doing artwork and that the building is doing exactly what it's designed to do. To me, every day, I walk in, I'm just blown away by that."

The 65,000-square foot Windgate Center opened this semester after the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday and two unplanned snow days.

To one side is a three-story "tower" that houses what's known as traditional art, such as painting, drawing and photography. The tower includes lockers in the hallways that students can rent to store their supplies and materials. To the other is a one-story, industrial-type building that houses programs, including furniture design, ceramics and blacksmithing. Each of the rooms has a smaller, side space for upperclassmen.

The two sides are connected by the main lobby, a student lounge, faculty offices and the art galleries. The building is decked out with contemporary furniture -- outfitted by WER Architects as a part of the Windgate donation -- such as spun chairs, also seen in the Cooper Hewitt Museum, a Smithsonian design museum in New York, said Joe Lampo, director of development and external relations for the College of Arts, Letters and Sciences.

It's also full of windows and natural lighting, also a first for some.

On a recent Wednesday, UALR students milled about the common area, some spread out among a wooden stepped terrace where they drew or studied. Others hung around a reading room with walls designed to keep sound to a minimum. And yet others were working on projects off to the side of an art class.

Kim Snow, 29, of South Carolina, said she never really saw students in the old spaces hanging out.

"I love the new building," said Snow, a metalsmithing senior. "I constantly see people drawing and working on their art. It's inspiring to me to see people pursuing their passions."

That excitement has also made its way to faculty, who also got to help design the spaces to how they would like to teach, Lampo said. It's telling -- almost palpable -- in their classes and studios, Roberson said.

UALR students also have access to the building and the workspaces at all hours of the day, something Snow -- a self-proclaimed "night owl" -- said she appreciated. At University Plaza, students would often have to call campus police to open up the building for them, which would take about 15 minutes, she said.

The new center will also have two galleries: the 1,800-square-foot Brad Cushman Gallery and a 1,020-square-foot gallery that has yet to be named, though naming rights are still available with a donation to the department's student scholarship fund, Lampo said.

As a part of the Windgate donation, the university committed to raise $3 million in student scholarships to show the foundation its own commitment to the arts, Lampo said. Just before the holidays, the campaign had raised just over $1 million, he said, and the department held a fundraiser Friday in which all proceeds went to the cause.

"What we hope we can do, or what we plan to do, is use the availability of the scholarships to bring people from other parts of the state and the region to come here," Lampo said, adding before the campaign, the department had about 10 scholarships for its students.

About 160 of UALR's 11,624 students are studying art -- in both undergraduate and graduate levels, Roberson said. Enrollment in the department has "maintained" over the years, he said, but since the new center has opened, officials there have received many phone calls from interested students.

"We're thinking it's going to pay off," he said.

The department is also working on ways to introduce the new center to the public. It opened new exhibits to the public when the new center opened. As another example, it wants to restart Fabulous Fridays, a program which brought high school students from across the state to the campus for mini-courses.

But Roberson knows that the building is just that and, at some point, it will lose its novelty.

At that point, he said, the focus will already be on the department's programs. The department currently has 11 different emphasis areas within the studio art component, and it offers two other majors in art history and art education.

It is looking to modernize some of its programs with the addition of subject-specific -- instead of discipline-specific -- courses. In the fall 2018 semester, it will offer two interdisciplinary courses in screenprinting and installation art. In the future, Roberson said, he is hoping to have, as an example, a course on narratives where artists in different disciplines can create their own works based around themes.

The department will also look into offering terminal degrees, or the highest level degrees, but will have to review necessity and viability, he said. Its graduate programs now are at the master's level.

Roberson and Lampo said they were grateful for the Windgate foundation's gifts to UALR through the years. The partnership stretches back to 1995 and includes many years of support for an artists-in-residence program, also called visiting artists.

The foundation focuses much of its mission on development and support of the arts. In the last few years, it has given $40 million to the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville for new arts facilities, $10 million to Hendrix College for an art museum and $1.5 million to the University of Arkansas-Pulaski Technical College to help furnish and equip its Center for Humanities and Arts.

The group has also donated another $603,000 to UALR, the university announced last week.

Of the total, $103,000 will extend a current visiting artist position two more years. Visiting artists typically have three-year tenures, but a current artist-in-residence is leaving the state and had one year left, Lampo said. The Windgate funds will essentially fill the slot for a three-year period, he said.

Another $75,000 will be awarded over three years for gallery acquisitions and support.

Brad Cushman -- whose name is on the main gallery because of donors Jackye and Curtis Finch and is the gallery director -- said a committee planning the gallery's shows for the next few years is hoping to bring in unique work that would enhance classes and push the envelope.

"We're trying to bring things in that are different and a new voice for people," he said, referring varying media to some pieces done by South Pacific women. "And I think that's one thing that maybe we can do: we fill a niche that maybe other museums in town don't do. Like maybe we can show an experimental, like an installation piece, well, that's not a commercial, sellable thing."

The remaining $425,000 is earmarked for a permanent, tenure-track position called the Windgate Professorship in Art and Design to start this fall. The money will run for five years, after which the university will take over the salary, Roberson said, adding the faculty position will likely be in the furniture design emphasis.

The foundation's overall donations have helped the department fund what they originally intended "and then some," Roberson said.

"I think that's so important because honestly without them we would not be having this conversation," he said. "Our program would not be where it is. I think all of us faculty and staff realize that, and I think that's why everybody gives 110 percent. I think we all understand the possibilities and so does Windgate."

Photo by Benjamin Krain
University of Arkansas at Little Rock art students study in the lobby and commons area of the university’s new Windgate Center for Art and Design. The building houses all of UALR’s art and design majors and was built with a $20.3 million gift from the Windgate Charitable Foundation in Siloam Springs. The donation was the largest ever for an academic program at UALR.

Metro on 02/19/2018

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