Windgate Foundation's $7.8M gift to support art efforts at UAFS

FILE — The bell tower on the campus of the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith
FILE — The bell tower on the campus of the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith

An approximately $7.8 million gift from the Windgate Foundation to the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith will support new art initiatives, including a residency program, and also create an endowment to help students with high financial need.

The Windgate Foundation earlier provided a $15.5 million grant to build the campus art building that opened in 2015.

The most recent grant will expand opportunities for budding artists and other students, UAFS leaders said Monday.

"It opens up access in a really exciting way," said Katie Waugh, head of the UAFS Art Department.

Support from a new, approximately $4 million endowment will go to students regardless of major.

The aim is to bridge the gap for students who have unmet financial needs after qualifying for Pell Grants, a type of federal financial aid reserved for students with exceptional need.

"This is a tremendous opportunity to bring a college education within reach for so many UAFS Lions," Chancellor Terisa Riley said in a statement.

The endowment will be set up to cover tuition and mandatory fees for the roughly 150 students yearly at UAFS who qualify for Pell Grants but are not receiving the state's lottery scholarships or certain other types of aid, officials said.

"It takes a huge burden off of students who maybe don't have access to much in financial resources and maybe have exhausted their options," Waugh said, adding that she hopes the new fund will lead to growth in her department.

The grant also includes $394,000 for academic programs and $240,000 to begin a new artist-in-residency program. Waugh said the first residency will start in the upcoming school year.

"It really is a way to demonstrate how to make a life in the arts," Waugh said.

The new grant money will also create some financial opportunities for art students through support for paid internships, Waugh said.

"Students will get paid for internship work they do or projects they do for the community, things that maybe in the past they would have been asked to do for experience," Waugh said. The grant includes $120,000 to support stipends for student artists and designers, Waugh said.

Aleah Cherry, 21, a studio art major set to graduate in December, said that "a lot of students who come to UAFS obviously come because it's more affordable" compared with other universities.

Cherry, a muralist who works under the name Aleah Renea, added that "from completely a learning standpoint, all of the professors who teach here are so qualified."

She said she's been fortunate to work with well-known artists and have her own work exhibited while establishing herself as an artist.

Cherry said she hopes the grant money "will give more students in the future these same opportunities that I was very lucky to have and make it a more consistent opportunity for all students."

Economic support is an important factor in diversifying college art programs, said James Haywood Rolling Jr., president of the National Art Education Association.

"Because of the lingering effects of systemic barriers to both wealth creation and higher education rooted in generations of racial bias throughout the history of our nation, need-based scholarship support for families of color is a critical element of any forward-thinking strategy for increasing equity and inclusion in the arts and other creative professions," Rolling, an arts education professor at Syracuse University, said in an email.

Waugh said the Art Department at UAFS this past fall had a greater share of students from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups than the campus as a whole, but statistics were not available Monday.

In fall 2019, a total of 80 students were graphic design majors and 35 were majoring in studio art. Waugh said those totals were similar this past fall, though perhaps down a bit. Not including dually enrolled high school students, the campus had an enrollment of about 4,700 students this past fall, according to state data.

"For people who are disproportionately impacted by socioeconomic injustice, something like this could help," Waugh said.

Waugh joined UAFS last year. She said that while the pandemic has limited the amount of time she's spent with students, they refer to the school's affordability and the Windgate Art and Design building as some of the reasons why they chose to enroll and study art.

The Windgate Foundation's most recent grant includes $2.8 million for the three-level building's facility endowment. The foundation is based in Little Rock.

"It remains a real centerpiece and an important fixture on our campus. It really elevates and validates the efforts that our students put into their studies," Waugh said.