Art students demand new building

by Tess Langfus

When Gov. Jesse Ventura unveiled his capital budget plan Jan. 14, shock and dismay struck University art students and faculty.
The construction of a new $44 million art building — a top priority in University President Mark Yudof’s budget request to the state — did not receive any funding.
In response, art students will unite at 12:15 p.m. today at a rally in the Rarig Center to gather support for the new art building.
“The idea is to make a powerful statement and to have a chorus of voices all saying the same things: We need, we want, we deserve a new art building,” said Eugenia Smith, College of Liberal Arts communications director.
University students and faculty demand construction of a new building because of safety concerns, handicap inaccessibility, inadequate learning environments and even birds in the rafters of the current building.
Lee Mehrkens, the state’s capital budget coordinator, said the art building did not fit within Ventura’s list of seven criteria to evaluate proposed projects.
“Art didn’t fit?” said Mark Pharis, chair of the art department. “That’s crazy.”
Some of Ventura’s criteria include urgency, necessity, safety and completion of previously funded projects.
Tom Trow, CLA director of community and cultural affairs, said he saw the list of criteria the day before the plan became public.
“I thought our building fit so well that I … assumed that it would be built,” Trow said. “I was shocked that it was not included.”
Building history
Built in the 1920s, Naegele Outdoor Advertising used the building as a sign factory until the University purchased it for one dollar in 1965.
“And it’s been going down in value ever since,” said Pharis, a University art student during the late 1960s. “It’s the same piece of shit now as it was then.”
At the time of purchase, the University considered the site a temporary solution. Yet more than 40 years passed before the University included the Art Building in its budget proposal. Officials planned to complete construction on the new building by 2002.
In 1998, the Legislature granted the University $730,000 to predesign the building. Architects did not consider renovating the present site cost-effective.
“In order to keep it from being dangerous, we have to pour a lot of money into it constantly,” Trow said. “We have to keep doing the equivalent of putting Band-Aids on this problem year after year, and it’s, frankly, a waste of money. … Morally, we owe it to our students to provide a better environment.”
Setting priorities
The University is financing the construction of the art building with $15 million of its own funds and $8 million in donations. The $21 million request submitted to the state finance department is less than half of the estimated cost.
“Any construction project like this is a partnership,” Smith said. “We must have the private funding and we must have the legislative funding. Those two things go hand-in-hand.”
With Ventura’s decision to exclude the request in his budget, the University’s next step is to submit the proposal to the Legislature.
“Hopefully we’ll get some additional support (from the Legislature),” said Richard Pfutzenreuter, University vice president of budget and finance. “We hope the governor doesn’t veto it in the end.”
If the art building is not included in the bonding package, the University will be forced to wait another two years until the next legislative session. Consequently, the University could lose its private funding.
“We’ve got to get this project built, or this $8 million that’s been pledged will disappear into some other projects,” Pfutzenreuter said. “It’s not a bottomless pit out there for fund raising.”
The governor is not denying that a new art building is needed, but he decided instead to use higher-education bonding for science and technology facilities, Mehrkens said.
“(The finance department) asked us what our needs were, and President Yudof told them,” Trow said. “They need to tell us how many of those needs they can help us with. But what they should do is respect the priorities that the president has put forth.”
An artists’ community
While the predominant issue in the request for government funding is safety, the location of the new facility is equally important to supporters.
The addition of the art building and the relocation of the Nash Gallery will complete the West Bank Arts Quarter. The area includes the Rarig Center, Ted Mann Concert Hall, the Barbara Barker Center for Dance and Ferguson Hall.
“The students want to join the other artists on campus and be part of a community,” Smith said. “This is what this is really all about; it’s about building collaborations among all of the arts.”
Drawing support
Disappointment is prevalent within the art community since Ventura denied the University’s request.
“There was a kind of stunned reaction and dismay that somehow the governor had missed how important this is,” Trow said. “This is a building that has to happen.”
“Nothing hits closer to home to an art student than feeling neglected,” said University art senior Will Lager. “When the governor decided not to (include the Art Building), it was a sort of malaise that hung over the Art Building for a couple days.”
Students and faculty members are not ready to give up on the Legislature. With today’s rally, the students said they hope to educate state government, especially Ventura, on the importance of art to the community.

Tess Langfus welcomes comments at (612) 627-4080.