A ribbon of blue
weaves along the ceiling in UTA’s University Club. An aluminum spiral swirls skyward from the campus research quadrangle. Multicolored terrazzo airplanes stretch along the floors of 300-foot walkways in DFW Airport’s Terminal D as if queued for takeoff.
These are very different works – but with a common thread. All were done by members of UTA’s art faculty – River of Glass by David Keens, Reach by Darrel Lauster and Wings by Benito Huerta. These and several others dot the university, city and county landscapes as signs of increased visibility for the Art+Art History Department (the official name), not only among educators and art aficionados, but throughout the community.
This increase, not only in visibility but also in size and stature, has drawn national and international attention. These days, when UTA’s top programs are listed, art is entering the conversation along with standbys such as engineering and nursing.
Numbers tell some of the story. In the 10 years since Department Chair Robert Hower arrived, enrollment has gone from 400 to almost 700 – second only in DFW to the University of North Texas. The faculty has grown from the low 20s to between 60 and 70 full- and part-time.
Facilities have been upgraded. The Fine Arts Building of the early ’70s was a big improvement, but the Studio Arts Building in 2005 provided much-needed workspace. High on Hower’s wish list is a more accessible display area. The 4,000-square-foot Gallery is a jewel, but, as with most everything else at UTA, parking is a problem for community members who wish to visit.
It’s not your parents’ art department.
Traditional media like drawing, painting, photography and sculpture have been joined by such relative newcomers as film, video, and art entrepreneurship. Visual communication is the most rapid area of growth, encompassing graphic, app and web design; gaming; illustration; and packaging.
But the catalyst that most fueled the department’s flowering, it’s generally agreed, was the acquisition in 2007 of a graduate program – the Master of Fine Arts. Under the direction of Nancy Palmeri, the MFA is offered in intermedia, glass, film/video and visual communication. Only 10 students are selected annually from about 40 applicants.
It’s a point of pride with Hower that the graduate program received full accreditation from the National Association of Schools of Art and Design on its first application, no easy task. UTA made its debut in the 2012 U.S. News and World Report’s ranking of graduate art programs, coming in tied for 145th.
Hower is quick to say that rank “is not worth bragging about.” But he added that it’s based only on initial material provided for accreditation and should go higher in 2016.
He is excited, however, that December’s ranking of graphic arts programs had UTA 19th among public colleges and seventh in the Southwest.
“The grad program has been an enormous shift for us,” said Kenda North, a photographer whose work hangs in the UTA president’s conference room. “It’s taken us to a different level, and I think it’s been important for the undergraduate students to see what these people are doing at the next level up.”
Keens, who retired in 2013, agrees:
“The fundamental nature of the entire department changed from a strong, but undistinguished undergraduate program to a powerful and rigorous graduate program focused on accepting only the best candidates and expecting their highest level of performance.”
It’s a chicken-egg question as to whether the curriculum ramp-up led to talented new faculty or the other way around. Regardless, Hower said the faculty “are as good as in any program in the state – and that’s saying a lot. And nationally we are doing very well in keeping those people and the contributions they are making to the world and to the arts.”
Consider Sedrick Huckaby,known for his large, powerful portraits. Named a Guggenheim Fellow in 2008, he earned the Amon Carter Museum’s Davidson Family Fellowship in 2014 and is a finalist for the 2016 Smithsonian’s Boochever Portrait Competition. Also, Stephen Lapthispohon and Lauster both have won SMU’s Moss/Chumley Award annually recognizing an outstanding North Texas artist. Justin Ginsberg, Keens’ successor as glass program coordinator, has had works selected three of the past four years for the Corning Museum of Glass annual review.
And film teacher Ya’Ke’s Smith’s Wolf, his first feature-length effort, made a huge splash at the 2012 SXSW festival and continues to generate lots of buzz throughout the indie world. His films have been shown at more than 80 festivals, including Cannes, and on HBO, Showtime, BET and PBS.
All five of the above joined the UTA faculty
in the past decade, but that’s not to say that many veterans such as North, Huerta and Palmeri haven’t also received recent accolades. It makes for a smooth blending of experience, talent and collegiality without the Young Turk-Old Guard infighting that can plague academic departments.
“I imagine there are horror stories out there,” Huckaby said, “but the people in our department are very helpful to one another. Some of the other professors have reached out to me, and that’s made me want to reach out to others.”
One of those horror stories is closer than Huckaby may know. “I went through some time here when there were some really rough divisions and a lot of distrust,” North said. “I think that’s moved away. We’re very fortunate to have faculty who embrace and support each other, and the students feel that.”
The continued blossoming of the department, Keens said, depends on the usual ingredients – talented faculty, research support, state-of-the-art facilities – but only under the hands of a master chef.
“The key is leadership that understands both the diversity of the faculty and can direct the common goals they share in mentoring student and emerging artist and art historians. I believe the department has all these components in place, so its continued growth and subsequent increase in stature will be a natural evolution.”
“I think that if you create a community that has an appreciation for the arts, it tends to build on itself and draw people in,” said Hower, whose low-key, inclusive leadership draws high marks from faculty. “We want to be a part of creating an atmosphere in Arlington that people will talk about … that people are proud of.”