I had a small public relations contract several years ago with the LSU College of Art and Design, which comprises the schools of art, architecture, landscape architecture and interior design.
From a PR perspective, it was a veritable orchard of low-hanging fruit—an endless supply of positive stories about talented faculty and students whose designs and creations won national awards and earned prestige for the college and, by extension, the university.
Which made it all the more troubling to learn, recently, that the School of Art—which is housed in the historically significant but crumbling Old Engineering Shops—has, once again, been bypassed for a desperately needed renovation.
This is no small thing. The 80-year-old building is, quite literally, falling apart around those who must toil there, without air conditioning or even heat.
The ceilings leak. The walls have cracks. The creosote tile floors are peeling up. Students complain of roaches and fleas. Perhaps most troubling, a 300-pound block of ceiling crashed onto a workspace last fall that would likely have been occupied by a student had it not been Thanksgiving break.
Since the early 2000s, the building has been slated for renovation. Several times, the project was designated as Priority One in the state capital outlay bill, meaning it was at the top of the list to receive construction dollars. One spring, it appeared so imminent the faculty was told to pack up their offices.
But, as so often happens, other needs took priority. This year, the project—now estimated to cost $15.3 million—isn’t even included in the capital outlay bill, much less specified as an item likely to see a single dime.
“It’s depressing,” says professor Kelli Scott Kelley, whose critically acclaimed paintings hang in galleries around the country. “It affects morale. It affects the ability to attract good faculty and good graduate students.”
Which gets to the heart of why this matters beyond, of course, concern for the well-being of students and faculty. There is a connection between a thriving art school at the state’s flagship university and the community in which that school is located.
Consider what the arts have done for the revitalization of downtown and the role the Shaw Center for the Arts has played in bringing about that renaissance.
Think, too, about the near-obsessive fixation in this community for all things purple and gold—about the glowing headlines that follow when graduation rates inch up to 69%, or about the time and energy the university spends trying to earn a spot in the top quadrant of U.S. News & World Reports rankings.
Do top-flight schools have chunks of concrete falling from the ceiling? Are students at Duke or Vanderbilt or even the University of Alabama forced to paint in sub-freezing studios? Do you attract the best and brightest students by building a lazy river at the rec center while ignoring critical capital needs?
True, the state has a $1.8 billion deferred maintenance problem at its colleges and universities. But if we can’t afford the art school’s new digs, could we at least figure out how to make the building safe, clean and climate controlled?
I get that there are different sources of funding in and around LSU, so that while the rec center gets a lazy river and Tiger Stadium gets a new south end zone expansion and the College of Engineering gets a new building, there isn’t enough money to fix the heater in the art school. But I also know that something needs to change if we want to realize the hope of being the great state with the great state university to which we pay so much lip service. It’s all about priorities.
Art school faculty and students are holding a protest on campus April 3 and at the Capitol April 4. I hope you will join them.