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story.lead_photo.caption Hannah McBroom, a second-year master’s of fine arts student at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, works in her studio Wednesday in the $9.3 million Arts and Design District Sculpture Studio, which opened to students in the spring. McBroom said she was glad the Walton foundation gift included money for scholarships. - Photo by David Gottschalk

FAYETTEVILLE -- A $120 million gift from the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation to the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville represents a "giant step" in supporting the arts while also offering new opportunities for all students at the university, said Joseph Steinmetz, the school's top administrator.

UA announced the gift Wednesday as the largest ever benefiting a U.S. university's art school.

"From a national perspective, I think it will put the focus on not just art but on the entire university," Steinmetz said, with the gift driving growth in UA art programs to allow "virtually every student that's here, if they choose, to have an art experience."

The foundation, established by the family of Wal-Mart founders Sam and Helen Walton, in 2002 was announced as giving $300 million to UA, at the time considered the biggest donation in support of a public university.

The $120 million gift comes six years after the opening of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, a project funded in part by a different foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and supported by Alice Walton, daughter of Sam Walton.

In a blog post about the gift, published Wednesday on the Walton Family Foundation website, Alice Walton talked of collaboration between Crystal Bridges and the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation.

She emphasized how "we will inspire students and scholars from around the globe," and how "up-close interaction with the museum's collection and exhibition program will drive a unique curriculum."

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The museum and other community arts groups will partner with UA on outreach and public service initiatives funded by the gift, the university announced.

The university's existing art department will now be considered a school of art, within UA's J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences.

UA's art department offers undergraduate degrees in four areas: art education, art history, graphic design and studio art.

About 340 students were enrolled as art majors as of last fall, said Jeannie Hulen, interim director of the school of art. That number increased from about 235 in 2006.

The university enrolled about 22,500 undergraduates in the fall of 2016.

This fall, the art department has 26 master's of fine arts students, Hulen said.

There will be "unprecedented" financial support for students, according to the gift announcement.

The $120 million includes $50 million devoted to student scholarships, travel grants and support for internship opportunities, said Mark Power, the university's top fundraising administrator.

Power said $110 million of the gift contributes to the school's endowment, with endowed funds invested and a small percentage spent yearly in support of the university.

The first full awards will be given out in fall 2018, UA spokesman Mark Rushing said. Power said the portion devoted to student support is expected to provide more than $2 million yearly for scholarships and other grants.

Power said the gift's other $10 million will help fund renovations to the school's Fine Arts Center, a structure built in 1951 and designed by renowned architect Edward Durell Stone, a Fayetteville native.

The donation also will fund new graduate programs and degree offerings, with offerings expected to be added over a five-year period, pending trustee and state board approval.

Hulen said that, over time and with the new programs, enrollment of graduate students might grow to about 80 students, while undergraduate enrollment could increase by approximately 200 students.

"This is steered directly toward scholarships, graduate student support and faculty support," Steinmetz said.

Hulen said additional faculty members will be hired, and UA's announcement referred to support for the Fine Arts Library.

In the late 1990s, the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation gave $50 million to help the university's business school, later renamed the Sam M. Walton College of Business.

Various other Walton gifts, not from the same foundation, have been given in support of UA, and the continued support of UA by Walton family members stands out when it comes to higher education philanthropy, said Noah Drezner, an associate professor at Teachers College, Columbia University who studies giving to colleges and universities.

"You really are talking about a small group of schools who have people who are that generous, and over multiple times," Drezner said.

Such a gift largely shields art education from future concerns, Drezner said.

In effect, "it's embedding the study of art permanently in the university, and that's a big deal," Drezner said.

The size of the gift does not put it at the top of recent donations to colleges and universities, according to data published by The Chronicle of Philanthropy. Six gifts of $185 million or more went to U.S. colleges and universities last year, including three to public universities.

But the purpose of the gift stands out, said Laura MacDonald, president of fundraising consulting firm Benefactor Group. MacDonald said she has not worked with UA.

"Arts and culture receives a much smaller share of charitable giving than higher education," MacDonald said. "This will be counted as a gift to higher education, but I think the fact that they are choosing to devote it to the arts is a real game-changer."

MacDonald said large gifts increasingly involve some form of collaboration, noting the involvement of Crystal Bridges.

Margi Conrads, the museum's director of curatorial affairs, said that while UA and the museum have collaborated in the past, the gift represents "a big step up" in working together.

"We're in a unique position to help the university have an exciting model for teaching that's based on working with original works of art," Conrads said.

UA recently completed an approximately $9.3 million Arts and Design District Sculpture Studio, which opened to students in the spring.

Applying oil-based paints to a canvas, Hannah McBroom, a second-year master's student from Mississippi, said she learned of the gift announcement through an email Wednesday morning.

"I'm glad it's going to be scholarships," said McBroom, 24.

Bethany Springer, an associate professor of sculpture, said faculty members are ready to take on new challenges with the grant.

"Other universities are experiencing furloughs and cutbacks and maybe just haven't recovered since the recession. But we're in this amazing, fortunate situation where we have support from upper administration and also our community," Springer said.

Steinmetz, who joined UA at the beginning of 2016, said that arts have traditionally been underfunded.

"Coming here like other places, the support level for the arts hasn't been high enough in my opinion, and so this is a step -- a giant step, I might add -- in the right direction," Steinmetz said.

Photo by David Gottschalk
Tyler Barr (right), a junior, listens with others in a creative-thinking and visual-practice class Wednesday as Jeannie Hulen, interim director of the school of art at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, talks about the $120 million gift from the Walton family foundation in support of the UA art program.
Photo by J.T. Wampler
Joseph Steinmetz, chancellor of the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, said Wednesday that the Walton foundation gift “will put the focus on not just art but on the entire university.”

Metro on 08/24/2017

Print Headline: $120M gift aids UA arts efforts

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