Creating a Home for the Arts
by Leslie Linthicum
Harris Smith was the chair of the Department of Theatre at the University of Utah when he was named a finalist for the position of dean of UNM’s College of Fine Arts in the spring of 2020, just as COVID-19 shut down the world and shifted human interaction onto Zoom screens.
So, when Smith was offered the job and accepted, he had never set foot on campus. Which meant he had never experienced the confusing welter that is the College’s physical home.
Four departments and three institutes are spread helter-skelter among 13 buildings scattered from Lomas and University to Central and University to Campus Boulevard to Mesa del Sol. Film classes in the Biology building. Stage sets stored in hallways. Limited performance space. Tired dance floors. Bad bathrooms.
“If I could have seen the place, I would have thought we have some work to do,” Smith says today from his office in the Center for the Arts – home to Keller Hall and Rodey Theatre. But he wouldn’t have been scared away.
“The physical surroundings couldn’t get any worse, in my opinion,” he says. “So it could only get better, which is what we’re doing today.”
Smith moved to Albuquerque and was finally on campus in the fall of 2020.
“And about two or three months into the job,” he says, “it was like, ‘Hey, welcome to the University, go get us a new building.’ I don’t know anyone. I’ve met everyone in these little Zoom boxes. But we got started.”
That spirit of optimism has resulted more than two years later in a sea-change in the fortunes of the College of Fine Arts. UNM’s second-largest college (after the College of Arts and Sciences) is poised to move onto Central Avenue into a new building that will serve as a gateway to the southern end of campus.
The Center for Collaborative Arts and Technology will sit along Central on what is now the parking lot south of Johnson Field. At a little more than 62,000 square feet, it will contain a large concert hall and spaces for theater and music rehearsal, as well as art exhibitions and some type of maker space. The price tag is $65 million and is being funded by two large bonds – a $45 million general obligation bond approved by voters last November and a $20 million UNM institutional bond approved early this year.
Smith anticipates breaking ground on the center in late 2023 or early 2024 and completing the building by 2026.
And once the building is finished, will all of the College of Fine Arts be under one roof?
Smith laughs at the suggestion.
“No, no, no,” he says. “Not even close.”
While one of the goals of the new building will be to have a shared home for all of the disparate degree programs within the College and to have a gathering space for cross-department ideas and collaboration, the building and the rest of the College’s master plan aims to cut down the amount of time students, staff and faculty spend traveling between buildings and bring all facilities up to present-day standards.
Under a 10-year plan, the College will add two new buildings (a second building to double the size of the Center for Collaborative Arts and Technology is in the plans) and vacate seven buildings so that the entire College occupies eight new or renovated buildings.
“So we’re so excited to have this new building,” Smith says. “But what it really does is it focuses us on the other needs that the other supporting buildings have in the way of renovation.”
The buildings that currently house Fine Arts programs are 59 years old, on average. “We need to make sure the physical structures are up to date and then our technology needs to be up to date, because we have to make sure our faculty have the best tools for teaching, and that our students are being trained on equipment that they’re going to use out in the real world.”
One exception is the Film and Digital Arts program that is mostly housed at Mesa del Sol. The program is the fastest-growing at the University and it sits adjacent to Netflix, an enviable marketing tool for attracting students.
Smith says the College initially planned to move Film and Digital Arts onto campus in the expansion phase that includes a second Center for Collaborative Arts and Technology building, but that plan could change. Enrollment in the department went from 400 to 600 students in the last year.
“That’s a conversation we need to have now with Phase 1, because the department is growing so quickly. And, there might be a need there sooner.”
Smith also hopes the new look and more up-to-date facilities will help to recruit students to the arts, although he notes the college has been doing fine on the strength of its faculty and reputation.
“If the buildings could match the passion, the commitment and the talent of our faculty and students, you’d see completely different buildings,” he says. UNM has one of the top photography and MFA programs in the country and the world’s only flamenco dance degree program.
“But because artists are known for creating their art with whatever they have,” Smith says. “I think some of our challenges have been overlooked because of the accomplishments we’ve made.”