Lawmakers dismissive of arts in NWACC plan
Ask some Arkansas legislators whether there ought to be space for fine arts education of community college students and a big shrug may be the best response one can expect.
Teaching the arts isn’t about producing jobs, they fret.
Strategically speaking, Northwest Arkansas Community College officials may have fumbled last year in making plans for a new $3 million building dedicated to teaching about fine arts. It seems the mood among lawmakers and other policymakers isn’t so much about education as it is about jobs training.
Evelyn Jorgenson, the college’s president, defended the drive to make room for more arts education. She said area high schools have better facilities for the arts than the community college. Considering that just about every other eye has turned toward the arts in Benton County since Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, it makes sense the community college would look to strengthen its capacity to provide instruction in that realm.
“It’s not just learning how to make a pot,” she said last November. “It’s learning how to be creative, think about things, visualize things. Those are skills you carry with you into every field.”
She should know. Her bachelor’s degree is in fine arts, and she’s president of a college.
From the first brush stroke on this idea, it has met some resistance. Joe Spivey, a college trustee, said last fall that he didn’t think kilns, sculptures and pottery would help the bottom line of the state’s economy. As if that’s the only measure of the worth of what goes on in classrooms.
But he wasn’t alone in his line of thinking and, by January, the proposed building had been retooled as an “integrated design lab,” at a cost somewhere around $5 million, that would provide space for the arts but also for some workforce training programs that have needs for similar space, power and ventilation.
The mold was set, however, in the minds of some lawmakers and college leaders. Just a couple of weeks ago, lawmakers meeting as the Legislative Council in Little Rock balked at approving the college’s request to spend up to $5.5 million to construct the new building. Sen. Bart Hester of Cave Springs said some lawmakers questioned the need for what they had taken to calling a “pottery barn.”
It was a dismissive term that seriously underestimates the amount of thought and work that went into planning for the building. It also reflected what the community college is up against: If it’s not directly feeding employees into employers’ hiring lines, some people don’t consider it education worth investing in. Hester said there is “zero appetite” among legislators to spend money on helping students get fine arts degrees. They want community college to train workers.
Community colleges should be places that help individuals develop the skills necessary for real-world jobs, but their education efforts shouldn’t be limited to providing a publicly funded program to train worker bees for local corporations. And lawmakers shouldn’t turn a blind eye toward everything the college is already doing to prepare its students for being contributors to the local and state economy.
Northwest Arkansas Community College needs the space, Jorgenson said, as it is running out of room for many of its programs, including those considered workforce education.
The community college would fund this building with money it has collected through its local millage. Hopefully, Northwest Arkansas lawmakers can expand their thinking and embrace what the community college leaders are trying to do because the college is trying to meet some of those workforce development needs along with its broader educational goals, which are also important. The matter is scheduled to return to the Legislative Council in August.
The debate needn’t become a battle between educating a workforce and teaching artists. Surely, within the region’s community college, there is room to devote resources to education that creates opportunities for both.
Surely, nobody in Benton County is going to argue against the benefits and the economic impact of the arts.