The brush-off

Law­mak­ers dis­mis­sive of arts in NWACC plan

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - EDITORIAL PAGE -

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.

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