Research. Bioscience. Creativity. These are the buzzwords flying around Arizona State University and part of ASU President Michael Crow’s grand plan to propel the university to national prominence.
As a result, colleges and departments all over ASU are jockeying for position and resources in the race to the national stage.
But an often overlooked college beat everyone to the finish line before the race even started.
The Herberger College of Fine Arts is the only college at ASU in which every department and school is nationally ranked, said the college’s dean, J. Robert Wills. Only one graduate program hasn’t cracked the top 20 in the widely recognized rankings compiled annually by U.S. News & World Report. Theater is ranked 35.
Three noteworthy rankings in the magazine’s report earlier this month are printmaking at No. 3, photography at No. 5 and visual arts at No. 13. The rankings are based on peer reviews.
"I don’t know why people, including me, pay more attention to engineering and business, you know the bread-and-butter kinds of things," Wills said. "Yet as we all know from Richard Florida (author of "The Rise of the Creative Class"), and most of us knew this long before him, it’s the creative folks that make a place interesting to live."
It’s a slight that fine arts students are all too familiar with.
"People think that the art school is a joke," said senior Andrea Vote, who studies visual arts.
Sylvester Washington, a sophomore studying animation, agreed. "Art just isn’t a big deal at most universities."
Although the college is the state’s largest arts organization, it’s academic success goes unnoticed in the Valley.
"Our geography hurts us a bit," said Wayne Bailey, director of the School of Music. "You’d have a better chance asking someone on the streets of Chicago about the Herberger College of Fine Arts."
The college is better known outside Arizona because the faculty, who also are working artists, perform or exhibit all over the country. Last year, faculty in the School of Music performed on every continent except Antarctica and in 38 states, Wills said.
When Crow became president in 2002, his speeches were peppered with references to the importance of revenue-generating disciplines such as engineering and business. With the emphasis on attracting research dollars, instructors and administrators wondered how the fine arts college, which focuses on teaching and learning, would fare in Crow’s grand design and how their success would be measured.
"We were nervous at first because he never talked about the arts," said Stephani Etheridge-Woodson, an assistant professor of theatre.
Whatever support Crow didn’t verbalize, he expressed where it mattered most — funding. He was instrumental in securing a $10 million grant last year from the Virginia C. Piper Charitable Trust for creative writing, Wills said. And Crow found the money for world-renowned jazz composer Gunther Schuler to teach a class this semester.
He also directed money from Proposition 301, the 0.6 percent sales tax increase for education that voters approved in 2000, into the interdisciplinary arts, media and engineering program, the only one outside the sciences to see any of it.
The arts also will be included in the university’s next major redevelopment project, the $880-million Arts and Business District Gateway at Mill Avenue and University Drive in Tempe. This western gateway to ASU will feature the expansion of the Fine Arts Center and house the College of Architecture and Environmental Design and the W.P. Carey School of Business. The plan goes to the Board of Regents for approval in September.
The relationship between science and art programs in Crow’s plan is to be one of patronage — revenue generated by the former would support the latter.
"What we’re looking to do is take art and culture and science and engineering and advance all of them so that we have this high energy and creative environment," Crow said.
He said success of the fine arts college will depend on how it continues to compete against other recognized art schools and conservatories such as the California Institute of the Arts and the impact the college has on creativity of the campus as a whole.
The next challenge for the fine arts college is to establish its presence on the East campus in Mesa and the new campus in downtown Phoenix. An undergraduate version of the arts, media and engineering program is a likely candidate for the East campus. And setting up shop in Phoenix is expected to give the college an opportunity to mesh as it never has before with the Valley’s art scene.
"Any urban area, whether it’s New York, San Francisco, Chicago or New Orleans, is known for its vibrant arts, and we want to be part of that vibrancy, to shape it and not just be a tag along," Wills said.