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A Place for Art at Whitworth: Preliminary Sketches for new arts building


New facility to build on Whitworth's commitment to the visual arts
Tad Wisenor, '89 • twisenor@whitworth.edu

The arts play both an aesthetic and a prophetic role in the life of a liberal arts college. Art brings to human experience the delight of the beautiful, the challenge of the provocative, and a shared perception that can create meaningful interpretation of our lives, both individual and communal. It has the power to challenge, heal, celebrate and unite. As such, art has long been central to human apprehension of the divine, and it reminds us that, as Victor Hugo said, "The beautiful is as useful as the useful."

It is an exciting time for the burgeoning visual-arts programs at Whitworth. Joining the college's music and theatre programs as both campus and regional treasures, the art department has received heightened attention over the last few years. Additional exhibition spaces in Weyerhaeuser Hall and the Hixson Union Building have been created, and significant commissions of sculpture and two-dimensional work – including an abstract sculpture by Spokane favorite Harold Balazs, in the library courtyard – have been installed. Numerous guest artists, including Ric Gendron and Makoto Fujimura, have come to campus to work with students, due in part to the establishment of the Loop Press with a prestigious National Endowment for the Arts grant. And, perhaps most important, thousands of students and campus visitors have been introduced to significant works of art, many of which have been recently added to the college's growing permanent collection.

Preliminary conceptual sketch of interior of new visual-arts buildingPlans are now being made for the most beautiful and useful addition of sculptural art ever considered at Whitworth: a $6.3 million, 20,000-plus-square-foot facility devoted to the teaching and sharing of visual arts, housing first-rate studios and expanded gallery spaces for shows by students and local, regional and international artists. The 1,200-square-foot main gallery will anchor the facility, which will be located on the north side of campus, near Westminster Hall and across from the new Weyerhaeuser Hall academic building, on the site of the current Beyond Hall.

Dedicated studios for ceramics and sculpture, glass and jewelry, drawing, painting, computer graphics, and printmaking and photography are in the preliminary building plan, currently being designed by Spokane architectural firm Madsen, Mitchell, Evenson and Conrad. Design Committee Chair and Associate Professor of Art Scott Kolbo explains that there are three levels planned for the new building. "Most people would enter the building on the second floor, into a multi-level lobby where the gallery entrance, department office, and several studios would be located. But we hope there will be view corridors to both the upper and lower levels from the main floor. We'd like faculty offices on the upper level to have a clear view to the hallway and studio entries on the bottom floor. We want the design of this facility to encourage communal interactions and collaboration between faculty, students and visitors, and the entire space to be flooded with natural light."

Last year, Whitworth President Bill Robinson announced a $2 million gift from the Ernst F. Lied Foundation and trustee Christina Hixson (for whom the Hixson Union Building is named), and fund-raising is now under way for the balance required for this new project, with groundbreaking scheduled as soon as gifts and pledges are in hand.

Art professors Barbara Filo, '79, and Gordon Wilson share a combined 48 years of service to the college, and both are pleased with the new attention being given to the art program. "We have been able to accomplish a great deal in a facility that was never designed for use as an art building," Wilson says. "We have been particularly active in bringing high-quality visiting artists in a variety of media to campus, including five this semester. [But] this [new facility] is really a revolutionary undertaking for this campus. Art has the potential to support and enrich all other areas of the college, and we will have a more significant presence in the community – we want to be the northside place to go for art." More than 60 current students have a major or minor in art, and that number is expected to grow once the new facility is completed.

In addition to the three core faculty members' specialty areas of drawing, painting, printmaking, design and art history, 13 adjunct instructors, all accomplished artists in their own right, provide courses in glass-fusing, ceramics, film-making, graphic design, leaded glass, jewelry-making, and many more media, making Whitworth's program one of the broadest at any college or university in its peer group. The new building is being designed to provide better and safer spaces for these aspects of the program and for others that haven't yet been imagined. "This facility is being designed with future flexibility in mind. Simple surface finishes in the studios and a focus on safety, with top-of-the-line air-handling systems, will allow the building to change with the times," Kolbo says.

Denise Burningham, '05, a double-major in art and psychology and winner of the Eileen "Mom" Hendrick Student Leadership Award for her class, is most excited about how the new facility will unify existing programs. "It will allow graphic-design and art-history students to be in the building with everyone else; and, as a former gallery and permanent-collection assistant, I look forward to the collection being housed in the art department instead of the library," Burningham says. "I like the cohesiveness of everything being all together. The faculty members deserve to have a building that reflects the type of teaching that goes on in this department, and I think a new building will bring in more art students and students of a higher caliber."
Dean of the Faculty Michael Le Roy, '89, sees an important place for the arts in the developing plans for Whitworth's academic program. "One of our academic goals is that every Whitworth graduate will gain an appreciation for aesthetic traditions and develop capacity for creative forms of expression," he says. "For some time our arts programs have thrived in spite of the fact that they reside in substandard facilities. Arts and science programs are more dependent on great facilities than other academic programs, so a new building for the visual arts is a must if we are to remain competitive with our peer institutions."

Yet the developing facilities plan is only one of the improvements being considered for the art program. After the department received an anonymous grant for new media (including video and animation), an improved, larger gallery in the current fine-arts building was outfitted with a built-in sound and video-projection system. To take advantage of this, classes in time-based media are being offered with an eye to possible interdisciplinary minors in time-based media and visual communications. Also, as the college continues to work on community-engagement initiatives, a minor in community arts is now in place.

All of these offerings take into account the place of Whitworth's Christian mission as a touchstone for art exploration. Central is the conviction that the arts are an authentic part of our spiritual nature. "Part of our being made in the image of God is to be, in turn, creative in our own lives and actions," Kolbo says. "Paintings, sculptures and other works of art remind us of this aspect of God's nature, especially when the arts present us with the mysterious and searching, or introduce us to diverse cultures and alternative perspectives."

We are challenged by art, as we are by the sciences and history, to the demanding work of tracing God's activities in the world: that is, finding those traces that are not immediately apparent. As Christian philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff wrote, "Since we are called to be God's agents in His cause of renewal, of whose ultimate success He has assured us, art now gains new significance. Art can serve as an instrument in our struggle to overcome the fallenness of our existence, while also, in the delight which it affords, anticipating the shalom which awaits us."

Tad Wisenor, '89, is Whitworth's director of annual giving and alumni, parent and church relations (and a new father). Contact Wisenor for information about naming opportunities in the new facility, or to inquire about making a gift of art to the permanent collection.

Whitworth visual-arts resources:

Historic Art Faculty, Koehler, Larson, Grosvenor, and Haas
(From left, in this photo from the '60s:
Koehler, Larson, Grosvenor, and Haas)

Sixty years of Whitworth art celebrated during Heritage Week
The story of art at Whitworth was featured in a presentation by campus historian Dale Soden during Spring Convocation in celebration of Heritage Week 2006. There was no art program to speak of at Whitworth College before Frank Warren became president, in 1940. In a letter to future faculty member John Koehler, Warren wrote, "There is a rising tide of interest in art…. There is nothing being done in Spokane at the present. I believe that Whitworth now could make a definite contribution to the city." Koehler accepted the challenge and joined the faculty in 1945; Russ Larson followed two years later. Whitworth developed its art major over the next 15 years, and Pauline Haas came aboard in 1962 when her husband, Gus, joined the college's political-science department. Finally, Walter "Spike" Grosvenor, '63, (a member of Whitworth's national-championship baseball team in 1960) returned to teach at his alma mater a few years later.

The five alumni artists and their work highlighted in this article were featured in the Whitworth Alumni Invitational Art Exhibit in the expanded Koehler Gallery in February as part of Heritage Week, which celebrated the 116th anniversary of the college's founding on Feb. 20, 1890.

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