Big Changes: A Conversation with Robert Jensen, Director of the UK School of Art and Visual Studies

The School of Art and Visual Studies (SA/VS) at the University of Kentucky is going through an exciting, transformational period driven, in part, by its anticipated move to a new home in a completely renovated facility on Bolivar Street. jensenIn addition, Stuart Horodner, Artistic Director of the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, has just been named as Museum Director of the UK Art Museum after an extensive national search.

UnderMain’s Art Shechet asked Robert Jensen, Ph.D., Director of SA/VS to join us in a conversation about what we can expect from the new facility, how programs at UK will be impacted, and the potential benefits of the move for the larger Lexington community.  We also wanted to have a look into what we might expect from the changes at the Art Museum. Dr. Jensen discussed with UnderMain other issues of importance to UnderMain’s readers, like the much-suggested idea of a major Lexington art museum.

In this first installment of the interview with Jensen we get an in-depth preview of the new building and the exciting changes it will bring.

UM:  How is the construction of the new building for the UK SA/VS progressing and when are you expecting to occupy the new building?

Jensen:  So far, and despite the cold winter, the contractor is on schedule with the renovation of the Bolivar building for SA/VS.  Since mid-December, the contractor has completed all necessary demolition, laid in the plumbing, begun the installation of the duct work, begun work on a new freight elevator, poured a new concrete floor in the 1899 (east) wing of the building, and has begun putting up the metal studs for the new interior walls. Regarding delays or unexpected expenses, we are mainly keeping our fingers crossed about the necessary trenching of South Upper Street, which will happen this summer, necessary in order to connect the new facility to the campus chilled-water system.  If all goes well, the great majority of the work on the building will be completed by next December.  We are scheduled to take possession of the building April 1, 2015, and will probably start teaching classes in the Bolivar facility during the summer of 2015.

UM:  Give our readers some sense of what the space will be like.

Jensen:  In terms of instruction/studio space the Bolivar building is actually a little larger than the SA/VS’s long-time home, the Reynolds building, yet we expect it to have a much more intimate feel.  If you’ve ever been in Reynolds you know that it is a kind of dimly lit labyrinth, laced with hallways and many odd spaces.  That’s because Reynolds grew organically over time; walls were put up as required.  In contrast, Omni Architects, working closely with School faculty, carefully programmed the Bolivar building.  There will be very little wasted space in the building and the different media studios are logically grouped together.

The building’s two wings form a t-shape.  The west wing is a two-story structure, which will have a large open area at its center under skylights.  This is the building’s ‘main street’.  The building uses a lot of glass to bring the light from the atrium into the flanking classrooms.  On the ground floor on one side of the ‘main street’ are the ceramics studios, an equipment checkout center, and a digital media lab.  Across the atrium are the 2- and 3-d foundations and sculpture studios and the woodshop.  Upstairs, on one side, are the art education classrooms, two smart classrooms, the drawing and painting studios and the fiber studio.  On the other side are the photography suite, the printmaking studio and another drawing studio.  The 1899 east wing has four stories.  In the basement will be studios for undergraduate and graduate students.  On the first floor are the administrative offices, conference room, art gallery, and installation room.  Connecting the art gallery and installation room is a ‘black box’ digital projection room.  This whole end of this wing can be opened up when required, to combine the installation and gallery spaces into a single much larger exhibition venue.  On the second floor above are five digital media labs and a FabLab (hybrid fabrication lab).  And on the third floor are faculty offices and studios.

Even when there are a lot of students and faculty working in the Reynolds building it can seem empty.  In the Bolivar building the opposite will be true.  Brightly lit, with studios in close proximity to each other, we are hoping this space will be a stimulating environment to work in and will foster collaboration across media and between students and faculty.

UM:  Geographically, how will the new building relate to the rest of the UK campus and to its larger urban context?

Jensen:  It is surprising what a difference a few thousand feet make!  The Reynolds building appears hidden away because it is at the very edge of campus and positioned well above Broadway as it goes under the train overpass.  Additionally Reynolds has long had the reputation of being in an ‘iffy’ neighborhood, although occasional street crime, such as car break-ins, were pretty much the worst things that impacted students and faculty.  And the neighborhood is rapidly changing because of considerable residential and commercial development in the area.  By comparison, the Bolivar building, even though it is sited not very far from Reynolds, has an entirely different feel in relation to campus, to downtown Lexington, and in regards to safety.  Instead of being obscure, once finished, the SA/VS building will take a prominent place in the Lexington landscape.  In part, this is because of the Newtown Pike extension, which, if it goes through as planned, will take Newtown Pike along the path of Combs Street, eventually intersecting with Broadway at Bolivar.  Already an important connector between South Upper and Broadway, Bolivar Street will become even more of a commuter path in and out of the campus area.   The redevelopment that has occurred in this area during the last few years effectively connects the end of campus on Bolivar to the downtown area around Broadway and Main.  It’s likely the Broadway corridor will see further redevelopment in the coming years.

At the same time, the new SA/VS building is physically closer to the academic side of campus than Reynolds, and would seem much more so but for the parking garage that straddles South Upper and Limestone.  For both students and the public, however, the garage is great, because it means that there will be plenty of parking, especially after hours and on weekends, a safe, short walk from the SA/VS building.  And by walking through the garage and using the pedestrian overpass over Limestone, students can easily get from Bolivar to the main academic classroom building (Whitehall) in less than ten minutes.

UM:  How will the new building impact the programs of the SA/VS in both the short-term and further out into the future?

Jensen:  The SA/VS faculty are extremely excited to be moving into a climate-controlled building, especially one that they played a major role in designing.  Far more than Reynolds, the Bolivar building can be an all-year, seven days a week facility.  This is nothing short of transformative and I don’t think the former Art Department has ever experienced a change as radical as this.  The SA/VS building will allow faculty to extend significantly the kind of programming we do for our undergraduate and graduate population and for the community.  We want the SA/VS building to be a hub for the visual arts in Lexington, one which will attract students, practicing artists, and the general public.  Already, over a thousand non-majors enroll each semester in the new UK Core Creativity courses we offer.  Right now students take these classes all over campus.  In Bolivar they will all come together, connecting non-art majors, even if only casually, to the creative activities flowing out of our advanced art studio and art education studios.

We don’t see art and creative design as fringe activities.  Today’s society is dominated by visual culture.  What we do, the skills we offer, are actually central to life today and should be part of the core mission of the University of Kentucky.  This is why we are pitching the new building as a creative research center to other academic units in the university.  We want to collaborate with faculty and students in the sciences, engineering, design, the social sciences and the humanities, who are interested in putting into visual form their research projects. In a different arena entirely, the new building should also make it much easier to attract potential donors, whose investments will be vital if SA/VS is to sustain a high level of creative research, especially in the area of digital arts.  Finally, as I said earlier, we think the energy level in this building will be very high.  It should be an exciting place to work in or just to visit.

UM:  And how will this new building impact the relationship between the UK SA/VS and the broader Lexington community?

Jensen:  We, of course, will be inviting the public in once we are in possession of the building.  We already have a “Fine Arts Institute”, which offers classes in such things as ceramics and woodworking.  Similarly life-drawing classes have been offered in Reynolds to the public for many years.  We hope to grow and extend these educational programs, particularly in regards to our printmaking shop and our painting and drawing studios.  We are also contemplating significantly broadening our K-12 outreach programs on Saturdays and during the summer.  I would love to see us host art camps each summer.  But realistically, we will have to feel our way through what will be possible in the way of community outreach.  For example, we are working to develop a FabLab that melds computer design with fabrication equipment like laser cutters and 3-d printers.  We will be partnering with faculty from other colleges across campus to create and operate the FabLab.  And we hope to have similar relationships with individuals in the local community who are interested in using new technologies to make things (art or otherwise).  But such equipment is expensive to maintain and needs to be closely supervised.  How we manage community partnerships in technology-intensive media will therefore largely be decided by costs. That being said, ultimately we hope the community embraces SA/VS to the same degree that we plan to embrace the Lexington community and especially the Lexington community of artists and crafts people.  The new building opens up endless possibilities as a hub for creative activity and research in the Bluegrass.

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