Art complex requires money and patience

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September 5, 2011

9:22 PM

The battle over the proposed arts complex which would replace Phi Beta Kappa Hall, Andrews Hall and the Muscarelle Museum of Art has shown that the College of William and Mary’s arts students are, if nothing else, loud and passionate. Their gripes are legitimate: Scores of dancers, actors and musicians have passed through the College as the administration slashed the fine arts budget while at the same time providing brand-new facilities to many other departments.

The need for something different has certainly been demonstrated. PBK, which hasn’t had any significant structural changes since the Eisenhower administration, is a poor excuse for a performing arts facility. It should make every student shudder to call it part of “new campus.” Every bit of rehearsal space in PBK is constantly overbooked. The Muscarelle doesn’t have any of the grandeur you’d expect to house top-quality art. The film studies department has no studio of its own, which is just as unacceptable as a chemistry department without labs.

The College should, of course, avoid playing favorites and should give equal opportunity to all disciplines, but the highly ambitious agenda of the arts complex is likely to run right into serious funding issues. Although the exact budget of the current plan is undecided, most agree that it’s going to be higher than $200 million. It’s likely to be the most expensive construction project in the College’s extensive history.

A limited number of students, townsfolk and outside performers would make use of the complex. That’s not to say the funding requests are illegitimate simply because they’re filling niche interests — projects have been funded for highly specialized subjects all over campus. However, it does mean that the limited money the administration appropriates will inevitably first go to projects that affect everyone on campus.

However, the administration isn’t likely to find any new money they can put behind this project. It was already unhappy with raising tuition 5.5 percent to cover a budgetary shortfall after federal stimulus money ran out. The General Assembly isn’t throwing any new money down the pipeline, and there were projects already underway before budget cuts threw a wrench into construction plans. For example, Tucker Hall should to be made useable before we can undertake any serious upgrades.

Nobody can dispute the tremendous benefits a cutting-edge arts facility would bring to the College, but a serious project requires serious cash — something the College does not have currently. Right now, lobbying Richmond for money that won’t be seen as essential is like talking to a brick wall. And as for the plan to raise $100 million in private funds? Good luck with that.

Yes, a delay in this program’s funding does mean that hundreds of students won’t get to access these facilities. But that’s the nature of the beast, and the Board of Visitors has to think past about more than the four years we’ll each be here. Even under the most ambitious timeline, no current students would be here to see the new complex.

The upshot of this situation is that there is a simple deal can be worked out. The administration should agree that as soon as the College’s funding situation is healthy enough to fund new projects the arts complex will be a top priority. Supporters of the complex should agree that the College has the right to stand firm until the economic situation is worked out, and has the right to proceed very, very cautiously, given the size of the project. Arts aficionados know that a serious upgrade to their facilities has been a long time coming. If they wait just a little bit longer, they can make it happen.

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