College of Fine Arts celebrates 50 years with cutting-edge vision for the future
They make us laugh and cry, think and feel.
The arts inspire us, heal us and provide respite from the challenges and monotony of everyday life—a quality amplified during the COVID-19 pandemic. When physical connection was impossible, the arts brought us all together in ways we never imagined. And for 50 years, Western Michigan University's College of Fine Arts has built a reputation as a leader in producing talented professionals to fuel the creative landscape.
“Our mantra, ‘Where passion meets practice,’ is central to our mission," says Daniel Guyette, dean of the College of Fine Arts. "Students come here seeking experiential opportunities, and we're very proud of the fact that we can give them those experiences while providing a high-quality education. This allows our graduates to be very competitive in a tough marketplace."
Laying the foundation
Western's Board of Trustees approved the creation of the College of Fine Arts—the first of its kind in the state—effective July 1, 1972. It brought the music and art departments, which had been housed in the College of Arts and Sciences, and the dance program, then a part of physical education, together in concert—literally.
The college successfully staged Ralph Vaughan Williams' "Hodie" in Miller Auditorium that December, combining the creative talents of visual art students and faculty, the University Symphony and Grand Chorus delivering the score, and dance students performing choreography developed by faculty. Dr. Robert Holmes, the college's first dean, said the production signified the beginning of a new era of the arts at Western.
"The College of Fine Arts gives tangible and visible expression to the University's commitment to the arts," he wrote in the 1973 Brown and Gold yearbook. "It provides the organizational structure needed for realizing the great potential which the departments possess and for relating the arts more effectively to the campus as a whole, to the community and to the state."
The Department of Theatre officially joined the College of Fine Arts in 1976.
“That was an interesting time,” recalls Lyda Stillwell, professor emerita of theatre, who worked on Western’s faculty from 1966 to 2000. “We would hear things like, ‘What parent in their right mind would send a child to college to study theatre alone?’ Well it turns out, plenty!”
Today the college is one of only a dozen nationwide in which all four disciplines—dance, music, theatre and visual arts—are nationally accredited. It has earned an international reputation for graduating top talent ready to hit the ground running in whatever field they choose— from music therapy to product design to dance and acting.
A cut above
From the outset, the College of Fine Arts has focused on giving students a rich, innovative academic experience paired with world-class instructional and internship opportunities, such as the Great Works program launched by the Department of Dance in 1996. It brings renowned choreographers to campus to guide students in performing major historical dance pieces.
"Not only did we have historically important work, but we had cutting-edge work coming in from all over the country. We built it in ways for students to make connections with professionals," says Jane Baas, professor emerita of dance, who came to Western as a dance student in 1974 and returned to the Department of Dance as an instructor and eventually chair. She also served as associate dean of Lee Honors College before retiring in 2018. "Many of our students end up in companies or working with a lot of the people who they meet while they are students at Western, so it's a huge thing for graduates."
Avree Gunderson, a spring 2022 dance graduate, can attest to the professional reputation of Western's program.
It wasn't like I just wanted to play guitar; I could have done that with a guitar performance degree or something like that. I could have done just an audio engineering two-year program. But I wanted to do everything, and this program had an option for that.
—Jacob Wolfe '22, multimedia arts technology
"Every time I tell people and other choreographers or directors that I'm from Western, they say, 'Oh, it's a hidden gem!' And it really is," she says. Gunderson initially found Western through an alumna teaching a class in Boston, about an hour east of her hometown of West Brookfield, Massachusetts. "She told me, 'Western is the place for you,' and I did some research and ended up here. And it just all fell into place; I love it. It's the best decision ever."
Western's influence extends around the globe, as countless Broncos have taken their talents on tour for the world to enjoy.
"Some 10 years ago, it was noted that (music) performances had occurred in every state except for two and also some 50 foreign countries. A typical year at Dalton Center would include over 800 presentations and 100 guest artists," says Bradley Wong, professor emeritus of music, who joined Western's faculty in 1983 as an assistant professor and retired in 2020 as director of the School of Music. He notes the Bullock Performance Institute was created in 1985 to foster performance residencies on campus. "The performance activity of faculty and students has been truly impressive, both in quality and quantity."
Their diversity in experience and the college's high regard among industry professionals means Broncos are in high demand—often even before they graduate. Many corporations seek out the talent at Western to develop products and campaigns. Tricia Hennessy, professor emerita of art, remembers a number of community partnerships her graphic design students participated in over the years, including a project to create the identity, logo and color system of all the trail markers at the Kalamazoo Nature Center. The signs and system the students created are still in use today.
"I think we have something that a lot of places like us—other schools, other design programs—have not ventured into," says Hennessy. "It's a really strong program."
The ability to do meaningful work and put classroom lessons into practice has only expanded as the college positions students at the forefront of industry innovation. The multimedia arts technology program, launched in the School of Music in 2014, integrates state-of-the-art technology into the curriculum and creates opportunities for students to use digital technology for creating original works or collaboration.
"You do everything from playing an instrument to computer programming to audio for video, all-analog recording, all-digital recording; it's pretty comprehensive," says Jacob Wolfe, a spring 2022 multimedia arts technology graduate. Mentorship by the program's expert faculty paired with several internships amped up his resume and helped him land a gig as a junior sound designer for a global recording and composing studio in Detroit a full semester before graduation.
"Our focus (has always been) on being the best undergraduate-focused comprehensive program we could be, and we never lost that focus as we continued our growth. So all of our programs— performance, music education, music therapy and composition—became stronger," says Wong.
"It is definitely the people who make the college special: The faculty, administration and staff are unified in their extreme commitment to student success. This is apparent to the students, and it creates an amazing environment for artistic growth."
— Bradley Wong, professor emeritus of music
Looking to the future
Technology and interdisciplinarity will lead the College of Fine Arts into the future. A gift from the Irving S. Gilmore Foundation supported the addition of a new dance studio on the top floor of Dunbar Hall with large windows overlooking Miller Plaza. That new studio will allow for a major reimagining of the Multimedia Room on the first floor of Dalton Center.
"When I got here nine years ago, I really saw potential for that space," says Guyette. "When it first opened 40 years ago, it was a stateof-the-art multimedia presentation space. There were dozens of projectors around the perimeter, and I understand it was really quite an amazing space for interdisciplinary projects collegewide. Today the equipment is obsolete, but the potential remains."
Guyette hopes to renovate the space into the Center for Advancing Arts Research (CFAAR), which will allow for those interdisciplinary projects once again, not only within the college but across the University and into our community.
"The idea is to use modern technologies to turn the space into a creative development, research and educational facility where we are able to work with disciplines from around the college, across the University and even externally. Students will have access to motion capture, 3D imaging, virtual reality, video mapping and other immersive imaging technologies all in one space, giving them the ability to interact with our community in new and exciting ways."
In addition to CFAAR, the college is working with Tower Pinkster to design a new imaging lab on the third floor of Dalton in the old Maybee Music and Dance Library. The collection was moved to Waldo Library during the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving an unused space that will transform, in part, into the new Virtual Imaging Technology Lab (VITAL).
"We have west coast consultants on the project—also WMU alumni—who are donating their time and expertise. It’s inspiring to see Bronco alumni coming full circle to help our newest Broncos prepare for the future," Guyette says.
A significant gift from the Irving S. Gilmore Foundation also supported the VITAL project. Once completed in January 2023, this lab will include a large, curved LED wall to create dynamic backdrops for a number of purposes.
"The value of an LED wall is to be able to create realistic backgrounds and environments to record performers, speakers and events using high-quality cameras," Guyette says. "As we use it for educational experiences, the possibilities are endless. Having spaces like this to be able to create and carry out creative research is really fascinating."
VITAL will also be used as a previsualization space for CFAAR projects, and Kevin Abbott, a Western alumnus and interactive media specialist at the University, will be director of both labs.
In addition to novel technology upgrades, the College of Fine Arts is eyeing a more collaborative and interdisciplinary future. The Departments of Dance and Theatre will become the School of Theatre and Dance. The interior design program, currently housed in the College of Education and Human Development, will move into the Richmond Institute for Design and Innovation in fall 2022, joining product design.
"Over the next several years, we hope to continue to add some additional design-focused interdisciplinary programs in the college to meet the needs of our students and the emerging workforce. In fall 2022 a new kinetic imaging program is being launched in the Frostic School of Art, combining tracks in animation, gaming and video art into a new, exciting digital-based program," shares Guyette.
The College of Fine Arts will hold an anniversary event to celebrate its history and share the talents of its current students during Homecoming weekend on Friday, Oct. 14, 2022. The event will also recognize the 100th anniversary of the University Art Collection, 100th season of the Bronco Marching Band, 40th anniversary of the opening of the Dalton Center and 15th anniversary of the Richmond Center for Visual Arts. Reserve tickets online.
"I believe the future will take our college to new heights as the next 50 years build on the work and talents of those before us," Guyette says. "Because of those efforts, the great philanthropic support of our donors, because of the Kalamazoo community and the support of a University which values the arts, I am confident that the future for our students is bright." ■