The University of Arkansas, Fayetteville’s newest academic arts program, supported by millions in scholarship funds from the Walton family, received tentative approval Wednesday to enroll its first students in fall 2023.
A planned master’s degree in art history — the only such graduate degree in Arkansas — will offer “immersive” travel opportunities and offer internships at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, according to documents submitted to the University of Arkansas’ System Board by trustees.
A board of trustees on Wednesday supported the proposed launch of the two-year graduate program in 2023, which is expected to enroll five first-year students and 10 later-year students. Board documents described art specialists as working in museums or galleries or in academic professions, among other “art spaces”.
Final approvals are pending, but art history at UA receives financial support from the $120 million Walton Grant, announced in 2017, to support artistic education at the university.
Charles Robinson, UA’s interim chancellor, said tuition and fees for 36 hours of the academic program would typically total about $18,000.
“But there are no costs for these students because the students are funded entirely from the Art History Graduate Foundation, which is provided by the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation Foundation, which established the foundation [UA] School of Art,” Robinson told the trustees.
Endowment money from the Walton gift will cover tuition costs, Robinson said, with student assistantships and graduate scholarships being made available.
The foundation, controlled by family members of Walmart founder Sam Walton, provided UA with what the university has called the greatest gift ever to a US university to found or support an art school.
Board documents from Wednesday’s meeting said a $36 million endowment from the Walton Scholarship to Support Doctoral Students will provide $11 million for graduate students in the art history program. Annually, this amounts to approximately $484,000 in student support.
In addition to student support, a $7 million art history program endowment will provide approximately $275,000 each year, including support for some undergraduate programs and initiatives, and the larger Walton Endowment also has the hiring of Faculties supported.
Crystal Bridges opened in 2011 with support from another Walton foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and Alice Walton, daughter of Sam and Helen Walton.
Board documents described a working arrangement between the university and Crystal Bridges, but stated that UA “retains oversight of the program.”
In a telephone interview, Gerry Snyder, executive director of the UA School of Art, described the program’s strong association with Crystal Bridges. The degree — similar to the museum’s focus — is said to be titled Master of Arts in Art History in Arts of the Americas, according to board documents.
“Most of the time, partnerships between academic entities and museums tend to be more transactional. There’s a real desire here, and it’s also burned into the gift, that we really want to leverage each other’s resources and strengths to expand the capacity of both institutions,” Snyder said.
Travel with a cultural focus will be part of the experience for the students.
Board documents said that “the immersive travel components of our program will develop cultural sensitivity among our students and expose them to new perspectives, ways of thinking, communication and ways of working,” as will a planned visiting scholar program where “[w]When selecting these visitors, we will prioritize scholars and color creators.”
Snyder said “it’s going to be important” for the university to include a diverse cohort of students in the program.
A 2019 report released by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation found that museum staff “have become more racially and ethnically diverse over the past four years,” based on survey data collected at 179 museums, with the percentage of “people of color” in “intellectual leadership positions” increased from 12% in 2015 to 16% among curators in 2018.
However, the report also noted that “very few people of color are in museum leadership positions in 2018.” The report found that in the museum tour category, the proportion of people of color was 12% in 2018, compared to 11% in 2015.
Data for all students at the UA School of Art shows that white students accounted for approximately 74% of the total 446 students, excluding international students, according to enrollment figures published on the university’s website. Among all non-international students at UA, white students made up about 75% of the total.
“I see graduate programs as more diverse,” Snyder said, adding that they “cast a broader net” and reach beyond the region.
Board documents detailed a planned pilot trip for “advanced students” to visit the Birmingham Museum of Art in Alabama and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, as well as a meeting with leaders of a black artists’ advocacy group known, among other things, as the Souls Grown Deep Community Partnership other stops in Alabama are known.
Snyder said future trips could be to Mexico or South America.
“You start thinking about what Arts of the Americas is going to cover and you start thinking about the issues that the world is facing today, like race and gender, colonization and things like that,” Snyder said.
Board documents describe a trend of increasing demand in museums, galleries, and the academic community for “scholars who focus on African American art, Latin American art, Latin American art, and Native American art.”
“Clustered hirings of Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) scholars and specialists in all of the underrepresented fields listed above are beginning to transform the museum world, academia, galleries and other art spaces as institutions begin to strengthen diversity and equity , and inclusion rhetoric with measurable action,” the board document reads.
In Arkansas, Hayla May earned a bachelor’s degree in studio art with a minor in art history from the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith in 2019.
May earned a master’s degree in art history from Oklahoma State University, which is about 3.5 hours from her hometown of Greenwood near Fort Smith.
“It was a really great opportunity,” May said.
While at UAFS, May traveled to Paris for an art history class, where she studied a medieval cathedral. In the end, May presented her research results at an academic conference in Kansas. At the event, Oklahoma faculty member Jennifer Borland made a strong impression, she said.
But if Arkansas had an art history graduate program, “I sure would have considered it,” May said in a phone interview, adding that UA-Fayetteville students and others would benefit from a state option.
“I think the field of art history could use some strengthening of resources and programs,” said May 24, who plans to apply for a doctoral program in art history and pursue a career as a professor of art history.