Bluegrass musicians played a Kentucky-flavored tune at the graduation ceremony last week for nine graduates, who received their bachelor of fine arts degree.
Those nine students were celebrating a personal mile marker—but they also represented mile markers for their school, the Kentucky School of Art at Spalding University.
They are the first to graduate from a school that didn’t even exist a few years ago.
The Kentucky School of Art began with Churchill Davenport, an artist and Louisville native who had done what many aspiring artists used to do.
He left town.
He attended the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, and then spent years working and teaching in New York City. But he never lost sight of his hometown, and he thought there was an opportunity here.
“The top art schools in the country—the closest one was Chicago to the north, Kansas to the west, Savannah to the south, and then you had to go East and West Coasts. An enormous amount of territory in this part of the country for an art school,” he said.
“So that was my original idea. Let’s bring a school here.”
Other institutions of higher learning in Louisville offer an art major, but that’s considered to be more academic; an art school actually trains and develops artists.
Art schools such as the Savannah College of Art and Design, the Art Institute of Chicago, and Rhode Island School of Design are increasingly being seen as an alternative to the standard liberal arts education.
Davenport approached Spalding University, which agreed to be the institutional home for the Kentucky School of Art.
Today, the school has 130 students who study painting, drawing, graphic design, digital media, sculpture and more.
Instead of trying to create a clone of the New York art scene in Louisville, Davenport decided to take a more local approach.
“When I first started this school, I thought, I’m going to bring in all these fancy people from New York that I know, because I lived there for most of my life,” Davenport said. “But after I got here, I thought, you know, this is Kentucky. Let’s celebrate this state. Let’s make this a Kentucky school, not another suburb of New York.”
School President Terry Tyler said he aims to have 2,000 students by the year 2025. The school employs four recruiters who cover the region to find new students, and Tyler says KSA sets itself apart from other art schools by being more affordable.
Top schools’ tuition can fall in the $45,000 to $60,000 range, he said.
KSA’s tuition is about $22,000.
About 95 percent of KSA’s students get some form of financial assistance, and about 50 percent of them are first-generation college students. This speaks to Davenport’s interest in attracting students who never thought they would go to college at all.
Davenport said he can relate to those students; he had a tough time in traditional classes, until he got to art school.
“Having been a student myself that had a really difficult time learning in school, I knew that this was a big opportunity for a lot of students that weren’t verbal learners, but visual learners,” Davenport said.
When Jasser Jackson Blanco was a student at Butler Traditional High School, he was required to apply to five colleges, even though he didn’t think he would go to college at all. He was accepted at KSA and decided to give it a try.
“I wouldn’t have gone to another school, even though I applied. I had no plans to actually go to college. So I would more than likely be working at a factory or some other job,” Blanco said.
He was one of the new graduates, with a bachelor’s in fine arts degree with a concentration in sculpture, which he tried for the first time in a class at KSA. He currently works at Bright Foundry, making copper and bronze sculptures.
His classmate Emily Rowan had plans to attend another university, until Davenport visited her high school and invited her to an information session.
“If anything, [Davenport said] just come see the show that we have up right now, there’ll be food there, it’ll be fun, lots of people, just a meet and greet. So I decided to be spontaneous and I went, and I ended up falling in love with everything to do with KSA,” Rowan said.
Rowan is graduating with a concentration in visual media, and is interested in a career in TV production or art curation.
Tyler, the school president, said KSA KSA graduates can aspire to more than arts jobs—employers in all fields are looking for people who can think like art students.
“Ten years ago, you didn’t have a chief innovation officer, or a chief creative officer. You see that in organizations now,” Tyler said. “And the background comes from the right side of the brain, the design side, and at the forefront of all that, are art schools.”
An art school can have an effect on the city too. KSA’s facilities are currently in a sleepy part of Third Street, just south of downtown, but Tyler points to Baltimore in 1968 when Davenport attended art school there.
“There was one building there. Now there are 34 buildings in that part of Baltimore, and it has totally transformed that whole area of Baltimore. So it’s a tremendous shot in the arm for the economy, for the liveliness. We’re looking for a transformation,” Tyler said.
Artwork from the first graduating class will be on view at the 849 Gallery, 849 S. Third St., and the Huff Gallery, in the Spalding University Library, through Aug. 7.
(Featured image: Work by Brittney Hauck)