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Arts blossom at Kennesaw State University, 20 miles from Atlanta

KSU dancers perform "Rhizome"  Photo: Robert Pack/WideScreenVideoProductions.com
KSU dancers perform "Rhizome" Photo: Robert Pack/WideScreenVideoProductions.com
The KSU dancers perform "Rhizome." (Robert Pack/WideScreenVideoProductions.com)

The arts may be suffering nationally, but they are booming at Kennesaw State University. With the recent completion of a black-box theater, the ongoing expansion of the Dance Department and the upcoming construction of an art museum, KSU’s arts programs are stepping into the limelight.

Located 20 miles north of Atlanta, the entire university is experiencing rapid growth. Founded in 1963 as a community college, it is now the third-largest state school in Georgia, with a student population of more than 24,100 (the University of Georgia has 34,765, Georgia State 32,000 and Georgia Tech 20,000). As its student body continues to evolve from one of commuters to on-campus residents, KSU has added dormitories, a $35 million recreation center and a $20.3 million education building, among other projects.

It offers advanced degrees in education, business and nursing, but its arts programs are, for now, undergraduate only. Joseph Meeks, founding dean of KSU’s College of the Arts in 1998, says the school has been steadily “building its infrastructure” by constructing dedicated facilities and developing curricula.

The dance program, established in 2005 under Ivan Pulinkala, is the newest and arguably KSU’s most accomplished. In May, the 48-member KSU troupe performed for the third consecutive year at the National College Dance Festival at the Kennedy Center in Washington. Even better, its piece, “Rhizome,” was among 11 works selected to be performed at the NCDF gala.

In 2007 KSU introduced a dance minor, and two years later a major. Pulinkala says there are more than 100 dance majors enrolled today. Selectivity is increasing: of more than 100 applicants for the coming year, only 30 were accepted.

The KSU dancers perform with John Welker and Nadia Mara of Atlanta Ballet in "Paquita." (Photos by Robert Pack)

Located in a warehouse district on the edge of campus, the dance program has plenty of room to grow. Previously part of the theater and performance studies program, it is now autonomous. Construction of the second phase of its new facility will begin late this summer. That facility, to open in January 2013, will add two new studios, a classroom, a student lounge, faculty offices and costume and scene shops.

KSU’s Dance Department enjoys a partnership with Atlanta Ballet, that organization’s only university affiliation. Atlanta Ballet Artistic Director John McFall praises Pulinkala’s choreography as “fresh and imaginative” and saw the partnership as a mutually beneficial opportunity.

As part of the arrangement, KSU students perform in professional ballet productions, and professional dancers can pursue college degrees. Many dancers delay attending college, because their peak physical years are in their 20s. The Atlanta Ballet’s John Welker, for example, has been with the company for 17 years and is taking advantage of the KSU partnership to earn a dance degree. “I started with 30 credit hours for my professional career,” he explains, “so I only have to meet my general education requirements.”

KSU’s Department of Theatre & Performance Studies is also growing. Headed by John Gentile, it received accreditation in 2000 from the National Association of Schools of Theatre. The department offers degrees in four concentrations: acting, design, musical theater and performance studies. Its course offerings are broader in scope than many university programs. In addition to traditional theater, it incorporates such genres as storytelling, folk traditions, literary adaptations and performance art (though it could be argued that performance art, a major component of contemporary art, belongs in the Visual Art Department).

Gentile launched a partnership, now in its 10th year, with Dublin’s Gaiety School of Acting, the National Theatre School of Ireland, for which students spend a summer abroad working on productions by Irish playwrights. He is also arranging for Gaiety Director Patrick Sutton to teach a course at KSU next spring, which would coincide with Gentile’s February production of “Red Hanrahand,” based on stories by Irish writer W.B. Yeats.

A scene from KSU's "Splittin' the Raft," which received an NEA grant.

Recently, the school’s production of “Splittin’ the Raft,” a riff on Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn,” received a National Endowment for the Arts grant, and its lead actor, John Stewart, won the Outstanding Performance by an Actor award from the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival for his portrayal of Frederick Douglass/Jim. Other KSU productions have appeared at the Shanghai International Theatre Festival, the Edinburgh International Festival and the Casablanca Theatre Festival, where Gentile’s adaptation of “Moby Dick” won the award for Best Performance in 2010.

Visual Art Department Chairman Joe Thomas notes that his department has enjoyed an almost 100 percent increase in enrollment since 2000, from 293 to 576 in fall 2011. The number peaked at 610 in 2010, when the National Association of Schools of Art and Design, which awards accreditation, imposed an enrollment limit until the school adds more space to accommodate student needs. “We have purposely been trying to reduce our numbers through increasing standards,” Thomas says. Plans are in the works to expand to Chastain Pointe, where the Dance Department is located. In the 2011-12 academic year, the Art Department launched an undergraduate art history degree, which already boasts 20 majors.

The KSU Art Museum is also poised to raise its profile under the leadership of Director Teresa Bramlette Reeves, appointed last August. She is charged with establishing more professional standards and refining the museum’s mission, now described as showing “historical and contemporary work representative of culturally and geographically diverse artistic traditions,” in keeping with KSU’s emphasis on global awareness. Reeves plans to implement a more rigorous and strategic acquisitions policy, so that the museum can be more intentional in growing its collection and avoid the onerous stipulations that often accompany donations. (The collection of works by Athos Menaboni, for example, must be on view for 18 out of 24 months.)

Architect's rendering of KSU's planned Bernard A. Zuckerman Museum, designed by Atlanta firm Stanley Beaman & Sears.

Like most university museums, KSU’s serves both the student population and the surrounding community, but it also seeks to reach a broader audience beyond the region. The museum’s visibility should get a boost from an upcoming $3 million expansion. Construction of the 9,300-square-foot structure, designed by the Atlanta firm Stanley Beaman & Sears, will begin this month. The project, which will connect to the Bailey Performance Center, will be named the Bernard A. Zuckerman Museum in honor of the 93-year-old philanthropist whose $2 million gift is funding it. KSU raised the additional $1 million.

Currently, the school’s three exhibition spaces are scattered among three different buildings, including a hard-to-find gallery in the library basement, the only space that will close.

Aside from the obligatory student and faculty exhibitions, Reeves will organize shows of contemporary artists, significantly shaking up a staid program. “Paper Moon,” opening in August, she explains, will comprise works made as substitutions out of longing or need, when you can’t have the real thing. The show will include artists Eleanor Antin; Mark Hogancamp, subject of the 2010 documentary “Marwencol”; Adam Parker Smith, who makes wallpaper from detritus; GSU professor Joe Peragine’s paintings inspired by museum dioramas; and spiritual twin figurines from the Michael C. Carlos Museum’s collection of African art.

A detail from Adam Parker Smith's "This Side of Paradise (I Lost All My Money in the Great Depression and All I Got Was This Room)," to be part of KSU's "Paper Moon" exhibition, opening in August.

Scheduled for March 2013 is a show of works made in Ghana by Lyle Ashton Harris, some of which appeared at New York’s CRG Gallery in 2010. Reeves is mounting the show as a nod to KSU’s “Year of Ghana.” (The university has an annual program in which courses and activities are geared around a particular country.)

Harry Price, chairman of the Music Department for the past three years, says KSU’s performance ensembles are “surprisingly good,” but he’s looking forward to the day when “surprising” is no longer the modifier. The program, which has upwards of 200 majors, offers B.M. degrees in music performance and education and a B.A. in music arts, which covers theory, composition, history and ethnomusicology. One of the department’s most popular, and newest, classes focuses on entrepreneurship — how to use that music degree to make a living. Price says the department emphasizes that kind of “applied instruction,” setting it apart from many academic programs.

Established in 1984, the department is active in many national associations. This weekend (June 8-10), for example, the school is hosting the National Brass Symposium, which will bring top symphony performers to the area.

KSU is not without challenges. The current strategic plan cites low brand recognition, low salaries, high student-to-faculty ratios (acknowledged in the Art Department’s enrollment limits) and insufficient funding from the state and outside sources, among other weaknesses. Its growing arts programs should help raise its profile and possibly serve, as art has historically done elsewhere, as an economic generator for the campus community.

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