The University of Texas at Dallas will close the Art Barn at the end of this spring semester. The decision comes about three months after the school announced it would not be renewing the lease on its CentralTrak artist residency and gallery in Expo Park, throwing its fate into question. Now, students are again rallying to try and save one of North Texas’ most important art spaces, a cultural hub at the heart of the Richardson campus.
The building itself, which has housed the campus’ visual arts program—and accompanying studios, galleries, and photo labs—for decades, will be demolished this summer, says Rick Dempsey, associate vice president of facilities management at the university. In its place? The northern wing of a four-story, 175,000 square foot Science Building, dedicated largely to STEM fields. Construction is slated to begin this fall, Dempsey says.
Some students were first told the news Saturday night at a gallery show at the Art Barn, although The Mercury, UTD’s student newspaper, was predicting an imminent “uncertain future” for the building earlier this month. This isn’t the first time obituaries have been written for the Art Barn. The building seemed fated for the wrecking ball in 2014, not too long after the opening of the university’s new Arts and Technology (ATEC) building. Then, as now, this was greeted with protest from students and an arts community that’s come to cherish the space.
Dempsey says the Art Barn, built in 1978, is far past its life expectancy, riddled with systems and maintenance issues that could potentially be safety hazards. In 2014, crews fixed some “critical issues” with the building, but larger problems were unresolved. An engineering assessment at the time put the cost of repairs at $4 million, Dempsey says, which the university then called prohibitive. Construction of the new Science Building will cost about $101 million.
With the loss of a dedicated building for the visual arts program, classes and galleries will be relocated to multi-use spaces elsewhere on campus, potentially including the Science Building, Dempsey says.
Student activists and members of the arts community, however, are once again hoping to earn the Art Barn a reprieve. Kaitlyn Stacey, a master’s student at UTD, started an online petition to save the space, and is urging people to email UTD President Richard C. Benson at [email protected] Others, she says, are reaching out to student government officials, UTD donors, and artists in an effort to keep the Art Barn open.
Stacey says the Art Barn’s legacy and its historic role as an incubator of artistic talent in North Texas can’t be understated, but there are also practical considerations for arts students. The Art Barn serves several functions that can’t be met by other buildings on campus. The ATEC building, for example, is not well equipped with workspaces for sculpture or printmaking, and the Art Barn can host exhibitions that cannot be held elsewhere, she says.
Stacey’s petition also accuses university administrators of acting without input from the Arts and Humanities department or the student body. (Dempsey says he cannot speak to the university administration’s decision-making process for the closing of the Art Barn.) She says there was no official announcement made by the university, and it’s unclear what will become of the classes and exhibitions scheduled for the Art Barn this summer and fall. Meanwhile, plans for the Art Barn’s closing and the future of the site remain frustratingly opaque, Stacey says.
“It shows a lack of transparency from the administration and a disregard for the arts students,” she says.
The closing seems to create more uncertainty about what’s next for the arts at UTD, which revealed earlier this year that it is leaving the Expo Park home of CentralTrak, the artists’ residency and gallery space. It also feels like the latest in an ideological squabble perhaps best illustrated by the split between the university’s School of Arts and Technology and its School of Arts and Humanities, between more STEM-friendly pursuits and the pursuit of art for art’s sake.