July 27, 2022 604 PM
ALPINE — The Department of Visual and Performing Arts at Sul Ross State University in Alpine recently received $26.4 million for infrastructure upgrades in the form of tuition revenue bonds from the state legislature.
“The proposal for funds was endorsed by the university in an effort to update the physical resources that serve our Visual and Performing Arts programs. The funds will allow us to restore operating capacity, update teaching and performance spaces, and modernize the way we teach,” said SRSU Interim President Dr. Carlos Hernandez.
Sul Ross, in total, received $60 million in tuition revenue bonds, or bonds that are paid off over time with tuition money. Of that $60 million, $26.4 million will go towards the infrastructure upgrades for the Alpine campus’ arts department, and the other $33 million will be allocated for new construction at the university’s Rio Grande campus in Del Rio. The process of obtaining the bonds first started in 2018, said Marjorie Scott, Department of Fine Arts chair and associate professor of communication and theater, when then-President Dr. Bill Kibler told her the department was chosen by the board of regents to apply for the opportunity. With little time to submit a proposal, Marjorie and her husband Bret Scott, also a Sul Ross faculty member, drafted a brief two-page outline of facilities they’d like to see expanded, remodeled and more.
“Certain facilities have some issues in regard to safety and some things are just very, very outdated,” said Scott. “It’s not just about the aesthetics but about making sure everything’s up-to-date technologically.”
Now that they’ve been approved for the bond, Scott and other university administrators are in the early stages of figuring out how to allocate the $26.4 million, but are motivated to spend the money sooner rather than later, she said, to avoid higher prices due to inflation. A precise time frame for the renovations has not yet been determined, but Scott said she hopes to get projects rolling within the next six months and ideally have them completed in a couple of years.
“We’re gonna move through it as quickly, but as mindfully, as possible,” said Scott. “It’s a juggle — it’s figuring out what are the top priorities, what are the things we can do with this money we have and make the most out of it?”
Planning is still in the preliminary stages, said Scott, but one of the critical projects that will definitely be addressed with bond funds is an update to the ceramics studio. The studio is subject to frequent floods because of its location right up against Hancock Hill and poses a safety threat due to the high voltage equipment present in the building. An expansion of the music facilities, including the band hall, is also in discussion.
“With band, you have some very loud, vibrant instruments that require space and height. So [we’re thinking of] expanding those spaces to accommodate the safety requirements of people having to be in those spaces with a lot of loud noise,” said Scott.
Modernization of the department’s various theaters, including the studio theater and Kokernot Outdoor Theater, are also being considered, said Scott. Lighting, sound and seating elements will likely be addressed in the upgrades she said. Because the theaters act as not only learning spaces for Sul Ross students but also as public facilities for the greater Big Bend community, including summer arts and band camps for children, their functionality is key.
“We’re going to do the best we can to try to upgrade everything as much as possible to be all 21st century technology and comfortable workable spaces for our students and faculty and then, of course, our patrons who come frequently to see our shows,” said Scott. “The young people in this community will benefit from having more exposure to the arts in really nice spaces.”
The department’s facilities include a fine arts building that hasn’t been upgraded since the 1980s, said Scott, as well as the Kokernot Outdoor Theater, originally built in the 1970s, and Theater of the Big Bend, circa 1960s. The theater program at Sul Ross recently celebrated its 100th anniversary. The visual arts program, too, is soon approaching its centennial.
“The arts have been around a long time at Sul Ross, and we haven’t had our spaces upgraded in a while,” said Scott of the need to bring performance and practice spaces up to date.
The Kokernot Outdoor Theater is being considered for safety upgrades as well as a potential pavilion or structure to cover audience members in the case of inclement weather.
“When we do our summer season we’ve had to cancel before for rain or hail or lightning, and it would be nice to not have to do that,” said Scott. “We want to keep it an outdoor venue because it’s really beautiful. We don’t want anything to obstruct the view of the stars, but on the other hand, we’re trying to figure out a way to keep the shows going.”
There’s also the hope that more up-to-date facilities will help boost student morale and assist in the college’s recruitment efforts. Scott said retention rates for arts students at Sul Ross are among the highest on campus and they hope to maintain and further improve the student experience with the tuition bond-funded projects.
“When we have big, shiny facilities that are up-to-date and very inviting — things like flexible theater spaces and nice art studios — I think that that is something that will definitely at least help us attract students and continue to keep them,” said Scott.
The opportunity to apply and receive the funds underscores the university’s commitment to the arts, said Scott — an area which, in America’s public education system as a whole, is often seen as extraneous and the victim of frequent budget cutbacks. Scott said the arts are just as important as any other subject because they encompass so many aspects of learning, including critical thinking, effective communication and teamwork.
“All of the things we test our students in order to get accredited are all things that they learn in the arts just naturally because of the work itself,” she said. “I’m just really grateful that the state of Texas and the former president chose us for this tuition revenue bond because it is hopeful. It is exciting, because I think that the arts should be never thought of as the first thing to cut.”