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University of North Carolina Students Accuse Administration of Artwashing

A campus-wide fundraising initiative features the slogan “Arts Everywhere,” but art and art history students feel their needs are being systematically neglected.

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill art and humanities students deliver their demands to the University at a rally outside the Chancellor’s office. (photo by Ari Sen)
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill art and humanities students deliver their demands to the University at a rally outside the Chancellor’s office. (photo by Ari Sen)

CHAPEL HILL, NC — Last month, art students and faculty at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill demanded answers from University Chancellor Carol Folt about Arts Everywhere, a campus-wide development campaign that students claim amounts to art-washing. The students allege that the initiative ignores deficits in departmental resources, hiring, and health-safety standards for student and faculty.

Artist Researchers Together for Higher Education Reform (or ART HERE), a coalition of art and art history students, occupied the Chancellor’s office to present their demands under the banner, “Artists Resist Neoliberalism.” According to the group’s website, ART HERE is “organized in response to unsafe and illegal working conditions in both of the University’s Art Department buildings, faculty loss, and continued divestment from academic art pursuits over the last 20 years.” ART HERE’s 16 demands include hiring tenure track faculty, code compliance and facility repair, living-wage stipends and pay raises for graduate students and departmental staff, and the removal of “Silent Sam,” a divisive Confederate war monument on campus that ART HERE activist call, “a symbol still functioning in tacit defense of slavery and a racist social order.”

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill art and humanities students, alongside Graduate Student Union UE 150, gathered outside Chancellor Folt’s Office. (photo by Kelsey Martin)
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill art and humanities students, alongside Graduate Student Union UE 150, gathered outside Chancellor Folt’s Office. (photo by Kelsey Martin)

Arts Everywhere, which kicked off its second year in April, has drawn the ire of students with public programs and artworks (including painted pianos) spread across campus. Students believe the campus-wide arts celebration disregards the seriousness of research by artists and art historians on campus, obscures systemic bias in Art Department hiring and retention practices, and ignores the pressing need to fix Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) violations in campus art facilities. Arts Everywhere is just a small part of the Campaign for Carolina, a $4.25 billion fundraising effort that includes a goal of $1 billion to support student scholarships. Arts Everywhere aspires to make art as big as basketball, a nod to the famed Carolina legacy team, but comprises only a $250 million portion of the whole campaign goal.

Built around the development capacity of each department and unit on campus, the campaign’s funding priorities for the arts are almost exclusively in service of the Ackland Art Museum, which recently received gifts of artworks valued at $41.5 million. There is no mention of Art Department funding needs and images of painted pianos in Arts Everywhere promotional materials provide no acknowledgment of the work of student artists. “For us, Arts Everywhere is really about making sure that everyone knows that the arts are for everyone,” Emil Kang, the Special Assistant for the Chancellor for the Arts, says in a promotional video for the campaign. “They’re not just for arts majors or arts faculty or arts patrons, but for everyone.”

The administration reacted quickly to the students’ “Revolt Against Folt” protest. A meeting with Deans, Art Department faculty, and students preceded the occupation of the chancellor’s office, and at the monthly Faculty Executive Committee (FEC) meeting on May 7, Chancellor Folt made a rare appearance, prepared with remarks about the Arts Everywhere campaign.

“I think what people haven’t been understanding is that art is a way to get people excited,” the Chancellor told students and FEC members at the meeting. “I didn’t see this as anything but good. [The protest] was a shock.” That same morning, UNC Department of History graduate student Maya Little appeared in court on vandalism charges for pouring red ink and her own blood on the Silent Sam monument.

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Art Department funding needs and facility violations have been well documented and long discussed with university administration. A 2016 external report compiled by Raleigh-based Hipp Engineering and Consulting, based on a review of the student Art Lab (built in 1976 as a temporary building and still in use today), found multiple health code, fire safety, and OSHA violations.

The Paint Spray Room at the UNC Art Lab (photo by the author)
The Paint Spray Room at the UNC Art Lab (photo by the author)

The report noted that the paint and spray room was missing fire-rated walls, fire suppression systems, and had improper ventilation. The building’s mechanical equipment dated to the building’s construction and had “outlived their service life expectancy.” Only two studios had air conditioning from an HVAC system first installed in 2015 that, according to the report, overloaded existing electrical infrastructure during peak summer hours. “The ceramics, metals, and woodworking shops have no active cooling, and are only conditioned by exhausting air via individual rooftop fans in each room,” the reported noted. “The Art Lab users stated that temperatures in these rooms in the summer can become so excessive that some students have become overheated to the point of passing out.” The report also found evidence of microbial contamination in the duct work, no tempered water throughout the building, and lack of accessible entrances and any accessible restrooms, among other failures in ADA compliance.

Another 2016 external report, auditing the whole Art Department — which contains both art and art history students at the undergraduate and PhD levels — described high levels of academic and departmental ability, curricular development, faculty leadership, and research. It applauded the department for providing students practice, training, and critical engagement in historical and contemporary research and practice. However, the report repeatedly described faculty and student resources as “woefully inadequate” and causing a “heavy burden” that “limit [faculty] ability to contribute service to the department, college, and university.” The report concurred with the Hipp report’s facility assessment, stating that “there are a number of major health and safety concerns that require immediate attention” and called for “a thorough air quality assessment to determine if the ventilation and air quality in the studios are within current acceptable health and safety standards.” The Art Department’s written response to the external report noted that $20,000 of their endowment funds had been used to buy ventilators for the ceramic shop. Traditionally, department endowment funding is reserved for research and faculty support.

Shelves at UNC’s Sloan Art Library covered in plastic sheeting to protect books from active roof leaks. The sign reads: “If you are looking for a book that is under plastic, please ask at the Circulation desk and we’ll be happy to get it for you. Sorry for the mess! We are supposed to get a new roof within the next year.” (photo by the author)
Shelves at UNC’s Sloane Art Library covered in plastic sheeting to protect books from active roof leaks. The sign reads: “If you are looking for a book that is under plastic, please ask at the Circulation desk and we’ll be happy to get it for you. Sorry for the mess! We are supposed to get a new roof within the next year.” (photo by the author)

Faculty in the Department of Art and Art History note that, since 2011, they have lost a total of seven studio faculty, five of them tenured or on track to receive tenure — including two African American instructors and one Native American instructor. Since then, only one tenure line and two fixed term (three year appointments) have been extended. Only two faculty of color have been hired in the last 8 years, and the recent loss of Assistant Professor Jina Valentine to a post at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago leaves the department without any Black studio faculty. ART HERE activists criticized the administration for a “failed and pathetic retention offer” made to Valentine, and called out the university for not supporting and retaining faculty of color.

“When people leave, it creates big holes in the curriculum,” Valentine told Hyperallergic. “At the same time, the college continues to maintain expectations of the department, despite their operating with less people. The deans of the College of Arts & Sciences recognize the department is at a tipping point, already operating with less resources (human and fiscal) than is needed. Yet they continue to allow faculty to leave and continue to provide inadequate funding.”

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Students and faculty argue that the university’s divestment from humanities in favor of business and science is endemic and can be seen in a pattern of reduced funding, facility decline, and poor faculty retention.

“You don’t raise money from artists, you raise it from business, scientists, and doctors,” Chancellor Folt told FEC members and ART HERE activists, defending the Arts Everywhere campaign. “Art is a way to bring people in, and it tends to get them excited about other things.” Later she added, “People don’t give you money to fix things like water fountains and bad air.”

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill art and humanities students march to the Chancellor’s office during the Revolt Against Folt. (photo by Ari Sen)
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill art and humanities students march to the Chancellor’s office during the Revolt Against Folt. (photo by Ari Sen)

After the meeting with Folt, Associate Professor of Art History, Cary Levine — who is also a member of the Faculty Executive Committee — said:

It is important to make clear that we are not against Arts Everywhere. It is certainly not the problem in and of itself, and they are doing some fine things, but the state of our facilities, faculty, and funding causes real contrast. … Donors look to [the Chancellor] for what is important, and it is up to her to set the tone and make the case. It is wonderful that she wants UNC to be a leader in the arts, but it would be enormously helpful if we — the academic community as well as potential donors — had a detailed vision of what that would look like and a plan of how to realize it, so we can all jump on board. No one has laid that out. We are instead asked to take it on faith, to join the celebration, while the view from the inside remains pretty dismal.

Responding to a request for comment, a University spokesperson was quick to say that change is underway. Repairs on the Sloane Art Library’s leaky roof are underway. Over $90 million has been raised privately in the last few years in support of arts and arts facilities, including the Department of Music, the Center for Dramatic Arts, and the Ackland Museum, notably in artworks for the collection. The Arts Everywhere campaign has already invested in apps, programming, and public artworks around campus, including installations by artists Nick Chatfield-Taylor, Patrick Dougherty, Mary Carter Taub, Cindy Chang’s “Before I Die” mural, and “Spun” chairs by designer Thomas Heatherwick. A new “Arts Everywhere Painting Studio” was opened in an undergraduate dorm with an associated residential-studio fellowship for an MFA student. All this, campus officials argue, points to University’s outsized commitment to the arts.

ART HERE student organizers and faculty liaison Hong-An Truong (left) continue discussions with Chancellor Folt (center) following the Faculty Executive Committee Meeting on May. (photo by the author)
ART HERE student organizers and faculty liaison Hong-An Truong (left) continue discussions with Chancellor Folt (center) following the Faculty Executive Committee Meeting on May 7, 2018. (photo by the author)

Disputing ART HERE’s assertion that the Campaign for Carolina is developed without departmental needs in mind, the University spokesperson said that the overall $4.25 billion campaign goal is pieced together from the fundraising goals and needs of each area and department within the University. Campus officials also stress that gifts to the University are donor-driven, suggesting that private interest in the form of philanthropy predominantly determines the allocation and deployment of resources. For this reason, funding for the arts is directed toward independent institutions on campus with greater development capacities and wealthy boards, while departments, which rarely have development professionals or boards, receive significantly less in private gifts. Even as officials refute ART HERE’s claims, they offer no comment on the decline in faculty tenure (while noting that a new photography professor will start in the fall), disparity in retention practices, or OSHA violations at the Art Lab, which is a separate facility from the Sloane Art Library. Student activists argue that all these factors attest to a pattern of neoliberal privatization across the university system.

Though the University of North Carolina is the oldest public university in the country (it opened in 1795), a Research I university, and considered a legacy institution in the state, it has been dealt heavy budget cuts by the Republican state legislature. Folt lamented that UNC-Chapel Hill has about $800 million of deferred maintenance costs with $235 million in total state cuts since 2008. In response to failing Art Department facilities, the Chancellor said: “Clearly that needs to be on the cue and I’m going to go back to ask for it.”

At a recent planning meeting for ART HERE, Annie Simpson, a BFA student in Studio Art argued, “[Art] is not painting flower pots, it’s not sitting in spinning chairs, it’s not painting pianos,” she said. “It’s an academic pursuit.” The group is preparing for a June 20 meeting with the Provost and discussing plans for a summer campaign. John DeKemper, a first year MFA, echoed Simpson’s sentiment: “Art’s not avocational, it’s vocational.”

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