You enter a gallery filled with some of the world’s best-known paintings and most inspired sculptures. Perhaps you find your way into the gallery that holds Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa,” only you don’t have to wait in line — you’re already there. Then — flash — you’re chiseling a slab of Italian marble or reaching out to touch an ancient ruin.
No, it’s not science fiction. It’s something that is just on the horizon at BSU as construction begins on the new Center for Fine Arts building that will have at its center the World Museum, a virtual space that can be transformed for unique learning experiences.
The $42 million project reflects BSU President Bob Kustra’s latest vision, one that encompasses a broad approach to creative thought and innovation. The project received both public and private funding, including $5 million from the state Permanent Building Fund and $32 million in bonds approved by the Idaho State Board of Education. Another $4 million in private donations has been raised, and BSU is looking to raise another $1 million. The university broke ground on the project Tuesday, May 2.
Kustra landed at Boise State in 2003 with a mission to reinvent the university as a learning institution known nationally for more than the blue turf at the football stadium.
He cast BSU as a “Metropolitan Research University of Distinction,” a place where development of new ideas and technology can flourish. Though it sounds like it’s all about science, Kustra says that in his thinking it never excluded the arts.
“The word research is an umbrella over a whole bunch of activities that also includes the creative arts,” Kustra says.
We needed to focus on STEM first, but didn’t want the arts and humanities to get lost on the journey.
BSU President Bob Kustra
So while the Broncos thrived, BSU developed its science, technology, engineering and math programs, and Kustra oversaw the construction of the Micron Business and Economic Center, Honors College and Alumni and Friends Center. The Micron Center for Materials Research is on the way. He created the College of Innovation and Design, and STEM graduates went from 8 percent when Kustra arrived to 15 percent today, which is the national average.
Even with all those accomplishments, Kustra says he’s most proud of creating a future home for the university’s fine arts.
“This building will be the crowning achievement of my time here,” he says. “Having that building represents not just the art department, but all that the arts and humanities have to offer the people of Idaho.”
In the past several years, Kustra has turned his focus more seriously to the arts and humanities — an area of study for which he holds a soft spot. He personally enjoys theater and music, collects art and loves to read.
The movement for the Center for Fine Arts started in 2011, when Kustra convened a task force to explore ways to expand the role of the arts both on campus and in the community. The group identified the need to bring the department together, cohesively, in one world-class building.
“We could no longer function as an art department in seven different facilities that were close to dangerous, and, at the least, not accredited,” Kustra says. “We knew we had to make a move, (and) we knew it was going to be tough sledding, because everybody wants to give to football, the business college and a few other things on campus. Giving to the arts is always the toughest sell, but we were able to do it in Boise, a city that loves and engages in the arts in every way.”
In 2013, the university put together a Visual Design Committee that included philanthropists Kay Hardy, Gregory Kaslo, Esther Oppenheimer and others to look at the project, says Laura Simic, vice president of university advancement.
“During that stage, the look of the building went from a traditional box to this great design that shows form and movement,” Simic says. “The building is itself a piece of art, and it wouldn’t be that without the community’s input.”
It took another two years to get the fundraising going, she says. It started with $5 million from the state for design and development.
The five-story building, designed by Boise’s LCA Architects, will stand on the west side of campus, near the Morrison Center. Within its studios, classrooms and glass-walled spaces, it will unite all the visual arts departments — art history, printmaking, metal arts, painting, ceramics, sculpture and more.
“It must not only be a physical space; it must become symbolic of Boise State’s emphasis on the arts and humanities,” Kustra says. “Now we have this iconic, new, beautiful building that is the perfect way to balance the fact that we are a comprehensive university, and we are going to serve all people in all disciplines.”
The visual arts at BSU have been coming on strong, with a growing presence in the community. Eighteen of the 24 artists featured in the Idaho Triennial, an independently juried, statewide art exhibit now showing at the Boise Art Museum, earned degrees from BSU or teach in the department. When the new building opens in fall 2019, it will take things to the next level, says art department chairwoman Kathleen Keys.
“It will create an invaluable nexus for artistic study and creative activity on campus, and greatly invigorate faculty and student research,” Keys says. “It will become a place for grade-school students, community members, university students, faculty members, artists and scholars to be immersed in the creation, exploration and study of art.”
Good for all the arts
As the fine arts building becomes a reality, it signals a resurgence of focus on all the creative disciplines on campus, says theater department chairman Richard Klautsch.
You commit to art like that and it’s a big statement.
Theater department chair Richard Klautsch
“Now there is a new excitement and focus on the arts across campus,” Klautsch says.
It looks to be on track to launch in fall 2018.
“I haven’t been as excited since the MFA program started 21 years ago,” Wieland says.
This is taking it to the next level.
Mitch Wieland, director of BSU’s MFA in Creative Writing
Boise State’s master’s in creative writing is already one of the most respected programs of its size in the country. It is nationally recognized for its Idaho Review, a literary journal that publishes short stories from the best American writers, including Joyce Carol Oates, T.C. Boyle and Rick Bass. Its Ahsahta Press, overseen by poet and professor Janet Holmes, is one of the most respected poetry publishers around. And the master’s students get to work on both publications.
In 2010, the Huffington Post highlighted it as one of the Top 25 Underrated Creative Writing MFA Programs, and it ranks in the Top 50 on the Poets and Writers annual list.
The theater program is known for the expansive education its students receive — from acting and writing to scenic and lighting design. It’s also a strong bridge to the community when BSU theater artists work with Idaho Shakespeare Festival, Boise Contemporary Theater and other community groups.
That all started adding up, Wieland says.
“As Dr. Kustra finished up the art building, I got the sense that he wanted to make us his next project,” Wieland says. “He’s always had a fondness for fiction writing, and I think to him, it felt like it was time.”
Literature is one of Kustra’s personal passions. He and a team of reviewers write monthly book reviews for the Idaho Statesman, and he hosts a public radio show by the same name: “Reader’s Corner.” He interviews some of the world’s best-known authors, and Kustra’s son, Stephen, was a writer. He died of cancer at age 37 in 2009. Kustra and his wife, Kathy, created the Stephen R. Kustra Fellowship at BSU, which helps incoming MFA students with moving expenses and establishing themselves in Boise.
The new department also will create a master’s degree in writing for film and theater that likely will start in fall 2019, after a new faculty position is created and filled, Klautsch says.
The connection between creative writing and theater makes perfect sense, Klautsch says.
“We’re all storytellers, just in different mediums.”
This union also will create two new undergraduate degrees in creative writing.
“I’m most excited about developing a BA and BFA in creative writing,” Wieland says. “I think it’s going to be really popular, especially with the interest Boise has in the literary arts. To have a vibrant undergraduate degree will be a creative generator.”
The new undergraduate degrees will start in fall 2018, but novelist Emily Ruskovich will join the faculty this fall to help make it happen. An Idaho native, she is receiving rave reviews for her debut novel, “Idaho,” which has been described as “haunting and gorgeously written” by People magazine and as a masterful Northwest novel by The New York Times Book Review.
Ruskovich will teach in the undergraduate and graduate programs.
It makes the program even more attractive to students, says Becca Anderson, of Wisconsin, who will start at BSU in the fall.
I like how dynamic the program feels.
Becca Anderson, incoming MFA graduate student
“It’s left the English department; it’s hiring new faculty,” she says. “The visiting writers always seem to be awesome. It feels like a program that’s actively growing and reshaping itself, and I’m excited to be a part of that.”
These additions are a boon to the Treasure Valley’s already vibrant literary scene, says Kurt Zwolfer, director of The Cabin.
“What’s exciting is that it will bring a critical mass of writers to Boise,” he says. “When you have more bodies, you create more energy. You get more collaborations, more synergy between different arts groups.”
The university also is moving toward bringing all arts — visual, theater, creative writing and music — together into one School of the Arts that will be within the College of Arts and Sciences.
That would be a huge step forward, Klautsch says.
“There will be more interdisciplinary projects, and we’ll have a stronger, more cohesive voice,” Klautsch says. “We’ll be able to show that the arts are a big part of the economic, social and cultural life of the city.”
For Wieland and Klautsch, the new Narrative Television Initiative created by Ryan Cannon, who directs the Cinema & Digital Media Studies in the Department of Communications, is the best example of creative synergy.
“It takes all of us together to make it work,” Wieland says.
Cannon’s program offers students a chance to write, film and produce an original television series. He collaborated with the MFA program and theater department to develop the four-semester program that mirrors the phases of production.
“This is an exercise in experiential learning,” Cannon says. “Working on TV is so collaborative. This puts the students in the room together and gives them those skills.”
Last semester, Brady Udall, an associate professor in the MFA program, headed the writers room, where students wrote and developed a TV show.
This semester’s focus is on casting, location scouting, hiring directors and getting all the ducks in a row for the summer’s production phase.
The show “...and beyond,” a half-hour comedy that goes behind the scenes on a ghost-hunting show being made in Boise, will get filmed this summer. The fall semester will then focus on post-production — editing, sound looping, special effects, etc.
“This is something that’s big in the industry right now, and it’s a fruitful thing to get our students involved with,” Cannon says.
Television writer Heather Marion, pictured right, of the hit show “Better Call Saul” gave a talk at Boise State in March, thanks to the new Public Cultural Initiative created by art professor Stephanie Bacon and English professor Jacky O’Connor.
“We wanted to create a speaker series that was different than all the other great speaker series we have,” O’Connor says. “After lots of discussions, we focused in on the idea of ‘smart and popular.’ Someone who is emerging in their field and close enough to our students to offer real, tangible inspiration.”
They chose Marion for the first speaker as a response to Cannon’s initiative. Again, more synergy — Marion really connected with BSU.
“I was super impressed with Boise and the initiative,” Marion says. “What they’re doing is ahead in some ways of even my master’s program at UCLA. I’m really amazed by the talent and that everyone is working as a team: ‘Let’s help each other and make the best art we can.’ It’s such a creative environment. I’d come back in a heartbeat to do something more.”
Kustra sees art as a way to spark creativity and generate connectivity. That’s why in 2014 he brought renowned sculptor Benjamin Victor, pictured above, to Boise State as an artist in residence and a professor of practice. Victor initially came to Boise to create the bronze statue of Micron founder Steve Appleton that stands outside the Micron Business Center. (Appleton died in 2012 when his small plane crashed at the Boise Airport.)
Kustra and Victor hit it off.
“He’s one of the finest figurative sculptors in the country. We met, and he mentioned that he had relatives in Twin Falls and that he liked Idaho,” Kustra says. “I was like, ‘How much do you like Idaho?’ He said he’d like to work here, and we put it all together after just one conversation.”
Kustra transformed the old BSU auto depot into the Benjamin Victor Gallery that also is Victor’s working sculpture studio.
The studio is a creative hub at the university that Kustra says helped generate interest in BSU arts and the art building project.
“It’s amazing how many ways Ben has helped the university,” Kustra says. “We hold Chamber of Commerce events in the gallery. The gallery has attracted the attention of donors, and Ben expands the opportunity for our students.”
Victor jumped at the BSU opportunity when he learned about the plan for the fine arts building.
“I knew it would be a great creative generator, and I wanted to be part of that,” says Victor, who at the time was living in Aberdeen, S.D.
Victor’s studio is a place where the university and the community meet. He runs a weekly life-drawing open studio for students because drawing the human form is essential to figurative sculpture. Students are his assistants, and he is bringing in Italian master sculptor and podcaster Jason Arkles this summer to work with BSU students.
“This is a very creative and eclectic community,” Victor says. “The new building will bring more talent to the school and keep that talent staying around longer and taking the same pride as former athletes take in being part of our sports programs and feeling a tie to the community beyond graduation.”
Bringing the world to Boise
Kustra’s visionary methods, BSU’s collaborative spirit and the community’s support all come together with the creation of the World Museum.
Kustra came up with the idea for the virtual classroom and then tasked the College of Innovation and Design to make it happen.
Professor Anthony Ellertson, who runs the Gaming, Interactive Media & Mobile Technology program at CID, is one of several people working on the project.
The GIMM program blends science, technology, engineering, art and math — so STEAM, instead of STEM — and it’s just the spot for this technology to be invented — not by chance, but by practice.
“Creativity is not a magic process,” Ellertson says. “It’s intentional. It’s a process you engage in. You apply methodology and teamwork and focus on the questions: How do you take a space and bring in some of the greatest artistic achievements in human history in a way that’s not static? How can people interact with it and learn about it?”
They’re currently building prototypes that let you chisel into a slab of marble or listen to a Renaissance painting of a woman telling you about her world.
“Think of the portraits in ‘Harry Potter,’ ” Ellertson says.
The team also is working with augmented reality technology, which could use “smart” Lego pieces that, when viewed through augmented reality glasses, would let you see an ancient city.
It would not be possible without the community support, Kustra says.
“In the last analysis, it was people in Boise who stepped up to make (the World Museum) happen — individuals who care about the arts,” he says. “People like Skip and Esther Oppenheimer (and) Catherine Stein said, ‘We can help. We can play a role here.’ ”
Stein and her husband, Keith, who died in 2015, were huge supporters of Boise State. They helped fund the music department’s Steinway School and the Keith Stein Blue Thunder Marching Band. Now Catherine Stein continues that support with the World Museum.
She was drawn to the project because of a personal connection.
When Stein was 14, she went to the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City and experienced a theater-in-the-round that enveloped the audience with imagery that took them on a global journey. Years later, she, Keith and their family discovered the same technology at Disneyland in California.
“Keith just loved it. It took you all over the world,” Stein says. “Keith is gone, but I know he would support the idea. He loved travel because it’s about life experiences and opening your heart and mind. We believe that this world museum could do the same thing and be transformative for anyone who visits and is transported though the experience.”
BSU community events
▪ Sarah Lewis, author and Harvard University assistant professor of art history, will talk about “Vision and Justice: How Artists Continue to Reshape Our World,” 7 p.m. Monday, April 17, Jordan Ballroom, Student Union Building. Free.
▪ “Vivid Threads: Moroccan Textiles and Art,” from the Lynne and Forrest Geerken collection, BSU Arts and Humanities Institute Gallery, Ron and Linda Yanke Research Park, 220 E. ParkCenter Blvd., until fall 2018. Free and open to the public from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays to Fridays.
Learn more about Boise State at BoiseState.edu.