The University of Kentucky Art Department was created in 1918, the same year the state high school basketball tournament began and only 15 years after UK launched its basketball program.
"UK was slightly ahead of the curve," said Art Department chairman Ben Withers, noting that many other universities didn't create visual art departments until years later. "But sports has been able to actively engage Kentucky's public imagination in ways that the arts have not."
He isn't being critical of Kentucky, or of basketball. After all, Withers is from Cynthiana, the hometown of former UK basketball Coach Joe B. Hall.
But Withers said he wasn't exposed to visual arts much until he went to college in Minnesota.
"It opened the world to me," said the art historian, whose research focuses on early medieval art.
If anything, Withers said, artists and academics haven't done enough to make participating in the visual arts appeal to average Kentuckians in ways that build public enthusiasm and support.
"There's not that disdain for the Sunday afternoon basketball player like too many art departments have for the Sunday afternoon painter," he said. "Part of what we have to do is find a way to engage the community similar to — but not in competition with — sports. We have to show that art is not just for the snobbish elite."
UK's Art Department is trying to do that in a couple of ways — one focused on the community, the other on UK undergraduates.
The department's Fine Arts Institute offers non-credit art instruction to the public. The classes are taught by UK faculty, graduates and local artists, and they attract about 100 people each term.
Classes are offered in drawing, painting, ceramics, fabric art, metalworking and woodworking, and digital photography software. The institute also has workshops in beginning drawing and painting, and in digital photography and metalworking.
This fall's classes begin Monday. For more information, and to register, go to Uky.edu/finearts/art/fineartsinstitute.
The department also is offering new classes to UK students who are not majoring in art. As part of changes to UK's general education requirements, undergraduates must take courses that teach hands-on creativity. One option is visual art.
To help teach those classes, the Art Department recently hired seven non- tenure track faculty from among more than 100 applicants compiled in a nationwide search, Withers said.
"With these new faculty, it will bring a new set of artists into Lexington who will get involved in things all over town," Withers said.
The Art Department has about 300 undergraduate majors and 30 graduate students, and over the years it has been able to attract some outstanding artists as faculty members, including Arturo Alonzo Sandoval and the late John Tuska.
But the program wasn't accredited by the National Association of Schools of Art and Design until 2008, largely because of its shabby facilities, Withers said. For all of the Reynolds Building's large, well-lit spaces, the converted tobacco warehouse on South Broadway was a dump. The building is finally getting some long-needed safety renovations.
But because a proper renovation of the Reynolds Building would be so expensive, UK hopes to renovate another former tobacco warehouse around the corner on Bolivar Street and move the art department there. Renovating that building, which developer Rob McGoodwin converted into the University Lofts several years ago, would be about $2 million cheaper than a Reynolds Building rehab for about the same amount of space.
If the General Assembly approves the project this winter, Withers hopes the new building can be ready for classes by fall 2013. The building is more conveniently located, and in addition to providing much-improved studio space, it would give the Art Department a more visible public profile.
"We're misleading our children when we tell them it's all about computer technology and rote learning," Withers said of education. He said research shows the value of creativity in business success and the increasing importance of visual literacy in society.
"People get more information from images these days than they do from language," he said. "That's what we have to prepare the next generations of citizens for."