After making a lot of money in business, Gary Knapp wanted to give back to the University of Kentucky’s Gatton College of Business and Economics, where he earned his doctorate in the 1970s and learned skills that made him successful.
“I started thinking back to what it was like to be a student,” said Knapp, recalling UK’s circa 1963 Commerce Building where he studied. “A lot of painted cement block walls, terrazzo floors and steel doors. It was not a visually stimulating place.”
Nobody can say that now.
The old Commerce Building, to which a wing was added in 1991, got a privately funded $65 million renovation and expansion last year. It is now a handsome piece of architecture, thanks to renowned architect Robert A.M. Stern’s New York firm and Ross Tarrant Architects of Lexington.
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And because of an endowment Knapp created about 15 years ago to buy art for the college, the building displays some impressive work by UK faculty, instructors and graduate students.
“I think they’ve done a wonderful job,” Knapp said of the art, which was chosen in juried competitions. “The talent in the College of Fine Arts is really impressive.”
The building’s largest new piece is a four-ton stainless steel and bronze sculpture suspended from the ceiling of a soaring new atrium. “Humanity Roll — Left to Right” was created by Garry R. Bibbs, an associate professor in the School of Art & Visual Studies. The sculpture symbolizes life’s journey.
“I’ll be sitting at my desk tackling something difficult, and I’ll just walk out to the landing and look at that sculpture for a while,” said David Blackwell, the Gatton College’s dean. “Art really gives life to the place. I know it affects me. Especially that sculpture.”
An interior glass wall below the sculpture serves as the canvas for an installation of vinyl figures called “Tally Mark” by Tianlan Deng, an art graduate student from Shanghai. It was inspired by a form of accounting notation based on the number five invented in China during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912).
At the top of the atrium’s giant staircase is “Chromadynamics” by Robert Dickes, a senior lecturer in photography. It is a giant black pegboard with a design created by nearly 68,000 colored pencils. Dickes can change the design periodically by rearranging the pencils.
Just inside the building’s new Garden Plaza is “Heart of the Machine,” a painting by local artist Lennon Michalski, who has been a UK instructor in digital media, drawing and two-dimensional design.
Among many smaller works around the building is “Big Wind,” a sculpture by Robert Shay, a professor of ceramics. It consists of pieces of slip cast clay with multiple glaze firings to give it the appearance of metal.
The building expansion required the removal of two notable large, old campus trees: an oak and a zelkova, a Japanese tree related to the elm. Lynn Sweet, an artist and art studio technician in the School of Art &Visual Studies, designed a huge conference table and sideboard and worked with John Leininger of Leininger Cabinet & Woodworking to make them from wood harvested from the two trees.
Knapp, an art enthusiast whose wife is a painter, created the art fund as part of a $3 million endowment that also supports faculty in UK’s Arts Administration program. Knapp said the idea of sourcing all of the Gatton College’s art from UK faculty and graduate students came from the late Richard Furst, Gatton’s dean from 1981-2003.
“It’s been a great partnership with the College of Fine Arts,” said Ann Mary Quarandillo, the Gatton College’s director of marketing and communications. “So many of our College of Fine Arts folks are also working local artists. So it’s not like the community is shut out.”
Blackwell said the art and architecture were important to the college’s goal of creating a community atmosphere for learning — as well as getting students accustomed to working in spaces resembling corporate offices.
The new building and its art already have become powerful recruiting tools for the college, which has about 3,700 students and expects to grow to 4,000 in the near future, said Ken Troske, an associate dean who managed the project.
“As you can see from all the activity in the atrium, the building is functioning as it was designed to,” Blackwell said. “It really has changed the culture of the college.”
Blackwell expects to have another juried competition in a year or two to choose more art. “As you can see,” he said, “we’ve still got a lot of empty space.”