Feature: Centering on the Arts | New Fine Arts Building Exhibits All Signs of Success

The dynamic new Fine Arts Building offers opportunities for collaboration and program expansion 

Matt de la Peña ’04

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Long before she became a teacher, Becky Soderberg ’94 was an art student in search of an identity. That identity flourished under the tutelage of former SPS faculty member Tim Miller and, at the time, under the roof of the beautiful Hargate Building. “That’s where I fell in love with art,” Soderberg says of Hargate (now the Friedman Community Center) and the SPS Fine Arts Program. “It’s kind of like I found my place, where I felt comfortable and was able to take ownership over the studio.” Nearly 20 years later, Soderberg transitioned in 2012 from one-time student to newly christened faculty member, and one thing became oddly conspicuous. As students filtered out of morning Chapel to make their way to class, “everybody walked left up to the Schoolhouse and the [arts faculty] walked right to Hargate,” she says. 

 Soderberg works with a student at a pottery wheel

Soderberg works with a student at a pottery wheel

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That was then. This fall, the School marked a new turning point for the Fine Arts Program with the opening of the Fine Arts Building, a structure of remarkable variety and functionality. The two-level structure boasts, among other things, a new welding and glass blowing studio (Miller Studio), a ceramics and sculpture studio, and the multipurpose Callahan Studio. On the second level: The Abbé Studio, consisting of two 2D studios and a faculty suite, the digital media studio (Ho Studio), and a sculpture terrace (Penner Sculpture Terrace). And under construction a few steps behind, in what was formerly the Freeman Center (now the Crumpacker Gallery), a gallery of scope and scale that rivals the kind seen in major U.S. cities – a historical archive as much as it is a viewing space. 

But all that may be a bonus. If you ask the faculty, the real perk is the building’s new location, which sits in the heart of what the School hopes will become a wellspring of interdisciplinary collaboration between departments. Mere feet from the new Fine Arts Building are the Schoolhouse, the Lindsay Center for Mathematics and Science, the Oates Performing Arts Center, and the Dance Building. “Now,” adds Soderberg, “it’s like we’re actually part of [the academic quad].”

Architectural Changes

Speaking of change, if you graduated before the turn of the Millennium and haven’t returned since, you likely wouldn’t completely recognize the St. Paul’s of the 21st century. Sure, the Chapel still stands at the center of the grounds but, in the last 15 years, the School has transformed in ways more big than small. In 2004, SPS unveiled the Athletic and Fitness Center, a 95,000-square-foot facility with an indoor Olympic-sized swimming pool. Six years later, Rector Mike Hirschfeld ’85 and members of the SPS Board of Trustees broke ground on what would become the 78,000-square-foot Lindsay Center for Mathematics and Science, home to 14 science labs and 21 classrooms. In 2016, Ohrstrom Library showed off its remodeled lower level, which now houses the Penner Center for Innovative Teaching; the library now boasts 75,000 print books and close to half a million e-books in its digital archives as part of the remodel, putting the School archives on par with some of the country’s major universities.  In 2015, Hargate – aptly described as the geographical center of the School – underwent construction to make way for the Friedman Community Center, part of a $9 million renovation project funded by 29 parents and alumni to create a central gathering place for members of the SPS community.

The erection of the Friedman Community Center ultimately set off a chain reaction, which included the arts faculty and fine arts students taking up temporary residence in a trailer outside the Moore Building in preparation for the most anticipated makeover of the Fine Arts Program since the 1960s – a completely reimagined Moore. After a roughly two-year period, the new building is now coming into full view, marking the completion of a strategic transformation that’s been ongoing the last two decades and ushering in a new era of the fine arts at SPS.  “We’ve had a hard couple of years, but it’s a really positive addition,” says Soderberg. “People are going to be really happy when they see the new building.”

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Making the Move

Conversations about the need for a new Fine Arts Building began around 2009, when the prospect of relocating the Art Department overlapped with the funding campaign for the new community center project. Much of the discussion revolved around the perception that the Fine Arts Program had become an afterthought in relation to math, science, and the humanities, whose buildings sit near one another in the academic quad. The distance, however small, seemed an obstacle both physically and psychologically, according to SPS Director of Facilities Engineering Paul Lachance. 

“It’s an overused word, but to be inclusive,” Lachance says of the School’s strategic planning process. “From a location standpoint, it really was a proximity thing, to feel like [the new art center] would be part of the School and not an outlier.”

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As Lachance tells it, Moore was a logical solution to the problem, as it sat comfortably in the heart of the quad and in good proximity to the music and dance buildings. There were other benefits, too. With the addition of the community center, the once oft-used but now-obsolete Freeman Center was ripe for a makeover. A climate-controlled art gallery is what administrators came up with – ideal for storage, archival research, and even a digital photography center housing two studios on the building’s lower level. 

Furthermore, the plan to renovate the old math building and the Freeman Center also called for an overhaul of the pathways located directly behind the music and dance buildings, which funnel toward Friedman and the housing quad across from the Athletic and Fitness Center. The School tentatively refers to it as the “Art Walk,” scheduled to be unveiled in the spring of 2018, with hopes of making the landscape less of a “backlot” and creating an identity that fits the model of the School. 

Those ideas began to come to life around 2015. As the gut renovation of the old Hargate ensued, the fine arts faculty set up temporary digs in a pair of trailers next to the Freeman Center and what was still the Tuck Shop, where burgers, pizza, and snacks continued to feed the late-night cravings of students looking for a quick study break. It was perhaps the only obstacle the School encountered throughout the entire process, albeit an amusing one involving hungry adolescents. 

 Students work in a collaborative space within the Abbé Studio.

Students work in a collaborative space within the Abbé Studio.

For a year and half, the five-member department anxiously waited as architects of the Boston-based firm AnnBeha went to work with engineers, designing, crafting, and assembling the contemporary vision of a new facility. The fine art faculty fought off the temptation of fried foods as they taught classes inside the trailers.

“That was a lot of fun, to get the smell of French fries down into the studios,” says Colin Callahan, chair of the Arts Department, with a laugh. “But we survived. I think I inhaled my cholesterol intake for a year.” If aesthetics is the barometer for interest, the new Fine Arts Building, which officially opened at the start of the Fall Term, stands to become the most popular location on campus. With its ornate design and fashionable, trendy interior, the building’s accoutrements compare to the major contemporary art houses of Manhattan’s popularized SoHo district, ranging from the outward displays of the ventilation ducts to the electrical wiring to the design of windows. It’s what’s affectionately referred to as “industrial chic” – and it was all by design.

“You can move around the spaces more, in and out. All the detail work is revealed – the mechanical, the structural things,” explains Callahan. “If you look up at the ceiling, you see all the conduits, the piping, all the truss work. It’s beautifully done – utilitarian, very functional but very elegant at the same time.”

“You can move around the spaces more, in and out. All the detail work is revealed – the mechanical, the structural things,” explains Callahan. “If you look up at the ceiling, you see all the conduits, the piping, all the truss work. It’s beautifully done – utilitarian, very functional but very elegant at the same time.”

 Callahan demonstrates for student painters.

Callahan demonstrates for student painters.

Shaping the Future

Adding to the Fine Arts Building’s intrigue are two new niche courses that Callahan and the rest of the faculty believe are central to long-term coursework that distinguishes the St. Paul’s art program from those of other secondary schools. With the new, more thoughtful space comes a dedicated welding and glassblowing studio (Miller Studio) – a luxury that extends well beyond the academic courses traditionally offered by the SPS educational experience. Overall, Callahan calls the erection of the new Fine Arts Building a “significant move.”

“It’s a new flashy building. People will like that,” Callahan says. “But I think it’s a better facility for the program we offer. It’s got a lot of interesting possibilities.” To understand what the building means for the future of the arts at SPS, you have to go back to the beginning. The evolution of the arts dates back to the days of Bill Abbé and Tom Barrett. In the 1960s, the legendary fine arts teachers spent a good deal of time debating how they might convince school administrators to turn what was then Hargate’s Lower School Dining Hall into a gallery and studio space. And, in 1967, the building was renovated to fit the needs of a growing Fine Arts Program, with a consistent curriculum that began to take shape once inside the reimagined space. 

“That’s when the department really got off the ground,” says Callahan. “Tom set up the program, had a course called visual design as the basis of it, and then had 2D and 3D courses. That’s how we chugged along all the way up until 2012.” The chugging in Hargate was an integral part of the SPS coursework for years. Eventually – and, perhaps inevitably – the oddities of the building’s configurations began to reveal themselves as unusual if not intrusive: A studio with a column in the center of the room, funny “L”-shaped rooms upstairs and downstairs.

“We worked well with it,” Callahan says, “but now we have space that is really geared strictly for studio work.” Callahan remembers arriving at SPS in the 1980s. Back then, students graduated with two or three years of math and science. Years later, the pendulum swung in the other direction and the School began instituting art requirements. Fast-forward to the 2000s, when interest in the arts dropped again – a pressure point that Callahan notes is part of a nationwide trend. A national survey conducted by Americans for the Arts in 2011 found that 66 percent of public school teachers say that schools are narrowing curriculum to focus more on math and language arts. As recently as this past fall, the Trump administration proposed eliminating federal funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endoment for the Humanities almost entirely. The struggle for art programming, as has been the case in recent history, remains a challenge. 

 Brian Schroyer's drawing class hard at work.

Brian Schroyer's drawing class hard at work.

There’s hope that the new Fine Arts Building might change that, whether it’s the draw of the painting, printmaking, architecture, drawing, and design studios, or the flexible arrangement. The lower level’s 3D program has been expanded to include large ceramics and sculpting spaces, and the new glassblowing course is already popular among students; more than 80 students signed up for the 24 spots and the program anticipates a selective process to meet demand.

Callahan adds that there has been a big push for interdisciplinary work over the last few years, as the SPS faculty finds new ways to engage students in the classroom; a new glass studio, for example, is a technical luxury that immediately associates with areas in the sciences. “I’ve already started talking with members of the department about other subjects and things like that,” Callahan says. “The curriculum is responding to our interests but, at the same time, maintaining the integrity of the Fine Arts program.”