Columbus State University President Frank D. Brown describes just another Sunday in downtown Columbus, Georgia this spring. Students were perched in their loft apartments with the exposed brick walls, with views of the RiverCenter for the Performing Arts and its three theaters, one 2,000-seater having played host in its five-year history to performers like Bill Cosby, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma. Perched just minutes away from the university’s brand-new theater and art complex overlooking the Chattahoochee River -- the river that rips Georgia from Alabama -- the students could be heard but not always seen, the sound from the sky that Sunday, Brown says, quite splendid. “Students were up in their loft apartments practicing their instruments. It was like a concert in the street, with such a wide variety of sounds, a very special time.”
“We are creating, I think, the feeling of an art colony downtown.”
At Columbus State, construction of the institution’s new downtown arts campus is clanking to a close as art and theater students moved to their new facilities this spring, joining the music students who’ve studied in the city of Columbus proper since January 2001. Two new student housing options also opened downtown this fall. The RiverPark campus housing can accommodate 350 students, and about 500 to 600 art, music and theater students now take a 15-minute drive or shuttle ride back and forth between the main suburban Columbus campus for their core courses and the downtown arts campus for work in their majors.
Elements of Columbus State’s new campus may seem familiar: a university’s commitment to downtown revitalization, an emphasis on the arts, the establishment of a branch campus. But the particulars of the Columbus State situation -- in which a young (50 next year), regional public university elevated the arts to flagship program status and a city of 185,000 rallied to raise about $200 million for university and community arts initiatives in seven years -- suggest an unusually strong public commitment to the arts from both.
“The story goes back many years to the founding of the institution," says Brown. "We were a struggling two-year institution and yet the president at that time made a decision to include music, specifically, and a little later, art and theater – pretty unusual for a university simply concerned with the basic courses.” Leaders of the university, which has now expanded to 7,600 undergraduate and graduate students, continue to be concerned about properly balancing the expansion of the arts with their regional mission, and the emphasis on programs in business, teacher education and nursing, to name a few. “We’re trying to stay away from being known as the arts school because we serve a much broader mission,” Brown says. “But clearly, the visibility from the arts is going to help us lift the futures of all our disciplines."
“What you’ll find is that we’re trying to attract the best students," says Earl Coleman, associate dean for the fine and performing arts at Columbus State and interim director of the Schwob School of Music. "If you look at the test scores of the art, music and theater students, their general scores are much higher than the general scores of the university.” The majority of arts students at the school, Coleman says, are preparing for teaching positions, although many are interested in pursuing performance careers.
In a recent tour of a university with a highly ranked music program, Columbus State students were "appalled" at what they considered to be inferior facilities compared to those they enjoy, Coleman says. “Having been at a major university and two middle-sized universities, this is so unique for a school, especially one this small. A lot goes to say for the community and the university and the state coming in on this in collaboration.”
The university has invested about $65 million in downtown Columbus projects over the past 10 years. When Columbus State began outgrowing its main campus arts facilities back in the 1990s, Brown says, “Being a state institution in a very large system, we saw that the prospects of receiving state funding for those facilities were pretty bleak.” Seeing that the Columbus Symphony was also seeking a new space, the entities decided to join together in a fund raising campaign, and, for practical purposes, looked downtown: “In order to pool the largest amount of funding together, to satisfy both of our needs, we agreed to put the center downtown," Brown says.
With permission from the Georgia Board of Regents to move the music program seven miles away from the main campus, assuming the university raised the funds privately, city and university leaders moved forward with a successful $100 million campaign to build the RiverCenter, home to the music program and now jointly owned by the state and RiverCenter, Inc., which brings major performances into the riverside city.
A second $100 million campaign strictly for Columbus State funded a variety of needs, including the university’s international program, but focused on developing a downtown arts campus, Brown says. In addition to its portion of the RiverCenter and new theater and art buildings, the university operates classroom space in a converted munitions factory downtown and has leased a number of historic buildings purchased by Columbus State's foundation for retail and office space.
"We're building great facilities and I get to spend other people's money," Brown says. "It's the people who are reinvesting in their community."
“So far every student I’ve talked to has loved being down there,” says Renee Perkins, a senior music major and a resident assistant in the downtown housing. “Being downtown, there’s a coffee shop right underneath the building. Right now the city is redoing the entire downtown area, they’re taking block by block and redoing the street, the landscape and everything. It’s really turning out very nicely. Hopefully there will be some more restaurants down there in the next five years; they’re building it up.”
Columbus Mayor Jim Wetherington, a former police chief, explains that the downtown had been gradually dying until the 80s, when a number of town leaders began efforts to turn it around. “A lot had been done before Columbus State moved downtown,” Wetherington says, ticking off the names of a number of local business leaders whose energies were instrumental. “They wanted this to be a true business district for Columbus. I think they’ve done that ... And now with Columbus State coming downtown, with the 600 students and faculty who are downtown, it’s just a beautiful sight to see.”
“It’s not where we want it yet, but we are well on our way to changing the appearance of downtown.”
All this is not to suggest that there aren’t drawbacks to Columbus State’s new approach. Because arts students continue to take their core courses on the main suburban campus, some perhaps predictably complain about commuting on the shuttle and, with this being the first semester of downtown art and theater courses, kinks remain: Some students realized only after the semester began that they couldn’t get away with scheduling a class that starts at 11 a.m. downtown right after one that ends at 10:50 on the suburban campus, says Tim McGraw, interim chair of the theater department and an associate professor.
Administrators have worked hard to keep an artistic presence on the campus the arts students have largely left behind, by maintaining performance space on the suburban campus for periodic events and heavily advertising downtown events. Many introductory arts courses continue to be offered on the suburban campus. Still, concerns about the implications of moving art courses away from the main campus persist.
“We have a new facility; it’s state of the art. Our design classes -- lighting design, sound design -- will improve greatly because we’ll be able to use a new state-of-the art theater. Where we were before, it was essentially an auditorium, a multi-purpose room,” McGraw says. Those students living downtown can come and go from home to school in a matter of minutes, to and from rehearsal space if they’re theater students, studios if they’re painters, practice rooms if they’re flautists. At the same time, there are coffeehouses and restaurants and outside art venues with internship opportunities just blocks away. “We’re really thrilled to be downtown,” McGraw says. “It’s wonderful to have places to eat, to be more visible, but at the same time, we realize we’ve lost a little something by not being part of the campus any longer.”
But, he adds, not missing a beat, “We’ve certainly gained more than we’ve lost.”