Reaching Higher: Planning Arts Facilities for Changing Student Expectations

The renovated Janet Wallace Fine Arts Center has created a campus focus for the arts at Macalester College in St. Paul. 


Performing and visual arts programs have long jostled for new or improved spaces on college campuses. They often find themselves competing with capital campaigns promoting state-of-the-art student centers, STEM classrooms and labs, athletic facilities, and amenity-rich student housing that promises to give one campus the competitive edge over another. Thus, college arts programs are frequently housed in aged and makeshift buildings.

Fine arts faculty members understand the distinct goals for achievement and quality in the arts and the very specialized learning environments necessary for training, creation, exhibition, and performance. Teaching the fine arts requires safe environments for creativity, inquiry, and investigation. This may be in the form of sprung floors, acoustic volume and control of decibel levels, or equipment safety, process ventilation and exhaust, or physical space to move people and instruments. Artistic, scholarly and pedagogical goals must all be met.

Today's savvy arts students also have high expectations of what they want in an arts program environment. Many faculty and recruiters report that students are coming from high schools with better arts facilities than those on their college campuses. Students and parents are becoming more concerned about the cost of college, and more discerning about the quality of amenities offered on campus. Student expectations are increasingly influencing the planning of academic arts buildings; astute institutions are listening.


The best way to know what students want is to ask them. By gathering input through online surveys, on-site open houses and focus groups early in the planning process, arts facilities can be planned to promote a holistic student experience that enhances educational, social and community engagement.

At Boise State University, for instance, HGA conducted an online student survey to solicit ideas and aspirations when planning the Center for Fine Arts, which will consolidate all visual arts disciplines currently scattered across campus when it opens in 2019. Many common themes were identified. In particular, students wanted a building with a unique identity expressive of the arts. They also wanted access--access to light, space, equipment, and people. And finally, they wanted a place they could call their own, where they had a personal sense of investment.

While the specific details may vary from campus to campus and building to building depending on program and budget, similar themes identified in the Boise State survey make the top of arts students' wish lists elsewhere--perhaps because they all share the same passion and commitment to their art form.

Boise State University gathered student input when planning the Center for Fine Arts.


Visual and performing arts students spend a great deal of time in their buildings, learning, collaborating, exploring, practicing, and presenting. These are time-consuming activities for students honing their talents.

As such, arts buildings can become a second home, and students ask for buildings that offer comfort and diverse spaces. They value places with natural light and control of light; places to be alone to reflect, prepare, and practice; places to be together, such as in lounges, cafés, window seats, and niches; and places with easy access to faculty for one-on-one consultation.

The new 70,000 square-foot Jack H. Miller Center for Musical Arts at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, offers a series of informal gathering spaces, including corridor niches and lounge space where students can relax, study or interact between instruction, rehearsal, and practice. Large windows offer natural light and views that connect to the outdoors, creating a comfortable "home" for students.

Corridor niches at Hope College offer places to relax and gather.

Similar corridor niches are included at Texas A&M Commerce Music Building.


Arts buildings are reaching beyond their academic programs to increase campus visibility, reinforce collaboration between arts disciplines, and provide for interdisciplinary partnership with other programs. There is a demand for "makerspaces" that support and demonstrate the creative process, and have the potential to engage the entire campus. For students, today's arts buildings should communicate that the arts are part of the campus and larger community, not separate and isolated. There is a need for both highly technical customized space for each arts discipline and for spaces that can be claimed and used by students to experiment and present in an immediate, collaborative and multi-faceted way.

At the University of Missouri Kansas City (UMKC) Downtown Campus for the Arts, a Master Plan integrates the Conservatory of Music and Dance into the city's burgeoning arts scene. The project, now in fundraising, will occupy an entire city block near the renowned Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. Students will benefit from the on-going arts activity nearby, and the architecture itself will visually connect interior programming to the exterior streetscape, creating an intersection between music/dance education and urban activity that draws people into the arts.

A dance studio planned for UMKC's Downtown Conservatory overlooks the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. 

The planned UMKC Commons space encourages visibility and student engagement.


Time and space are fundamental elements to artists. Technology-rich programs such as film, digital media, recording and design require ready access to hardware in formal and informal settings. All performing and visual arts students want to plug in anywhere and have video, audio and internet capabilities--even the singer and painter. And with online training sites such as Lynda, students are spending less time in class learning software and more time exploring ideas, developing skills, and producing art.

In campuses across the country, today's visual and performing arts spaces are learning environments that integrate technology for both faculty and students. Computers and laptops accompany or replace chemical washes in photography labs; multimedia presentations via high-definition screens and hand-held tablets replace slide shows in art-history lectures; digital and emerging virtual reality tools are used for design classes; and numerous applications allow students to study master composers in-depth and practice original compositions. And, of course, 3D printers are popping up all over.

Technology is integrated with arts education in this digital design studio at the Janet Wallace Fine Arts Center at Macalester College.


Many learning spaces are necessarily single-purpose driven by program. Music practice and rehearsal rooms require acoustic isolation and loudness control. Studio arts rooms call for superior lighting and ventilation. Scene shops need proper equipment and durable surfaces to build sets. Theatres must balance acoustics with sightline and appropriate backstage functions.

Yet students' desire for more multidisciplinary collaboration also calls for flexibility that allows arts spaces to be multi-use rather than multi-useless. For instance, flexibly planned black box theatres and exhibit spaces can serve multiple functions between concerts and exhibits, from campus receptions to readings. Additionally, flexibly planned arts buildings can blend the boundaries between learning spaces and commons spaces, adding new elements to the educational process by taking the curriculum outside the classroom.

The recently completed University of Wyoming Buchanan Center for the Performing Arts in Laramie visually opens the dance studio to public corridors, offering passersby glimpses into the dance process.


Today's academic arts spaces are evolving, driven in part by students' expectations. For those planning a new or renovated performing arts or visual arts facility, consider the following:

  • Get to know your students' expectations through on-line surveys, one-on-one interviews, and focus groups.
  • Identify the campus-wide benefits of your arts buildings--putting an A in STEM.
  • Share your story to build support--early and often--about programs, processes, presentation needs, and problems.

Topics: Education, Arts & Culture


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