It's been a rough year for UCA. So you can imagine that hearts were lifted there when one of the premier higher education publications came out this week with a lengthy article extolling the University of Central Arkansas as a cultural hub and transformative force in the city of Conway.
SMALL WORLD DEPT. Lu Hardin, the former UCA president, lives in a downtown condo now and lunches periodically at The Hop, staff canteen of the Ark. Times. along with Iriana's. I ran into him, his wife and kids at lunch today. He was very cordial, told me he was working on a book, not so much about himself but about many people who've coped with adversity. I told him I'd love to look at it for a Times excerpt. He told me columnist John Brummett had been in moments before from Stephens Media offices around the corner. Brummett reports on his Blog. I didn't get the hug.
Read on for the arts rave about UCA.
Excerpts from the Chronicle of Higher Education
University Strives to Be a Cultural Hub in Central Arkansas
By CAROLYN MOONEY
Conway, Ark. -- You might not immediately think of this city of 55,000 as an arts hub.
Just a few years ago, its downtown emptied out each evening. "You could shoot a gun down the main drag and not hit anyone in either direction," one local businessman says. You couldn't get a drink at a restaurant, much less attend a live telecast of the Metropolitan Opera here at the University of Central Arkansas, or see a play at the university-sponsored Shakespeare festival, or work as an intern at Oxford American's offices on campus.
But Conway is growing and changing, and the university's artistic aspirations have played a role. In recent years this campus of 13,000 students has become home to two prestigious literary magazines: Oxford American and Exquisite Corpse Annual, a reborn print edition of the cutting-edge magazine edited by the writer and NPR commentator Andrei Codrescu. The university also founded the Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre, which produces an annual summer festival, and recently began playing host to the opera telecasts.
Last fall it commissioned and staged an original opera, The Scarlet Letter, and it helped arrange for the National Symphony Orchestra to spend a weeklong residency in Arkansas, which will include a campus performance, later this spring. An artists-in-residence program has brought distinguished writers and artists - including Mr. Codrescu, a professor at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge, earlier this month - to an audience that used to have to travel 30 miles to Little Rock for cultural offerings.
Central Arkansas, like a number of regional institutions outside major cities or college towns, has become a kind of academic incubator for the arts. "I'd say it's a hydroponic grow room," says Mark Spitzer, an assistant professor of writing and the managing editor of Exquisite Corpse Annual. Having worked with the magazine before, he suggested that it start an annual print edition on the campus; the university helps pay printing costs. Oxford American, previously based in Oxford, Miss., and briefly in Little Rock, moved here after the university provided money to help it survive, along with office space near the campus's graceful main entrance framed by green ash trees and willow oaks.
Mr. Spitzer and others have visions of Conway becoming a mini-Austin, Madison, or even Fayetteville, the lively home of the University of Arkansas main campus. And they have wish lists: an alternative-music scene, a used-book store, a Thai restaurant.
An Artistic Evolution
Central Arkansas had the right mix of ingredients to raise its arts profile: It had a good performing-arts facility. It had money for visiting artists, after a student fee for the arts was adopted in 2000. It also had a catalyst: Rollin R. Potter. Since coming to the campus five years ago as dean of the College of Fine Arts and Communication, he has encouraged faculty members to develop arts programs, including the Shakespeare theater festival and other projects. "The campus has some very talented faculty," the dean says. "I open the door, light the fire, and get people moving."
Finally, Central Arkansas had strong backing from the city and formed a local arts alliance to build continued community support. Mr. Potter calls the arts "another window to the institution" after athletics, and one that has helped build its public image. (Any good news was especially welcome last summer, when the university made headlines after Lu Hardin, its president, resigned amid controversy over his bonus pay.)
Conway, whose diverse economy is based on manufacturing, agriculture, and a growing service sector, is also home to Hendrix College and Central Baptist College. It has big-box stores (including two Wal-Marts) and big churches, along with small boutiques in the newly thriving downtown area. You can order an elegant meal in one of the town's new restaurants and find a recipe for deep-fried turkey in a local magazine. As for politics, some people here describe the area as solidly conservative with a strong progressive streak - voters heavily supported John McCain for president, but voted for a Democratic congressman.
It's not an either-or town, says Brad Lacy, head of the Chamber of Commerce. "I think our unwritten goal is to make Conway that hip, artsy college town that central Arkansas has never had."