Fargo, N.D. — For many years, NDSU art students and teachers felt neglected. The art studios were crammed in World War II- era metal quonset huts. Students had to fight for space, and equipment was often makeshift or non-existent. A January storm would turn the sculpture studio into a deep freeze.
NDSU visual arts department chair Kimble Bromley says few high school students gave the NDSU art program a second look.
"Some woman wrote a letter to the editor in the newspaper saying she came to visit the NDSU art department," Bromley recalls. "She pulled up to the quonsets with her daughter, looked at the building and turned around and left. Didn't even walk into the building."
That letter got NDSU administrators thinking creatively about new space for artists. There wasn't room on campus for a new art building, so they started looking at downtown Fargo.
One possibility was an old factory and warehouse building. The building had lots of character, but was in sad shape. In fact, it had an appointment with the wrecking ball.
The university didn't have the money to save the building. But Microsoft Great Plains executive and NDSU alumnus Doug Burgum stepped in. He bought the building just before it was to be demolished, donated it to NDSU, and put up about $1 million to start the renovation.
The five-story brick building needed a lot of work.
"There were dead pigeons, and the hardwood floors looked like waves they were so warped. I just thought, this is going to take an awful lot of work," says Kimble Bromley.
Now, $11 million later, NDSU visual arts and architecture programs share space in the renovated historic building. Rough wooden ceiling beams contrast with gleaming hardwood floors. Equipment in the studios has gone from barely adequate to state of the art.
NDSU senior Chris Schauer says there's simply no comparison between the old and new space.
"We all adapted to the old space. We had to. Now that we have this facility, I can't even remember the old space anymore already. It's like it's demolished, but it's kind of demolished in our minds too," says Schauer.
In the upper level painting studio, students now have room to claim their own workspace. Large windows fill the room with natural light.
Thea Hanson has her easel set up near a window to catch the natural light. After three years of painting in the dark, shabby quonset hut, she loves the new space.
She also likes spending most of her day downtown. Students can walk across the street to grab a cup of coffee or lunch.
"I think all of us have spent a lot of time downtown. We eat downtown, we shop downtown, we get coffee downtown. I've been using the public library now instead of the NDSU library," says Hanson.
The NDSU building fits well with a recent efforts to revitalize downtown Fargo.
There's also a ready-made arts connection. Just a couple blocks away is the Plains Art Museum. NDSU instructors expect students and the museum will both benefit from future collaborations.
The NDSU art program is already seeing the benefits of increased visibility.
Student Mary Pfeiffer says the new studios get more visitors every day than art students used to see in a year, and it's a big adjustment.
"Like when people come and look at you and don't say, 'Hello.' Like you think, 'Hmm, am I on display?' And you get a little uncomfortable North Dakota-feeling, where you're not used to people looking at you, just coming by to look. And having that happen many times a day, it's a little unnerving," says Pfeiffer.
Pfeiffer says she expects students to adjust, and even benefit from interacting with all the visitors, but it may take awhile to adjust to the spotlight. After all, NDSU art students have been hidden for a long time.
Visual arts chair Kimble Bromley says NDSU now has one of the finest art spaces anywhere in the country, and students are starting to notice.
"We have an art day every year where we invite students from schools around the area. About 30 students has been our average. This year we had 170 register and 150 showed up. That just shows you the interest we have in the building," says Bromley.
This year North Dakota state has about 70 art majors. Bromley expects at least 150 next year.