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Editorial: There’s nothing artistic about UNM building shift

“I don’t know anything about Art, but I know what I like.”

– American author Frank Gelett Burgess, 1906

To turn Burgess’ famous phrase, we may not know anything about Art colleges, but we know just about everybody involved hates the idea of moving UNM’s. In fact, the University of New Mexico’s controversial plan to move art students and Honors College students into different buildings – in turn requiring multimillion-dollar renovations – appears to be far more popular with a few regents than affected students and faculty. That should get regents to reconsider.

There does seem to be widespread agreement that UNM’s Student Health and Counseling Center, which shares space with the Honors College, needs to expand. The moving plan calls for the Honors College to move into the Art Annex, a sun-filled historic building designed specifically for arts programs. The graduate art students would then squeeze into vacant space in the Biology Annex.

And squeeze they, and the university budget, would: An April feasibility study by UNM’s Planning, Design and Construction division notes, “The Biology Annex is ill-suited for utilization as art studio and fine arts fabrication space. It is 50 percent too small and would require extensive plumbing and building envelope changes to accommodate both darkrooms and light-filled studios.”

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The projected costs to renovate the annexes to suit their new purposes range from $6.1 million to $7.1 million. The Biology Annex is roughly half the size of the Art Annex, and it lacks the studios and sunlight UNM’s graduate art students rely on to create their nationally recognized photography, painting and arts projects. The Art Annex dates from the 1920s and was renovated in the 1950s by renowned architect John Gaw Meem, and its programs are nationally recognized – UNM photography is fifth in the nation. Meanwhile, UNM’s five-year-old Honors College was created to attract high-achieving high school students, raise UNM’s profile and help keep New Mexico college students here. While this should be a priority, word has it the Honors College isn’t keen on a move to the Arts Annex and would prefer a model putting it closer to student housing.

At least one internal UNM analysis says moving the Honors College into the Biology Annex with some additional space and leaving the Art Annex alone saves $1 million.

At the regents’ Aug. 15 meeting, about 30 students and others spoke out against the proposed building shuffle. Undeterred, Regent Marron Lee, a key supporter of moving the Honors College to the Art Annex, inartfully said discussions on the moves had been ongoing for two years and things were too far along to reconsider.

That caught at least one regent off guard; Suzanne Quillen said she could not remember specific discussion about the Art Annex relocation at prior board meetings and urged fellow regents to consider the many objections being lodged. Regent Brad Hosmer suggested the board reopen the discussion and get more feedback from the UNM community. Regent Tom Clifford accused those speaking against the moves of not being team players and said the right parties had already been consulted.

And that begs the question, shouldn’t faculty, staff and students in each of the colleges been in on discussions early on?

Regent President Rob Doughty said he would consult with interim President Chaouki Abdallah and interim Provost Craig White about the situation and report back at the regents’ next meeting, Tuesday. Abdallah said last month he would convene a meeting of the various parties to “consider options” and make recommendations to the regents.

There is clearly merit in getting more students and faculty, especially from Arts and the Honors College, to weigh in. Until then, like art connoisseurs, regents should keep open minds, listen to affected students and faculty, and ensure public dollars are spent on the best long-term plan possible.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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