Written by Meg Susong
After two and half years of work and more than $10 million (funded largely by Fayez Sarofim of Houston, with other gifts from alumni and friends of the school) the Alma Thomas Fine Arts Center reopened last weekend, just in time for the season’s holiday performances.
The Sarofim School of Fine Arts has its roots in the university’s original School of Music, which was established in 1888. In 1941, the Department of Art was merged with the School of Music, and the School of Fine Arts offered its first courses with Dr. Henry Edwin Meyer as the first Dean. In 1956, the Department of Drama and Speech was incorporated into the school. In 1999, it became the Department of Theatre, and the Sarofim School of Fine Arts evolved into its present configuration.
Currently, the Alma Thomas Fine Arts Center contains the 769-seat Alma Thomas Theater, the 322-seat Jesse H. and Mary Gibbs Jones Theater, the Caldwell-Carvey Foyer performance space, an 80-seat recital hall, a band and orchestra rehearsal hall, two art laboratories with individual carrels for art majors, an art gallery, 20 practice rooms with pianos, three large classrooms, offices and teaching studios.
The recently completed renovations include a complete makeover of the Alma Thomas Theatre, which was originally built in the 1950s. The theatre was totally gutted and rebuilt to provide additional storage space, a real orchestra pit and all new seats, in addition to new lighting and sound systems. Handicapped access has been improved throughout the theatre.
The renovations also included a two-story addition to the Fine Arts Center that provides more space for offices, classrooms and practice rooms. New classrooms include a special room for theatre design.
The main practice room on the second floor of the Fine Arts Center also was expanded and soundproofed so that it can be used at the same time performances are going on in the Alma Thomas Theatre. The new practice room houses Southwestern’s first-ever music library, and there is a new room to store band equipment.
Other enhancements to the Fine Arts Center include a new box office that can serve both the Alma Thomas Theatre and the smaller Jones Theatre.
The changes and additions to the building are especially significant for the students interested in arts. Housed in the Alma Thomas Fine Arts Center, The Sarofim School of Fine Arts makes available courses leading to the Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in theatre, the Bachelor of Music degree, and the Bachelor of Arts in art, music and theatre.
The purposes of The Sarofim School of Fine Arts are to prepare students for professions in the fields of art, music and theatre, including the teaching of those subjects; to provide them with a base of liberal arts subjects in order to give them breadth and intellectual solidity; to provide opportunities for all University students to participate in studio, class and ensemble activities; and to function as an aesthetic and cultural force for the University and the community.
Overall, the students have been very receptive to the new additions.
First-year Audrey Olena said, “it is a lot nicer because there are so many more practice rooms, so no matter what time of day it is, you can find somewhere to practice.”
Fellow first-year Travis Valadez agreed, saying that “the practice rooms have much more space.”
A new and major change for audiences is an entrance on the west side of the building, facing the Academic Mall. The courtyard has also been expanded, and Gaffney hopes both areas will provide an inviting space for patrons to gather during intermission. The restrooms in the lobby also have been expanded and remodeled.
“This renovation puts Southwestern in the top rank of what liberal arts colleges have in terms of performance facilities,” Gaffney said.
The university is still raising funds for furnishings and additional building finish out. At some point, there are plans to renovate the smaller Jones Theatre and other portions of the Fine Arts Center.
“We are absolutely thrilled,” Paul Gaffney, Dean of the Sarofim School of Fine Arts, said. “This will enable us to do things we couldn’t do before.”
For example, Gaffney said, Southwestern will now be able to stage much larger musical productions. The first example of this will come in March 2008 when the university presents “Fiddler on the Roof.” In the future, the larger stage will also enable the university to do larger opera performances, dance performances and choral concerts.
For a complete schedule of upcoming events at the Sarofim School of Fine Arts, visit http://www.southwestern.edu/academic/sfa-site/calender.htm.