Thursday, April 03, 2014

Louisiana: What doesn't kill you. . . .

If you are really good at something and really want to test yourself, move to Louisiana.

Anybody can be good at something if they have the right tools and institutional support. But only the
crème de la crème can be good at something in Louisiana, where you'll be looked upon with suspicion for your uppityness and be consigned to toil in decrepitude while officialdom spends taxpayer dollars on more important things than, say, education.

Like, say, graft.

Or, say, an archive in Franklinton dedicated to a former two-term Republican governor. Who happened to be the political mentor of the present two-term Republican governor, Bobby Brady Jindal.

I'm pretty sure of two things: First, that my home state has serious problems with priorities and, second, that the best ceramics artists in the universe are found at Louisiana State University. I know this about the LSU art school because its ceramics program is ranked ninth in the country, and the students and professors have managed to achieve that level of notoriety as they dodge falling concrete ceilings while fighting off rats, raccoons and fleas in the Studio Arts Building. That's no easy feat as you struggle not to inhale asbestos particles or ingest lead-paint chips.

And then there's the electrical wiring next to ceiling leaks.

And the broken windows, some of which won't lock.

And the flood-prone basement.

And the lack of climate control like, say, heating and air conditioning. Ever been to south Louisiana in  August and September? An art student fainted during class last fall -- the temperature inside was nearly 100 degrees, the (New Orleans) Times-Picayune reports:
Emily Seba/Facebook

Gleason said while she’s at the building she forces herself to take five-minute breaks outside. She spends about 26 hours a week there between class and work, and she worries the mold, asbestos and lead paint that LSU’s own facilities department confirmed is on most every surface might be harmful to her health. “It’s a concern,” she said.

When maintenance crews worked over the Christmas break to scrape asbestos off of steam pipes in the building, they removed some insulation, too. The steam got so hot, it ruined a student’s artwork nearby, Gleason said. These type of maintenance efforts occur regularly, costing a “couple hundred thousand dollars” a year, LSU Office of Facility Services Planning, Design and Construction Director Roger Husser estimated. His department, too, is eager to permanently solve the building’s problems rather than continue the Band-Aid method that’s driving up maintenance costs. But it’s not his call.
As the building’s conditions worsen, maintenance costs grow and students question their safety, renovation plans sit on the shelf, awaiting $15 million from the state needed for renovations. To show they won’t sit idly by as their needs get trumped by programs with big donors or lucrative ticket sales, students have planned protests on Thursday (April 3) at LSU’s campus and Tuesday (April 8) at the steps of the Capitol to ask for better working conditions and a safe environment.
But unless what’s sure to be creatively designed picket signs inspire a change in the political will of the Louisiana Legislature and Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration -- their protests this week and next, according to one lawmaker, will be in vain.

Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, a self-proclaimed cheerleader for the arts who toured conditions of the Studio Arts building last fall, said if it were up to him the project would get the needed funding, but “a handful of legislators are not going to be able to (get enough support) to fund it on their own.”

Without private funding matches, the arts building simply doesn’t rise to the priority level of other donor-backed projects, which tend to get bumped up the list much faster. Though Husser said the Studio Arts building has been in the capital outlay queue for “a very long time,” if the state sees an opportunity to take advantage of private match, it will usually take it. But that means projects without donor support will keep slipping down rungs of the ladder as privately aided ones climb up. “The pie is not unlimited,” Claitor said. “The budget is tapped out.”

I WOULDN'T say the budget is "tapped out," exactly. It's just that everything else in the budget -- from Medicaid to masking tape -- has been deemed more important than giving art students at Louisiana's flagship university facilities fit for human habitation . . . as opposed to that of rats, raccoons and fleas.

Still, LSU's School of Art is fielding nationally noted programs. It's rather like winning Olympic medals in the 100-meter dash while dragging a boat anchor.

For three straight Olympics.

Writes columnist Stephanie Riegel in the Baton Rouge Business Report:
Since the early 2000s, the building has been slated for renovation. Several times, the project was designated as Priority One in the state capital outlay bill, meaning it was at the top of the list to receive construction dollars. One spring, it appeared so imminent the faculty was told to pack up their offices.

But, as so often happens, other needs took priority. This year, the project—now estimated to cost $15.3 million—isn't even included in the capital outlay bill, much less specified as an item likely to see a single dime.

"It's depressing," says professor Kelli Scott Kelley, whose critically acclaimed paintings hang in galleries around the country. "It affects morale. It affects the ability to attract good faculty and good graduate students."

Which gets to the heart of why this matters beyond, of course, concern for the well-being of students and faculty. There is a connection between a thriving art school at the state's flagship university and the community in which that school is located.

Consider what the arts have done for the revitalization of downtown and the role the Shaw Center for the Arts has played in bringing about that renaissance.

Think, too, about the near-obsessive fixation in this community for all things purple and gold—about the glowing headlines that follow when graduation rates inch up to 69%, or about the time and energy the university spends trying to earn a spot in the top quadrant of U.S. News & World Report's rankings.

Do top-flight schools have chunks of concrete falling from the ceiling? Are students at Duke or Vanderbilt or even the University of Alabama forced to paint in sub-freezing studios? Do you attract the best and brightest students by building a lazy river at the rec center while ignoring critical capital needs?
THE ANSWERS to Riegel's questions are an obvious no, no and no. Yet. . . .

As I said at the outset, if you are really good at something and really want to test yourself, move to Louisiana. Compete against the best. Do it while dragging a boat anchor. Win anyway. Come home victorious to the non cheers of the non-existent hometown throng of non-existent well-wishers.

If it's acclaim you want in the Gret Stet, be an LSU football player. That or an 86-year-old, ex-con ex-governor with a granddaughterly trophy wife, a new baby and an ego overdue for its 2 o'clock feeding.

Baton Rouge High, 2007
Kelli Scott Kelley, the LSU art professor, was in my graduating class at Baton Rouge Magnet High. And where she finds herself now resembles, and eerily so,  our alma mater before the parish school board was left with just two choices: Tear down the whole school and rebuild it somewhere else . . . or tear down and rebuild most of the campus, renovate the main building and keep BRHS where it was.

Thankfully, the board chose the second option. Baton Rouge High, after 30-something years of abject neglect, now has facilities worthy of the world-class teachers and students within its rebuilt walls. Our old school has shed its boat anchor -- for now.

In Louisiana, sadly, there's always another boat anchor to weigh you down. In Louisiana, fortunately, some folks find a way to stay afloat regardless.

Unfortunately for the state that forgot to care, however, many of those survivors soon enough will weigh anchor one last time before setting sail for a distant shore.

Guess what. A state that cares so little for its children . . . for higher education . . . for the arts . . . for its future . . . deserves exactly what it's going to get. Or not get, as the case may be.

Ask not upon whom the anchor weighs.

1 comment:

Dez Crawford said...

Standing ovation.