St. Thomas in need of stronger art program, facility

St. Thomas is classified as a liberal arts university, but what happened to the arts?

When I toured St. Thomas two years ago, I thought the only art program being shut down was the theater program. Little did I know, theater was one of the only art programs St. Thomas really offered.

About 80 percent of music ensemble students are not music majors; this year 79 students are majoring in music. If St. Thomas put money aside to support an art program, students outside of art majors would benefit too. There are students who aren’t in art courses who paint and sculpt. There are students who play instruments who aren’t in music courses. Similarly, not every student who works out in the new athletic complex is a varsity athlete. It can be used by anyone.

But St. Thomas doesn’t offer art courses like St. Catherine’s and Macalester, which are also classified as private undergraduate liberal arts schools. At both schools students can study drawing, painting and photography. Those things are part of art and should be included in St. Thomas’ curriculum.

Art courses should be more engaging than reading a textbook and writing papers, which are things that can be done in any other course offered at St. Thomas. Art should be offered in a way that allows students to express themselves creatively.

Overlooked during construction

This is my second year at St. Thomas, and since I’ve been here a new athletic complex was built, McCarthy gym was renovated, and there has been talk about re-doing the soccer fields and putting tennis courts behind the Brady Educational Center.

Ironically, the new athletic complex stands where Foley Theater used to stand before it was demolished. This gesture from St. Thomas shows the community that athletics are more important than the arts.

Athletics overshadow the arts here at St. Thomas. The school is willing to spend $800,000 on tennis courts when there are indoor courts located in the newly-constructed $52 million Anderson Athletic and Recreation Complex. But the university is not willing to spend money to keep a theater program on campus.

Why not renovate BEC, a building used mainly for the arts? It would be nice if I could go to band rehearsal and not be in an auditorium with a constant draft, or where the sound system is older than the cobwebs in the corners. The building could use an upgrade.

A place for the arts on campus

I think the school overlooks the use of the BEC auditorium or even the building itself because we no longer offer theater, but there are many campus events that take place there. For example, PULSE performed there multiple times last year, the wind and symphonic band ensembles rehearse there throughout the year, and sometimes speakers come and talk there, too.

For band concerts, students have to play at St. Catherine’s. For choir concerts, students often sing at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. This affects the number of St. Thomas students who attend concerts, especially students who don’t have means of transportation off campus. More students would attend band and choir concerts if they were held at St. Thomas.

Both athletics and arts create community, but different types of community, and it’s good to have both on a campus. I am a fan of both the arts and sports, but St. Thomas needs to balance the two because the facilities can be used by any student, regardless of major.

Ashley Stewart can be reached at

25 Replies to “St. Thomas in need of stronger art program, facility”

  1. Back when I began my undergraduate career at St. Thomas (at the time the school was known as just the University of St. Thomas, not yet the St. Thomas Sports and Construction Spectacular), I too felt disappointed by the lack of visual arts. The Art History program was nice and I enjoyed seeing exhibits in the OEC lobby, but I wanted to create something myself.

    I moped around about the issue for a while, but eventually I realized that just because St. Thomas doesn’t hold art classes on its campus does not mean I can’t take them. Through the ACTC program, I signed up for Art 101 at St. Kate’s, which turned out to be a great experience. Sure, taking the shuttle down Cleveland Avenue got old quick, but I enjoyed taking breaks from my other courses to use the right side of my brain more. (Being the only male in a class was also an interesting experience).

    Would St. Thomas benefit from a visual arts program of its own? Of course. Should it be a priority right now? Probably not. Tommies who wish to be creative and get their hands dirty have plenty of opportunities to do so at nearby schools. The sign up process is easy, and classes are offered at lots of different times. If you want to make it happen, you can.

    Plus, I’m not sure “liberal arts” necessarily requires an…

  2. I am a 1958 graduate, and when it comes to music, there has been a revolution on campus in the last half-century, certainly influenced by the advent of coeducation. In my day, the great dixieland band, “The Tomcats,” represented campus music. Today, the splendid array of musical ensembles is on exhibit every Christmastime concert in Orchestra Hall.

  3. So true – we need to have these arts available here!
    Otherwise, I think St. Thomas is just classified as a “liberal” school.
    Thanks for addressing this!!!

  4. Thank you for writing this. I am a Music major in my Senior year, and probably will never see a change, but for the future of St. Thomas and a growing music dept it is essential that there be a change. The BEC auditorium is a musicians nightmere! I have refused to go to the new St. Thomas “Taj Mahal” on the very principal that the arts yet again have been overlooked!

  5. Thank you for writing this! I am a junior music education major and would LOVE to see change for future generations, since this has been a fighting issue the whole time I’ve been here. All the points stated here are fantastic — with more articles such as these and the article about the practice rooms, maybe some change will happen! I wish the rest of campus was able to see what a TALENTED and ENERGETIC music department we have – if only we had an appropriate space to show off in!!!

  6. “It would be nice if I could go to band rehearsal and not be in an auditorium … where the sound system is older than the cobwebs in the corners.”

    So you want the sound system to be replaced every two-three days? Seems expensive.

  7. Excellent comment Grant. Becca use that energy to fund raise for the Music Dept. Before you came here you could see what the Music Dept facilities were like. Cobwebs (easy to clean up) should not stop talent. St. Kates and Orchestra Hall seem to be great places to perform. One has to look at expense and returns for UST. Sarah, Money was donated for AARC. If you don’t use the facilities that is your loss. So many (1000’s) do use the AARC.

  8. The sound system that is in there is MANY years old… if you can even call it a “sound system” — excuse her for trying to throw a bit of humor in.

  9. TJ, for some reason you seem to be putting the responsibility for improving things at this university on the shoulders of the students.  “If you want a new building, go fundraise.”  Last time I checked, we had an entire department of full time paid people that do that.  This is not a case of “We want the best of the best because we want it!”  This is more a case of not having adequate facilities and programs in the first place.  Yes, other ACTC schools have visual arts opportunities.  But St. Thomas is the largest private institution in the state.  We have everything else under the sun, so why not arts?  The arts provide an opportunity for students to engage in other things, but they also add to the campus environment with art displays, concerts, recitals, etc.  
    “Orchestra Hall and St. Kate’s seem like great places to perform.”  This is the same as me saying, “Yeah, Hamline has a great football field for our team to play on, why should we have one?”  or “Macalester has a gym, our basketball team can play there.”  Those wouldn’t fly, so why should this?

  10. A comment for Richard Conklin. I, too, am a graduate of the College of St. Thomas in ’58. I majored in  Music Education. Let me tell you that in the past 52 years the number of students studying music may have dramatically increased but the facilities are are still not up to what one would expect from a fine  institution such as St. Thomas!

  11. TJ, I wish you could be a part of the music department at UST and see how truly wrong you are. I’m paying tuition…. and where would a music education major have time to fundraise on top of that? I’m a student, I’m not going to go buy some bricks and make a new building myself. As music education majors, when we’re not in our education classes or music classes, we’re practicing our musicianship. I am in the BEC from 8am until 8pm almost every day… do you think I feel comfortable having to breathe in the mold in the ceilings and smell the stench of that building all day?
    From the sounds of your comment, you are neither a musician nor have been in the BEC for longer than one class period a day. The problems aren’t COBWEBS- that was a metaphor for the hole that is the BEC… it’s MUCH more than an “easy fix.”
    And you’re right – Orchestra Hall is fantastic place to perform and we feel honored that we can perform there. In fact, Orchestra Hall fits about 2400 people and both shows of our Christmas concerts sell out before Thanksgiving. The point is exactly what Stefan said — since the AARC was built so we can host other schools, why shouldn’t we be able to host other schools for the performing arts?? ESPECIALLY at UST.

  12. Robert, In consideration of your comment that “in the past 52 years the number of students studying music may have dramatically increased” …..UST is the largest Private University in Mn, but has 80-90 students music majors. Not to dramatic. Stephan, Hamlin would not let St.Thomas use its football field, Mac would not let use its basketball court and St. Kates would not let St. Thomas use its Tennis courts. In the case of Tennis, Coach Peck at the meeting stated that, “Mac and St. Kates would not let St.Thomas use its courts and have had to go to Highland Park and Baseline daily to practice as the sun sets”. I hope the music dept. gets some help, but throwing tennis under the bus is wrong and short sighted.

  13. It took me three years to juggle majors and define my path at St. Thomas. When I figured wanted to explore and complete a major in graphic design, there were very few options for me to take here…if any. In fact, there is no GD major that I know of. Even the higher level photojournalism course is no-more (granted, there were very few people taking it). I have struggled to secure a spot in an arts class at an ACTC school and it has been very discouraging. I have ALWAYS felt that the fine arts culture at St. Thomas as been brushed aside and not celebrated by the school directly. It has only been in the past few years that I have seen a big increase in student initiative to bring the arts to the school. We are literally sitting in the middle of one of the richest arts cultures I’ve seen around the country. Why not take advantage of it?

  14. …And Bethel would never let St. Thomas use its Benson Great Hall for music performances. No one is throwing any department or activity under the bus. I happen appreciate and find athletics an important component within an academic institution, and I’m sure many in the music department would agree. The issue at hand is that, while UST athletics facilities have been granted a complete makeover in the few short years that I have been a Tommie, very little has been done to improve the facilities that house the music department. Moreover, when did I say anything about tennis in the first place? But, I hope the University is able to find a way to build tennis courts somewhere on campus…AND I hope that on the same day the University decides to focus some attention on developing the facilities for the music department. 

  15. When was first applying and looking at colleges, I toured St. Thomas, St. Olaf, the U and Hamline. I fell in love instantly with St. Thomas, but something bothered me about it and I couldn’t figure out what it was. I realized that it was the only school without any form of theater. I was a theater kid in high school, and it was a major part of my life. I knew that it wasn’t something I wanted to do for a career, but the fact that my school didn’t give any oppurtunities was disheartening. Sure I could go to St. Kates, I know that, but why not here? Music, Art and Theater are being completely ignored for sports on this campus. Part of a liberal arts education is exposure to the Fine Arts, but St. Thomas limits students by only offering a few classes to fulfill the requirement. Funding is the issue, the Anderson Family was great to support a new athletic facility, that is truly state of the art, but when is someone going to step forward for the arts at St. Thomas?

  16. I think the administration may be holding out for a future merger with St. Kate’s, which has a strong fine arts program, and has therefore prioritized areas that bring in larger donations and boost student numbers (athletics and business) in the meantime.  St. Kate’s is a good fit for merger because it’s strong in fields that St. Thomas hasn’t entered or has let stagnate (health, nursing, and some fine arts), it shares a common faith, and it’s located next door.  The St. Kate’s webpage looks like a St. Thomas clone  and they draw from overlapping applicant pools; similar branding schemes and student bodies would likely make for an easy transition.  I’m just guessing, but I bet there has been internal talk of a merger over at St. Kate’s for some time.  The volume of these voices has probably increased over the past year because its paltry endowment and current economic conditions put St. Kate’s in a hard place.  A merger would save St. Kate’s from dramatically shrinking/lowering requirements if it were to slide and provide St. Thomas with expanded offerings and infrastructure.  In the end, both institutions would benefit and the combined institution would come out as the most substantial Catholic institution in the region.

  17. As a point of clarification, liberal arts does not mean “art.” Generally speaking, it means history, languages, literature, mathematics, philosophy, & science. St. Thomas is a non-profit institution, and believe it or not, it still needs revenue, tuition payments, & donations in order to keep the doors open. Whatever UST chooses to offer, build, or do, they have to have the budget to pay for it. Yes, St. Thomas is the largest private school in the state, but that is by no means an argument for them to have every major (or new facilities for every major) that one would want. There is a benefit to have insitutional diversity in the world. Feel free to browse the listing of ACTC majors offered & think about how much it would cost to provide all of those majors (even the ones that sound like “liberal arts”) to our students, without requiring our university to grow to the size of that of our Big 10 counterparts. It’s not feasible. The other option is to find donors willing to give back to the program you want. As I understand it, the administration has long wanted to build new music facilities, but other opportunities presented themselves (such as donors offering tens of millions of dollars for other projects) first & required immediate attention. Their turn will come.

  18. While I appreciate  clarification of liberal arts as not indicating “art,” it seems to me that it is much more broad than the subjects you indicate.  If I recall right, the classic conception of the liberal arts consisted of two categories: the Trivium and the Quadrivium.  The trivium included grammar, rhetoric, and logic.  The subjects under the category of quadrivium included arithmetic, astronomy, geometry, and music.  If an institution values a liberal arts education in its fullness, which I presume UST does, then these subjects would hold pride and place in the life of the university.

    However, it seems to me that most universities are concerned with attracting students.  Thus many institutions foster a consumerist form of education and their leaders place funding and resources to those fields that increase its profitability (and despite UST being non-profit, there still is a need to sustain itself.)

    Finally, as I look at this month’s page of the UST calendar, I cannot help but wonder in amazement that we built the original Schoenecker Arena in 1981 only to demolish it in 2009.  Granted, our buildings needed improvement, but clearly there is a strong emphasis being placed on athletics and student life.  So I think the question of the fine arts merits some…

  19. The last part of my sentence unfortunately got cut off.  So here is what I intended to have as the conclusion:

    So I think the question of the fine arts merits some serious reflection and discussion.

  20. Bottom line, the BEC is embarrassing.  I don’t think anyone could argue with that.  It doesn’t serve one of it’s purposes (providing adequate rehearsal and practice spaces), is an ugly building, and simply must be updated.  This is the same as a science facility not having adequate labs.  I don’t think anyone can argue that there is most definitely a reason beyond its location that the Brady Educational Center is NOT shown on tours.

  21. Having graduated in 1994 and keeping up to date with the University through the former Aquin website, St. Thomas Magazine and now Tommie Media – I make the following observation – sports and students studying in foreign lands are the big stories. Around campus, building new areas to play sports is a #1. While our nation makes sports a top priority, it’s sad to see St. Thomas follow this path, especially for a university. This will eventually catch up with the univesity. When I get those annoying calls for money, the answer is simply not to answer. I’m sure I’m not alone. My money is not going to support a school that I believe priorities are out order. Sorry St. Thomas. I agree 100% Ms. Stewart. I believe the students will not be “well rounded.”

  22. I have been accepted to St. Thomas, and was interested in the music program (I have been in the MN All-State choir two years in high school) but find the music facilities and lack of support very disappointing.

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