MISSOULA -- President Royce Engstrom's announcement that art was on the chopping block lit a fire under the director of the School of Art at the University of Montana.

Director Brad Allen wanted to know if art really was "under-performing" in relation to programs on campus and national benchmarks -- but he suspected otherwise.

Allen, a sculptor and installation artist, also wanted to examine the school's offerings in search of the answer to a question the president had asked in a meeting with him: "What is your growth potential?"

On Tuesday, Allen said a detailed analysis of the school's own productivity bears out what he had believed all along and what he was hoping to demonstrate to students, parents and donors.

"What we found is that we're very productive. In fact, we're in the top half to top third in productivity and value," said Allen, also an associate professor at UM.

For example, in 2015, it cost the School of Art some 19 percent less to pay for a faculty member than the national average, he said. The analysis compared data from the UM budget against numbers from a national study of costs and productivity -- "The Delaware Cost Study" -- and internal academic unit data.

Allen and School of Art program assistant Edward Morrissey also have identified areas where the School of Art can grow on its own and in collaboration with other programs on campus. For instance, data arts is a new field, and the School of Art could offer a data arts certificate that could complement any major.

Allen said arts faculty members are collaborative, and he is looking forward to developing ideas with the whole group once other instructors return to campus. However, he believes the School of Art will react quickly to the need for change.

In that respect, the president's announcement appears to have served as a catalyst.

"There are things I think we would develop naturally. But, yeah, crisis breeds innovation in a way," Allen said.

Faculty

When the president announced cuts, he noted that faculty positions had increased over time, yet the number of positions hadn't decreased since enrollment dipped. His plan aims to bring the overall ratio of students to faculty on campus to 18-to-1.

Allen, though, said the School of Art received none of the additional 400 faculty jobs the president pointed to as unsustainable growth.

In fact, Allen said, when enrollment in the art school peaked in 2009 with more than 300 majors, faculty worked at an unsustainable level, and the director pulled in credentialed community artists to help with the teaching load.

At the time, he said, instructional expenditure per faculty was 33 percent below the national average for art.

In other words, the School of Art had to perform above and beyond its capacity in the years of high enrollment, according to Allen.

"To then cut now that we're back down toward our normal (enrollment) would be critical. It would affect the school in a critical way," Allen said.

At the same time, he said majors are down 40 percent and the school will contribute to the needed cutbacks. He said he has presented Main Hall with proposed savings, but he declined to offer specifics before the president approved them.

He also said some data from UM presented in a Missoulian chart indicated the decline in enrollment appeared steeper than it really has been because a fine arts degree is defunct.

Allen, though, did share other statistics related to the School of Art's performance in relation to its peers.

According to the school's analysis, the number of tenure-track faculty exceed the national benchmark by 14.4 percent. Faculty members teach more, too, he said, with 3.7 class sections per faculty member compared to the national average of 2.1 sections.

The faculty members do it all with fewer resources, as well as one of the smallest shares of the increase in state appropriations since 2007, he said. From 2007 through 2014, chemistry has received 60 percent of the increase in state appropriation, for instance, whereas art has gotten an estimated 15 percent, the analysis shows.

Allen said the school undertook the comparison to understand its own performance, and not to single out other units. He also said the chart doesn't include all units because some data was difficult to discern or unavailable.

"The School of Art currently serves 170 primary majors, 16 graduate students, 40 minors with 13 full-time, tenure-track faculty," according to an excerpt from a memo by Allen. "Even with the recent decline in primary majors, the School continues to exceed national benchmarks."

Business perspective

In some ways, the analysis breaks new ground for Allen, who is accustomed as an artist to viewing education through a more qualitative lens. Now, he's thinking in quantitative terms, too.

"We're assuming the responsibility to take on this kind of business perspective, of looking through the university through a monetary lens," he said.

At the same time, he hopes the arts aren't being cut because of perceptions about career readiness. For one thing, he said, research shows people with experience in the arts are more employable at Fortune 500 companies.

"I would rest more easy if I knew this wasn't an issue of employability in the arts. Because if it's about that, we have to have a different conversation," Allen said.

He is hoping to quantify more outcomes going forward, but existing figures support the economic contributions art makes, he said.

For instance, artists' sales in Montana contribute an estimated $233 million in goods and services to the state economy and more than 4,200 jobs, according to an extrapolation of a survey posted on Montana.gov, the official state website. It estimated Montana artists bring the state as much as $179 million from people outside its borders.

But Allen said it's lazy to believe that if an art graduate doesn't end up sustaining herself at an international level with her own artwork, she's a failure. Many graduates go into tangential fields, but they contribute to culture in a variety of ways, by making art in some capacity, purchasing work or buying auction tickets.

"You're also still innovating and feeding these cultural communities like Missoula in alternative ways. What we're trying to do is figure out how this can be tracked," he said.

Allen and Morrissey said the school is ready to evolve and meet the needs of students, albeit in difficult financial times. They envision a future that involves partnerships with other programs on campus to bring their expertise in creativity, critical thinking and visually compelling data analysis to other disciplines.

"We're doing all of this, again, with no additional funding or investment," Morrissey said.

Investing in art

While Allen said he understands the need for shoring up the budget, he also said investment in art is overdue.

The facilities are old, so much so that a couple of people have broken through the ceiling in one studio while walking in an attic above it. Nobody got hurt, but the situation is undesirable. Art labs double as lecture halls, and instructors teach over the noise of cutting and sawing and hammering.

The school has a storied tradition in ceramics, yet students rotate through wheels. Currently, 17 wheels work, but a class can have as many as 25 or 26 students.

Allen said he doesn't want to point fingers at other departments, but he also can't imagine a science lab where students have to rotate through microscopes.

Incidentally, the director himself has swept out the lab floor at times.

Allen wants to give credit where it's due, too, and he said the university has invested in heat lamps that warm a room with kilns. Icicles don't form in the indoor space anymore, but the sky is still visible from the inside.

Despite its challenges, the students are still enrolling in the School of Art in Missoula, and when Allen looks at the 4,000 enrolled art majors among peer institutions, he believes there's room for growth here, too.

"They still want to come here," Allen said. "They're betting against the facilities, and they're betting on the faculty."

Keila Szpaller can be reached at keila.szpaller@missoulian.com.

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Reporter for the Missoulian