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The University of Kentucky College of Fine Arts


The University of Kentucky art program has a long and distinguished history. The University offered individual courses in painting and drawing as early as 1881; by 1918 interest in the visual arts had grown to the extent that UK President Frank LeRond McVey reorganized the College of Fine Arts and Sciences and created Departments of Art and Music. Headed first by Minna McLeod Beck and then Carol Sax, the Department focused on drawing, painting, and design, with particular attention to collaborating with the University’s Little Theatre. In 1927 a generous gift of an Art Library by the Carnegie Foundation enabled the faculty to begin offering instruction in the History of Art. The first instructor in art history, Sir John Rothenstein (later the longest serving Director of the Tate Gallery in London), was brought in that same year as a visiting professor.

In 1929, the horizons of the Department changed when President McVey hired Edward W. Rannells as Head of the Department of Art. Formerly an Associate Dean at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Rannells brought with him a vision of an Art Department as a center not only for university instruction in the skills of art production but for cultural improvement of the surrounding community as well. The Department added to its pedagogical emphasis on painting, drawing, and design an ambitious program of public outreach through the exhibition of museum-quality art in the Art Center. Gallery talks, openings, and other community events brought the public to campus. As Rannells explained: “The significance of our art will grow in proportion to the number of those who know how to and what to search for.”

The Department pioneered the use of modern media to reach broad audiences.In the early and mid-1930s, Rannells wrote and presented a series of addresses on WHAS radio devoted to “Great Paintings in America.” Color reproductions of the paintings discussed were published by the Louisville Courier-Journal. The series attracted national attention for the University, and Rannells received correspondence from across the country asking for help in producing similar radio addresses. Other members of the Department, Anne Worthington Callihan and Jeanne Bullitt Lowry, followed Rannell’s success with radio programs of their own.

The faculty grew in size and reputation in the 1930s and ‘40s, and included artists of significant talent and reputation, including Edward Fisk and Raymond Barnhart (for whom the student gallery in the Reynolds studio building is now named). UK students were successful in their own right, earning prestigious national awards from the College Art Association, and exhibiting alongside professionals at the Speed Museum in Louisville and in the annual exhibition of the Society of American Etchers at the National Arts Club in New York City.

After the war ended in 1945, the Department continued to build on its foundational philosophy, which stressed the important role of art in liberal education. The faculty welcomed the addition of art historian Clifford Amyx and faculty specialists in art education and in a variety of studio specialties, particularly ceramics and fiber. Though the Department had offered classes in “The Teaching of Art” since the early 1930s, it developed its first curriculum for an undergraduate degree in Art Education in 1949. In 1950 the University recognized the contributions of the arts by completing the Fine Arts Building.

This new building provided up-to-date classrooms and studio space for the faculty and what was at that time the grandest exhibition space in Lexington. Located at a highly visible spot on campus, between the President’s home and the football stadium, the University Art Gallery soon developed as the preeminent site for display of contemporary art in the region.

In the mid to late 1960s the size of the faculty had increased to sixteen full-time members and the activities of the studio programs had outgrown the Fine Arts Building. The University acquired the former Reynolds Tobacco Company warehouse and began the process of converting it into classrooms, studios, and foundries. These years marked a major transition for the Department as stalwarts Rannells and Barnhart retired, replaced by a new generation of creative talent headed by Frederic Thursz and John Regis Tuska. The Department’s reputation grew through exhibitions and publications as well, as Richard B. Freeman created “Graphics,” an annual exhibition and publication with a respected international profile, and the art historian James Smith Pierce published From Abacus to Zeus: A Handbook of Art History, a fundamental reference book for thousands of art students nationwide.

The Department offered its first Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree in 1970 and the Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) was added in 1978.  Graduates of our MFA program have attained notable successes as practicing artists and as teachers in university posts, while those completing our MA programs in Art History and Art Education serve as leaders in K-12 education, museum professions, and university teaching.

In 2012 the Department of Art was officially renamed the UK School of Art and Visual Studies. In another landmark move, the university acquired the former University Lofts on Bolivar Street to replace the declining Reynolds Building. The new School of Art and Visual Studies building formerly was a tobacco processing plant that had been recently renovated as private student rental housing.  During the renovation all the interior structure of the building was removed and a new design that emphasizes open, light-filled environments were installed.  In 2015 the renovation won the OMNI architects the Kentucky's architectural association's prize for the best example of building re-use.

Today, SA/VS is home to thirty-four full time faculty, almost 300 undergraduate majors (BA programs in art studio, art history and art education, a BFA in art studio, and a BS program in digital media and design) and approximately twenty graduate students in art education, art history, and art studio.  

We maintain the tradition of bringing culture and high-quality art to campus through exhibitions in the Bolivar Art Gallery. We invite the public to participate by attending our Visiting Artist Series, Open Studio, and other special events such as the annual Iron Pour.