Changes to UT’s Fine Arts Library spark backlash

More than 75,000 books, music scores and bound volumes of periodicals were relocated off-site amid renovations to make room for the new School of Design and Creative Technologies


Recent renovations to the University of Texas’ Fine Arts Library have ignited criticism from students and faculty of the College of Fine Arts — and also reverberated far beyond the UT campus.

At stake are the number of materials the Fine Arts Library (FAL) now has available for circulation in the three floors that the library occupies in the Doty Fine Arts Building — and how much of those three floors the library will continue to call its own.

Beginning last spring library materials housed on the fourth floor were consolidated onto the fifth floor (the library’s top floor). And more than 75,000 books, music scores and bound volumes of periodicals, as well as 75,000 CDs and DVDs, were relocated off-site.

Then, over the summer, the fourth floor was renovated to create classrooms and offices for the College’s new School of Design and Creative Technologies. The Foundry, a new maker space, was carved out of part of FAL’s main floor reading room.

In its new configuration, the FAL now holds approximately 200,000 items on site while some 60 percent of its collections are housed off-site.

UT Fine Arts Library's Historical Music Recordings Collection
UT Fine Arts Library’s Historical Music Recordings Collection is an archive of audio recordings in all formats and contains approximately 300,000 items making it one of the larger archives of its kind in the U.S.

As the fall term progressed, fine arts faculty and students began to voice opposition to the library changes especially after the the College of Fine Arts (CoFA) released a survey about the use of the library in early October.

Concerned students sent a petition against further removal of collection materials to Douglas Dempster, Dean of the College of Fine Arts.

Responding in an Oct. 18 open letter, Dempster cited a decades-long drop in enrollment in the College of Fine Arts — “not a survivable trend for a public arts college” —as the reason for launching the new School of Design and Creative Technologies.

Wrote Dempster: “With the advent of new degree programs, enrollments in the College of Fine Arts are growing again rather than shrinking. We need to find or make room for these new students, their faculty and courses.”

Dempster also wrote that circulation at the FAL in the last five years dropped from 216,000 items a year to fewer than 100,000.

A new building for the School of Design and Creative Technologies is not an option, Dempster wrote. After a two-year facility planning process, the UT administration refused to greenlight approval for CoFA to build a new building instead charging the college to find ways to repurpose and renovate its existing facilities.

In November, a town hall meeting convened by the fine arts students’ association grew passionate with faculty and CoFA leaders joining students in their entreaties to Dempster to halt more library materials from being sent off-site.

Mary Ellen Poole director of UT Butler School of Music told The Daily Texan at the time: “As addicted as we have become to the process of Googling something, the physicality of standing next to things you did not know you would discover is critical. The issue of discovery is paramount for our students.”

The issue is complicated by UT’s bureaucratic structure. The Fine Arts Library ultimately reports to the UT Libraries division, not the College of Fine Arts (CoFA). However the college does have jurisdiction over the use of the Doty building where the library is housed. Final decisions will be made collaboratively by UT Libraries and CoFA along with the UT Provost’s office.

In early December, Dempster and UT Libraries leaders named an eight-member task force to study usage of the Fine Arts Library collection and evaluate a range of possibilities for housing and managing the collection.

A second task force is charged with evaluating what facilities CoFA’s new academic program what spaces are available in the college’s buildings.

Both groups are due to report their findings by April 2, 2018.

The College of Fine Arts has set up a landing page with information on the issue.

Yet the tumult surrounding the Fine Art Library’s future has nevertheless ricocheted beyond Austin.

Dallas-based journalist Lee Cullum penned an op-ed “UT Austin must stop the demise of its fine arts library” in the Dec. 6 Dallas Morning News, writing that “the dean should not give up too soon on a new home for his latest tech project.”

And a letter writing campaign is being organized among some College of Fine Arts alumni. “Our education rests on many things,” the letter states. “Books with high quality reproductions being one of the most important.”

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Jeanne Claire van Ryzin is an arts and culture journalist who has covered visual art, performance, film, literature, architecture, and just about any combination thereof. She was the staff arts critic for the Austin American-Statesman for 17 years. Her commendations include the First Place Arts & Culture Criticism Award from the Society for Features Journalism. Additionally, Jeanne Claire has been awarded professional fellowships at USC’s Western Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and NEA/Columbia University Arts Journalism Institute. In 2022, she was awarded the Rabkin Prize in visual art journalism. Jeanne Claire founded and led Sightlines, a non-profit online arts and culture magazine that reached an annual readership of 600,000. And for two years, she taught arts journalism at the University of Texas College of Fine Arts. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Architecture magazine, Dwell, the Review of Contemporary Fiction, Art Papers, and ICON design magazine, among other publications.

Related articles