FGCU Art Department

by Sarah Lewis

Florida Gulf Coast University has recently undergone a transformation and restructuring that has led to the birth of the Department of Visual & Performing Arts. At its helm is Department Chair Barry Cavin, a recent import from Orange County, California, with a clear and innovative vision for interdisciplinary and integrated arts programming.

The department today consists of Visual Art and Theatre, with a Music program under development. In Cavin’s immediate future is the development of both a Dance program and an Interdisciplinary Major, with the possibility of a Moving Arts Major, involving film or video not long away. Although many of these ideas are still in the planning stages, the concepts are exciting and inspiring, and only add more allure to an area of the college that has already seen a radical evolution.

In August of 1997, six students were enrolled in the visual arts curriculum at Florida Gulf Coast University. The entire program was housed in a 700 square foot, second story, carpeted, ventilation free room with a sink. They had no tools, no equipment; there were no library resources, no slide library and no exhibition space. By the start of January 1998, the department owned 25 wooden easels, 20 drawing horses, the best visual arts library between Sarasota and Miami, a gallery space and ten students. By the time Morgan Paine, the Program Leader for the art department at that time, stepped from this role, the department had five art teaching studios, half of a 30,000 square foot $7.1 million Arts Complex with a wonderful Art Gallery and ‘smart’ classrooms, more than 8,000 volumes on art, as well as access to the premier digital visual art resource databank in the world. The faculty had grown to seven full time Art Faculty members, with five regular adjunct colleagues, three staff members, and most importantly had educated more than thirty art graduates with roughly ninety current art majors.

The Theatre Major was created in 1998, one year after the University first opened its doors, but did not have a dedicated home. Classes took place in regular classrooms and performances were given wherever room was available, sometimes in the University’s Library or Television Studio, sometimes traveling over to Cultural Park Theatre in Cape Coral.

In 2002, when the music program was put on hold due to budget concerns, the theatre department was offered space in the brand new arts complex and the Black Box Theatre was born, a beautiful performance space with a maximum seating capacity of 120. Just four years later, the theatre program has outgrown this venue and planning will begin in the next academic year for a new hall and theatre.

Barry Cavin came to FGCU due to the innovative and entrepreneurial nature of the University and its Mission Statement. “I saw this as a very unique mission,” Cavin said, “the challenge to provide students opportunities with community service and the challenge to look at environmental sustainability and the challenge to look at social change. Part of the program I want to build is to create an emphasis in Theatre and Social Change and Theatre and Activism.”

“There’s quite a long tradition of performance and social change”. Cavin continues, “From the beginning of theatre, there has been a political component to the performance. So, there’s this idea that theatre is a service to society from the beginning. We could look at that historical tradition; even go back to Shakespeare, who was a very subversive playwright. We’ll look at theatrics that have undermined social givens, we’ll look at the 1960’s and we’ll look to the future and see how the theatre performance can become a service to the community, can create community, can challenge community, can challenge the status quo, can critique given political environments. All of those things that are important for theatre to do.”

FGCU’s attention to interdisciplinary work was another attraction for Cavin and what he considers the biggest benefit of combining the visual and performing arts under one department. “Dance, music, theatre, all of these things naturally work so well together. My theatre background has provided me ample opportunity for cross-disciplinary work in the creative world, and I believe it’s a crucial experience for students to have. We can have much more interesting conversations and give the students a much broader experience by allowing all of these disciplines to work together.”

Prior to his move to Florida and FGCU, Cavin taught acting and directing at Chapman University in Orange County, and directed shows in Los Angeles. “I loved Los Angeles” he says, “and because the theatres were so small, they were also inexpensive, and you could do a play in front of a house with the maximum capacity of 50 people. There was this kind of intimacy and energy that would happen between the actors and the audience that was a lot of fun. When you sign a contract to do a show, however, they make it very clear that this is a money losing proposition, though” he laughs. “It’s all for the art”.

Clearly, Cavin’s experience and vision will lend itself well to a university with an already growing reputation for inventive, first rate arts education. “I’ve always thought of the academic universe as a place to experiment, to try to define what will be,” he says. “Base everything on what’s happened in the past, look at what’s happening out there now and even go beyond that to the discovery of something new.” •

from the March-April 2006 issue

"I've always thought of the
academic universe as
a place to experiment,
to try to define what will be."

photograph by Jeff Lewis