LAS CRUCES >> New Mexico State University's College of Arts and Sciences and its community partners recently celebrated the first phase of planning and design for D.W. Williams Hall, home of the NMSU Art Department and University Art Gallery.

At an event at the University Art Gallery on Aug. 18, renderings of the proposed D.W. Williams Hall design were on display as well as photos and sketches of the process in which faculty worked together on design considerations.

"Great collaborations lead to great accomplishments, and I've never experienced greater collaborations since I've been at New Mexico State University than where we are right now on this project," said Christa Slaton, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

A faculty committee met to plan the new D.W. Williams Hall every week for six weeks this summer, with sub groups meeting at least once a week. (Photo courtesy RMKM Architecture)

NMSU President Garrey Carruthers told the group the project is among the highest priorities for the university in the upcoming legislative session. "I'm optimistic, but we're not through yet. We need to continue to raise funding for this project," he said.

At this point, more than $800,000 has been raised in schematic development funds for the renovation.

Based on these plans, the New Mexico Higher Education Department will make its recommendation for the renovation to the New Mexico Department of Finance and Administration on Oct. 15. If approved, the D.W. Williams Hall renovation effort could result in a general obligation bond election in 2016. NMSU has requested $25 million for the project.

"That is where we really need the community to come together," Slaton said. "We believe that renovating Williams Hall is going to give our students a facility that's necessary for the seventh largest major in the College of Arts and Sciences, which has 26 academic departments."

Williams Hall was converted for use by the Art Department in 1972 from its original role as the campus gymnasium, built in 1938. However, the building's permanent concrete bleachers and restricted classroom size cannot accommodate the department's growing enrollment.

A 2014 report about the state's creative economy by the University of New Mexico Bureau of Business & Economic Research shows that an abundant arts and culture industry in a community translates to a thriving economy, which creates jobs, attracts investments, generates tax revenues and promotes tourism. The study points out that cultural industries in New Mexico employ more than 43,000 people in the state, equal to one of every 18 jobs.

Plans for NMSU's art facility, which would be constructed adjacent to Williams Hall's current location, boast specialized studios, a large outdoor work area, classrooms and shared work spaces, as well as a second-floor balcony that will allow for open-air painting.

"We're interested in how you can create a building that supports the conceptual ideas that we're trying to achieve with our teaching. Those are ideas about collaboration, about interdisciplinary crossover," said Julia Barello, head of the NMSU Department of Art. "We want students to have an incredibly rich experience here, and we believe that the form of the building can support that."

NMSU's Art Department offers a variety of specializations, such as art history, art conservation, ceramics, drawing and painting, graphic design, metalsmithing, jewelry, photography, printmaking and sculpture. Since 1950, more than 1,000 students have graduated from the department.

Ammu Devasthali, a prominent NMSU art department alumna and supporter of the Williams Hall renovation, is confident that new facilities will create a more productive environment and competitive art program.

"We have fabulous faculty — absolutely top-notch faculty. But you have to provide them with the tools so they can pass on their knowledge and their expertise to the students," Devasthali said. "That's why, for me, right from the beginning, it's been really important that we build a better facility for the visual arts. Now we've finally come to the point where things have started moving forward."

Supporters say the results of the renovation could have a tremendous longterm economic and cultural impact on students and faculty at NMSU, as well as the larger community of Las Cruces and southern New Mexico.

While the exterior vision for the new building has not been finalized, the design specifications follow the needs of faculty and students while allowing the University Art Gallery to face University Avenue — an open invitation for the public to visit the new facility and educate themselves through art.

"The main thing about an arts education is not about creating those pictures and putting them up on the wall behind your couch," Devasthali said. "It is to teach people to be creative in their thinking, to be creative in problem solving. You can go and work anywhere; it doesn't have to be in the arts — that creativity translates to every discipline. You can take any discipline that we have at NMSU and you can relate it to the arts, because you teach people to think creatively."