- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 4, 2015

KALAMAZOO, Mich. (AP) - The Kalamazoo Institute of Arts - or the Kalamazoo Art Center as it was once called - was always a combination of exhibition space and school, but when Kirk Newman came to the center the school took on a more professional profile - a quality that persists today.

The Kalamazoo Institute of Arts will host a rededication ceremony of its Kirk Newman Art School on Friday to celebrate Newman’s contributions to the arts community and to announce a major gift to the school from Rosemary and John Brown. Admission to the KIA will be free from 5 to 8 p.m. that night, with the gift being announced at 6:30 p.m.

“Rosemary and John Brown are longtime supporters of the entire institution,” Denise Lisiecki, director of the Kirk Newman Art School, told the Kalamazoo Gazette (http://bit.ly/1BmeSN8 ). They have a special desire to help the school Their gift will be a gift for the community.”

The school will use the gift to create scholarships, especially for children and teachers. It will also be used to update equipment and technology at the school.

Newman first came to Kalamazoo in 1949 through the extension division of the University of Michigan School of Architecture and Design. He became the school’s first full-time instructor and was director of the art school from 1961 to 1978.

Today, the art school has about 3,000 students, who participate each year in more than 300 camps and classes in ceramics, sculpture, jewelry, printmaking, fiber arts, photography, digital media and glass fusing.

“Kirk is a visionary arts leader who helped bring us to where we are today,” said the KIA’s Executive Diretor Belinda Tate Tate. “Our museum and school are essential to each other, and to the community. This kind of resource, this jewel, is unique within the nation’s cultural landscape.”

Newman, 89, doesn’t know much about the gift - other than there is a gift - and that he’s grateful for continued support for the school throughout the community. He has largely withdrawn from the creative life, shut down his studio in the Park Trades Center and is no longer actively showing his works. Some of his major works on view in the community include “People” outside the KIA, “When Mercy and Justice Prevail” in Bronson Park, and “Words and Humanity” at the Sherman Lake YMCA.

The Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts recently hosted the exhibition “Looking Forward: The Art Work of Kirk Newman,” the largest retrospective of his work - and most likely the last major show of his career. It highlighted his abstract sculptures that examined modern work life.

If the show provided the chance to look back at his creative life, the rededication of the school provides the opportunity to look back at his life as an educator. The art institute had always been a bifurcated institution, part-gallery, part-school when he arrived.

“When I first came here in 1949, which was a long time ago, the people at the art center had decided they’d like to get some professional input and went to the University of Michigan for help,” Newman said. “I was in grad school at the University of Iowa and somehow or other someone approached me about applying for the job there thinking I was the kind of person they needed.”

He said that might have been the right assessment because at the time, he was very interested in how to have art in a community, in how to create a community that embraced art.

“Rather than have a few pictures around, the question was what do people do with art,” Newman said.

He said he was never really the official director of the school in those early years, simply the guy who came up with ideas and got things done. “I was an itinerant director,” he said.

For instance, he remembers the first kiln for his ceramics class - it was about one foot by one foot. He got an electrician to donate his services and they built a kiln that could service works for about 20 students. He also thought the art center, one of the staid old houses on Park Street, needed something that said “art” lived at that house - so he painted the door and trim bright yellow.

The first thing that he did was start a series of classes taught by three professors from the University of Michigan, which students could take for college credit.

“It meant that the school became professional, in that we were offering high quality, basic classes in ceramics, painting and sculpture,” Newman said. “We did have a lot of people sign up for the classes and suddenly we had a bona fide, serious art school.”

It was a good time for art. With the end of the war and people interested in higher education as never before, you had a group of people willing to embrace and learn about art in a serious, professional way - and that was essential to the growth of Kalamazoo.

“You want a community of people who are interested in art,” he said. “I feel that in particular turned out well, not that I did so much. But at the time it was in the air that art was developing in the community. I think we created a huge awareness of quality arts and an appreciation for it in that regard.

“We were giving people a chance to actually experience the arts. Once you experience trying to make things, it’s very different than just being an observer. Then it becomes a unique experience.”

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Information from: Kalamazoo Gazette, http://www.mlive.com/kalamazoo

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