Since its foundation over a century ago, The University of Montana has been the flagship institution and leader in the instruction of the visual arts in the state. The visual arts have been a part of UM's curriculum since the establishment of the state university in 1895, with the first drawing course offered in 1896. Painting easels and plaster casts of classical sculptures graced the Main Hall when it opened its doors in 1898. From 1902 until 1937, classrooms and studios for the study of and practice of art occupied the gabled third floor of celebrated architect A.J.Gibson's beloved Main Hall.The University demonstrated its commitment to the visual arts by establishing the Department of Fine Arts in 1908 and offering a major in art the following year. The department grew steadily in numbers and prestige until after World War II when need for space led to a move into the old Student Union Building. Designed by Missoula architect C. J. Forbes, the Art Deco Student Union, was financed in part by Public Works Administration funds. Constructed in 1935, it was one of the few prominent buildings built in the state during the Great Depression and it ushered in a new campus building phase. It has served as the Fine Arts Building since 1953.
Eloise B. Knowles, the first graduate of The University of Montana, was also its first art professor and director of the program. She is largely responsible for the establishment of a progressive curriculum that balanced instruction in the fine arts, design, and art history. Courses described in the earliest university catalogs underscore the modern, cosmopolitan, and comprehensive nature of that curriculum: free-hand drawing, applied design, oil painting, watercolor, history of modern sculpture, history of architecture, artistic anatomy, metalworking, photography, and cartooning, to name a few.
Steady growth in the post World War II period spread the department across the main campus: art education, art history and criticism, and the 2-dimensional arts (drawing, painting, photography, and printmaking) are taught in the Fine Arts Building; 3-dimensional art (ceramics and sculpture) are taught in the Art Annex; the Gallery of Visual Arts is located in the Social Science Building; and graduate studios are located on the ground floor of the old Schreiber Gymnasium. In 2009, the department became the School of Art.
In the second half of the 20th century, the School of Art has distinguished itself through its rigorous curriculum and a faculty of professional artist/educators and art historian/critics dedicated to the instruction of modern art as well as teaching art history and criticism. Past directors have included artists with national and regional reputations, including Aden Arnold, James Dew, Walter Hook, and most recently Tom Rippon. Its best-known director was the internationally-recognized artist and educator Rudy Autio. Other celebrated artist/teachers Lela Autio, Tu Baixong, Maxine Blackmer, Don Bunse, Ken Little, James Todd, Dennis Voss, and Ted Waddell can be counted in the ranks of its past faculty. Its current, no less distinguished, faculty honors that legacy through its commitment to intellectual inquiry, creative research and service, and the continued education of UM's future artists and teachers.
"History and Heritage: The University of Montana's School of Art" by H. Rafael Chacón, Ph.D.