History of the Arts at Eastern
Even during its infancy as a normal school and later as a teacher’s college, Eastern has provided instruction in the arts. The original Willimantic State Normal School (WSNS) curriculum from 1889 included drawing and modeling, as well as singing! The Drama Club was launched in 1922 and was called “The 22 Club.” During its time as the WSNS, Eastern had an arts club (basketry, textiles, book binding); a Music Club (with a glee club and an orchestra); and all students were required to take art and music. The entire student body met once a week for chorus and ended the year with a big concert in May.
When the normal school became the Willimantic State Teachers College in 1937, arts programs expanded with the addition of art history and art appreciation. In 1942, Hermann Beckert came to Eastern as assistant professor of music and expanded the music program. Beckert ended his career at Eastern by setting up the University Archive.
By 1951, Art and Music were departments at the teacher’s college, which was still housed in one building — Shafer Hall. Since 1948 when Shafer Hall opened, replacing the original Normal School building lost to fire in 1943, it has been home to countless student, faculty and guest art exhibits, theatrical performances and musical concerts. In the 1970s, Eastern began to bring its art closer to the local community, inviting residents to attend Eastern musical and theatrical events, and encouraging community participation in selected ensembles. Today, community members continue to be part of the Eastern Concert Chorale and Eastern Concert Band.
During the 1980s, President Charles Webb used a hands-on approach to supporting music on campus. His band — “The Grooves of Academe” — included the late Professor Kenneth Parzych on drums; Professor Ed Drew on bass; and Webb on xylophone. One highlight of the Grooves’ special moments was playing a set with the legendary jazz vibraphonist Lionel Hampton during his visit to Eastern in November 1984.
Over the years, disciplines in the arts have forged ahead with degree programs. Various arts-related faculty began offering an interdisciplinary Bachelor of Arts in Fine Arts/Humanities in 1984. In 1988-89, the Fine Arts Department was established, and in fall 2001, the Fine Arts Department split into Performing Arts and Visual Arts. In fall 2009, Eastern began offering Bachelor of Arts degrees in Music and Theatre. In 2014, the Visual Arts Department was renamed the Department of Art and Art History. Today, all three disciplines have their own faculty and vision, but are united by place and by numerous opportunities to collaborate.
The Akus Gallery was named in honor of Art Professor Julian Akus, who was a member of the faculty at Willimantic State Teachers College from 1952-81. The gallery was established in 1982 to provide Eastern students and the community with opportunities to see the works of emerging and established living artists as well as historical exhibits.