ASU’s proposed Fine Arts Building is a well-established, legitimate project that deserves this community’s support. The efforts of those committed to bringing this facility to reality have been extensive, expansive, exhaustive, and honorable, and have had very little to do with the conflict stemming from money given to this institution by Ray Charles. It is therefore important to separate the facts about ASU’s proposed Fine Arts Building from the swirl of misconceptions about Ray Charles’ gift and its connection to this project.
In the wake of the news that ASU has returned funds to the Ray Charles Foundation, speculation about what may have happened and questions about ASU’s culpability will certainly be forefront in the minds of interested ASU supporters, and detractors alike. The most unfortunate consequence of this speculation, however, is that it will likely obscure the fact that ASU’s Fine Arts Building is the real casualty of this dispute. And thereto, the fate of ASU’s highly productive faculty and students and their hopes of acquiring a facility that addresses their needs may be threatened.
Albany State University’s proposed Fine Arts Building was approved by the Board of Regents in 2000, after the university’s desperate need for the building was thoroughly documented. The original program plan for the building was that it would house Art, English, Foreign Languages, Music, Speech and Theater, and Mass Communication at an approved total construction budget of $21 million. ASU’s “Liberal Arts Building” (the name given to the building at the time of its presentation to the BOR) was fourth among four other capital outlay projects approved that year, bringing the list of BOR approved buildings to 24, with ASU’s building standing at 24th on the list.
In 2001, ASU began its relationship with Ray Charles. And in the summer of that year, Joe Adams, representing Ray Charles, came onto Albany State’s campus and was hosted by ASU’s administrators, faculty, staff and students. ASU’s Concert Chorale, just back from its concert tour of Spain and Portugal, performed a special concert in Mr. Adams’ honor. At the conclusion of his visit Mr. Adams presented ASU with a check from Ray Charles in the amount of $1 million. In May of 2002, Ray Charles personally came to ASU as special guest and commencement speaker. During commencement Mr. Charles gave ASU another $2 million. Also during commencement, Dr. Portia Shields, then ASU’s president, announced that she had sought and received approval from the Board of Regents to name the recently approved “Liberal Arts Building” after Ray Charles, and she further announced that the Children’s Theater — then one of the proposed spaces for the building — would bear his mother’s name — Aretha Robinson. Ray was elated.
As the years passed, ASU’s building project slowly but steadily moved up the list until, in 2006, it made it well into the top 10 and within striking distance of funding recommendation. Unfortunately for ASU, this was the last year of the chronologically ordered capital outlay list. With the change in BOR leadership came a change in the procedure and formula for funding capital projects, wiping away any time advantage ASU’s Ray Charles Fine Arts Building had accrued; and thus, thrust it again into competition with all other capital outlay projects.
For ASU, this was obviously a very disappointing setback. But, undaunted, those leading the Ray Charles Fine Arts Building project redoubled their efforts to justify the building according to the BOR’s new approval paradigm. And in 2010, the BOR once again approved ASU’s Fine Arts Building, its new budget of $28.8 million, and recommended allocating $1.8 million for the design of the building in the upcoming year’s budget. The state Legislature approved the allocation of design funds, and in the fall of 2010 ASU began the design phase of the Ray Charles Fine Arts Building.
Throughout this protracted period of waiting for funding, members of the Ray Charles Foundation were also growing concerned about our lack of progress toward construction of the promised building. According to the foundation, this institution assured them that the building would be built within the next two to three years following ASU’s receipt of Ray’s gift. Unfortunately, such an assurance was overly optimistic.
First of all, approval of University System capital projects is beyond the control of individual campuses. There also appears to have been the unrealistic expectation that Ray’s $3 million gift was sufficient to at least move the project forward, if not build the building outright. Obviously, with a building cost of $21 million, even if the entirety of Ray Charles’ most generous gift had been devoted to this project, it would still have been impossible for ASU to have moved forward with any building plans until the remaining funds had been secured.
The foundation therefore concluded that since Ray Charles had intended for all $3 million of his gift to go toward the Fine Art Building, ASU’s use of $2 million for scholarships was inappropriate. They also concluded that, since, after a number of years, no building had been built, there was cause to suspect that ASU either misrepresented its intention to build the caliber of building it had assured, or had reneged on its promise to build the Fine Arts Building altogether.
ASU is fully committed to building its Fine Arts Building. It will house Art, English, Foreign Languages, Music, and Speech and Theater. And the cost now stands at $28.8 million. Of that amount, $1.8 million have already been spent on the building’s design. The design is now complete and has received final BOR approval. ASU now awaits construction funds from the state. If funded this year, this would bring to an end a record 13-year period between initial Board of Regents approval of the ASU Fine Arts Building and state allocation of construction funds.
In the meantime, the recent action by the Ray Charles Foundation has resulted in the return of the remaining $1 million (plus interest) of his gift and the removal of Mr. Charles’ name from the building, as well as his mother’s name from the concert hall. The negative impact of this action is significant. The BOR has included Ray’s $1 million as ASU’s contribution to the building’s total $28.8 million cost. And unless it is replaced, the building will be a million dollars shy of the funds needed for construction. A stunning blow, yes, but we’ll recover.
It’s also unfortunate that, by their action, the foundation has not considered, or perhaps is not aware of, those of us at ASU who have worked tirelessly to see that this project, despite its setbacks, was never abandoned. The fact of the matter is that ASU’s Fine Arts Building Committee has endeavored to design a building that represents the utmost respect for and gratitude to Ray Charles for his musical genius, his artistic stature and his generosity — in short, a building worthy of Ray Charles’ name.
Ray Charles, himself, upon learning that the ASU Fine Arts Building would bear his name, was thrilled, and thereto gave ASU his permission to so name it. Denying ASU the honor of using Ray Charles’ name does a great disservice to his wishes, to his memory and to those of us who have been relentless in our quest to see that this building is built. Despite this great disservice, however, ASU’s building, whatever its name, must prevail.
Albany State’s Fine Arts Department is a jewel in ASU’s and Albany’s crown. The department has amassed highly talented faculty, produced outstanding graduates and has provided exceptional cultural outreach programs for all of Southwest Georgia. Both the Department of Fine Arts and the Department of English and Modern Languages have proven that they deserve a building in which to grow. And ASU has proven its need for such a facility to serve all of its students, the University community and Southwest Georgia. It would be the greatest tragedy of all if the long-delayed Fine Arts Building were delayed even further because of the outcome of the dispute between the Ray Charles Foundation and Albany State University.
Leroy E. Bynum Jr., DMA, is dean of the College of Arts and Humanities at Albany State University.