In 1989, Bill Snyder arrived in Manhattan to coach the K-State football team. Gary Mortenson arrived that same year to join the K-State music department, albeit more under the radar.
Today, they are both presiding over thriving programs. Snyder’s Wildcats are 5-0 and ranked No. 6. Mortenson is the director of the new School of Music, Theatre and Dance.
The three disciplines merged together into a school over the course of 10 months until the Kansas Board of Regents approved the merger June 22. “It’s unheard of in higher education to move that fast,” Mortenson said. “It’s a testament to K-State.”
Mortenson said having a school for the arts puts the disciplines on a higher level than when they were simply departments in other schools. “I think it just elevates the perception of how the arts are seen outside the university,” he said.
Even within the university, Mortenson said the consolidated approach helps the cause of the arts. He said a large part of the university’s future will be determined by the allocation of resources for K-State 2025, which is a university initiative to become a top 50 public research university by 2025. He believes creation of the school will give arts programs a higher profile as that process unfolds. “You can think of this merger as creating a bigger puzzle piece for the arts,” he said.
Mortenson said higher education funding is moving toward more private philanthropy as state funding declines relative to other funding sources. “We’re hoping someday that someone with vast resources will want their name attached to the school,” he said.
Mortenson’s appreciation of music and arts started at a very early age. His father was a high school band director in Illinois. Mortenson said going to rehearsals and seeing music education in practice are among his earliest memories. “It’s practically been a part of my DNA,” he said.
This musical DNA led him to the work he does today at K-State, which has included teaching trumpet, music appreciation and freshman historical survey. In his time at the university, Mortenson has commissioned more than 50 works for trumpet ensemble and brass chamber groups. He also served as the head of the music department from 2007 until it became a part of the new school.
Mortenson said he considers the new school a show of support for the arts by the university. He said the debate of the arts’ usefulness in society is coming up a lot these days, especially in legislative discussions about arts funding.
Kansas was the first state to remove all state funding for the arts, an impact that lasted a year before returning.
“Often, music is seen as something on the fringe,” Mortenson said. “I would argue it’s a part of the fabric of our society.”
Mortenson said people need an outlet to express themselves by viewing or participating in the arts. “If we don’t support the arts, we’re going to have to house more jails and institutions for unhealthy people,” he said.
Mortenson said there’s not a department on campus that doesn’t have students affected by the music, theatre and dance school. “I would hate to live in the world where music, dance and theatre aren’t relevant,” he said. “I’d like to think we’re the soul of the university.”
Mortenson said the arts are also an important fabric of the community. He said one of the reasons why Manhattan has done well even during the economic downturn is the arts scene, which makes a place more livable.
“Healthy communities and communities on the rise have healthy arts scenes,” he said. “That is universal.”