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MSU's Missouri Fine Arts Academy: 21 Years of Opening the World of the Arts to High Schoolers

(photo courtesy Missouri State University)

The Missouri Fine Arts Academy at Missouri State University is currently in its 21st year.  It’s a three-week summer program for high school students interested in the visual arts, performing arts, and creative writing. They come from all over Missouri (and this year, outside the state—read on) for an intensive schedule of classes and activities.

Melissa Herr is the Director of the Academy.  “This is my first year as full Director,” she says. “Last year I was Co-Director with Ray Castrey, and before that, coordinating. The Missouri Fine Arts Academy is a program for all Missouri high school sophomores and juniors. It’s an opportunity for students from different (artistic) disciplines to work together collaboratively, and also to practice their individual craft in a sort of ‘process rather than product’ environment.  So we encourage artistic risk-taking and empathy and inclusion of an artistic community.”

This year’s Academy started June 5th and continues through the 25th. But don’t expect to see or hear these young people in a public setting, performing or exhibiting artwork, says Melissa Herr, specifically because of the Fine Arts Academy’s emphasis on “risk-taking and trying new things, and understanding that sometimes we have to perform things in front of people a few times before we get it just right.” Thus, spectators are not present “so that our students feel really comfortable, and they feel they’re in a good place to take those artistic risks.”

She says that, while the program is designed for Missouri high schoolers, they do have one student from outside the state—the first time that’s happened.  That student has had to pay a “full program fee,” whereas “all students within the state of Missouri attend for free.”

The students are residents on the MSU campus for the three-week period, living in Well House dorm and eating in Garst Dining Center.  They receive three college credit hours upon completion of the Missouri Fine Arts Academy, “Interdisciplinary Studies 101.”

Melissa Herr brought two of this summer’s Academy attendees with her to the KSMU studios: Sarah Osmond, who will be a junior at Branson High School this fall, and Joshua Neudorf, who will enter the senior class at North Kansas City High School in the fall. Sarah’s here to study voice. “I’ve been singing since I was in diapers. So this has been a lot of fun.  We had to audition to get here, and we had to write a paper on why we thought we should be here.  And so being surrounded by the best artists in the state, I’m never the best one in the room, and it’s so great to get to hear other people and to learn about different art forms.” Sarah describes her current vocal range as “Soprano II, alto-ish”... but as she gets older and continues studying vocal technique, her vocal category could well change.

Joshua started playing viola in the fifth grade—his elementary school district offers a string class for fifth graders “that allows all students to pick up a string instrument and just see if they like it. I really enjoyed it and got more serious about it in eighth grade, and I’ve been moving on with it in high school.” He says a lot of the things he’s been working on at the Fine Arts Academy “are actually related to some of the non-traditional aspect of music that a lot of us wouldn’t really experience in our music classes in our usual high schools.  A lot of what we do isn’t actually ‘orchestral’ per se—a lot of experimental music, less traditional-sounding and less conventional-sounding. And a lot of improvisation as well.”

As for the vocal students, says Sarah Osmond, “all students have to take an interdisciplinary class, where basically it’s like, ‘Okay, you don’t have to use your voice—you can use a canvas or something else to express yourself.’  And then I have vocal studies: some days I’ll be taking classical or Broadway, and then other days I’ll be taking pop or jazz.  You learn both aspects.”  Nothing too “experimental,” but the vocal students are encouraged “to get outside your comfort zone.” And that’s true whether the student is a vocalist, instrumentalist, actor, dancer, visual artist, or writer.

Missouri Fine Arts Academy Director Melissa Herr praises the “amazing faculty” involved with the Academy.  Some are working artists, and they come from all over the country. “We have some people who are alums of the program and now live in Oregon or California, and they elect to come back to teach because it was so meaningful for them in their lives. And we of course have university professors from various universities, quite a few from Missouri State.”

Interestingly, Melissa notes that in previous years the Academy rather lacked student representation from the Springfield area itself, “but it’s been growing.” Application forms for the 2017 Missouri Fine Arts Academy will go online November 1st at

Randy Stewart joined the full-time KSMU staff in June 1978 after working part-time as a student announcer/producer for two years. His job has evolved from Music Director in the early days to encompassing production of a wide range of arts-related programming and features for KSMU, including the online and Friday morning "Arts News." Stewart assists volunteer producers John Darkhorse (Route 66 Blues Express), Lee Worman (The Gold Ring), and Emily Higgins (The Mulberry Tree) with the production of their programs. He's also become the de facto "Voice of KSMU" in recent years due to the many hours per day he’s heard doing local station breaks. Stewart’s record of service on behalf of the Springfield arts community earned him the Springfield Regional Arts Council's "Ozzie Award" in 2006.