Fort Smith Community School of the Arts prepares to open $15 million facility

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More information about the school’s programming and ways to donate can be found on its website,

FORT SMITH — The Community School of the Arts has reached halfway to its $15 million goal to build a facility along the Arkansas River, with construction ready to begin any day now.

The 40,000 square foot facility will be north of the US Marshals Museum and will offer after-school and weekend arts programs for students ages 3 through adult. It will include classrooms, teaching studios, art galleries, a recording studio, film and digital animation labs, dance studios, cooking labs, a black box theater and a 350-seat theater with a performance hall.

Rosilee Russell, founder and chief executive, said she started a similar program at Westark Community College in 2006. She said the community school was established a decade later at St. Boniface Catholic Church as she was developing a program to provide students with high school credit for the courses they were taking.

“So through this program, once we build the facility, we can transport high school students for part of their day,” Russell said. “They audition to get into the program of their choice, and for three or more hours of their day, they participate in classes that will earn them high school credit at their high school. And to deliver those programs, we had to have a facility.”

Russell pointed out that the school’s programs are intended to complement arts programs offered by area high schools and help prepare students for college and a career in the arts. She said the institution will be able to provide specialized, cutting-edge programs to students within a 60-mile radius in 40 districts in Arkansas and Oklahoma.

“We’re enhancing and providing an alternative to what’s in high school, or giving these kids opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have,” she said. “It costs the students nothing. It’s part of the state funding for these kids to come. It just feeds into the fact that any student can come to the program, so that’s a good thing.”

The Creative Arts Institute’s programming will include the School of Film Arts, School of Culinary Arts, School of Music, School of Dance, School of Dramatic Arts, and School of Art and of design.

Melissa Udouj said her son, Joseph Udouj, 17, has been taking drum lessons at school since he was in fifth grade, and it’s been great to watch him grow and learn. She said he is a member of the school’s ambassador jazz band and will be performing at different venues in the community to help raise awareness of the new facility.

“Joseph has special needs, so we weren’t really sure what he would be able to do, and he had phenomenal instructors who opened up a whole new world to him,” Udouj said. “He’s become quite the percussionist now. A lot of things in life are hard for him, and this field has just opened up a place where he’s thirsty to learn and wants to improve. So it’s been an experience incredible.”

Russell said the facility is built entirely through private donors and foundations. She said with the recent $750,000 grant from the Mabee Foundation, the school has raised about $7.5 million so far.

“We have a group of people in this community who love what we do, they support what we do, they see the value in it not just for Fort Smith but for the region,” Russell said.

Brandon Chase Goldsmith, president of the River Valley Film Society and executive director of the Fort Smith International Film Festival, said he thinks it’s important to have opportunities like the community school because it involves the people in the arts at a young age.

“What film does is it encompasses all forms of art, from painting to actors to set builders, every aspect of art is involved in the film, so having a center like this one training students for this,” he said. “What this is going to do is help grow our creative economy across the entire river valley.”

“What excites me is that I never did anything like this when I was a kid. I should have been an artist and I’m not, but that’s because I had no not have the basics to do that,” Rick said. Foti, chairman of the board of directors.

Russell said the facility could be ready for touring as early as May and will be complete by the end of summer 2023.

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