In 1997, on the power of one dear friend’s recommendation alone Kirsten Furlong got in her car and drove from Omaha, Nebraska, to Boise, Idaho, to join Boise State’s inaugural cohort of MFA visual arts students.

“A high school friend moved to Boise in the early nineties and she’d go on and on about how wonderful it was,” Furlong said. “I called the university in part just to get her to quit bugging me but soon learned that the art department would be a great fit for my creative and career goals.”

Furlong is now celebrating her 20th anniversary at Boise State. Over the last two decades, she has played the role of student, art instructor and gallery director for the Visual Arts Center, all the while relishing the freedom of expression that working at a university affords artists.

“University galleries don’t have the same constraints and goals of commercial galleries,” she explained.

“It’s a learning lab for artists – there’s a learning process in how to display art objects that’s not taught along with the production of art objects. That can lead to mystery and intimidation for audiences and even artists. Any time you can be in a place working with young artists to teach them what galleries do, and how they are approachable, it’s important.”

Most importantly, university galleries can be more open to experimentation than their civic or commercial counterparts. The Visual Arts Center has a dynamic place as part of the art department’s academic programs and as the core for arts outreach to the community.

During those years, Furlong has witnessed a cultural renaissance within the city of Boise and at Boise State, which only will be amplified once the university’s new Center for Fine Arts is completed. “Since the last economic downturn, which cost us commercial galleries, we’ve seen a lot of alternative art spaces popping up,” Furlong said. “This is in large part because of a lot of art students coming out of Boise State want to stay in Boise. They’re creating the situations and spaces that they need to show their work here, and have a thriving studio practice here.”

At Boise State, Furlong honed her own hybrid practice of painting, printmaking and drawing, which pulls from various methods she learned in the Master of Fine Arts program. On campus and off, she has built up a reputation as a respected artist. In 2016, the Portland Art Museum purchased one of Furlong’s pieces for their extensive collection of northwest art. But she says the most gratifying aspect of her job is watching her students graduate and become her peers.

“I see students who have gone through my classes working in the city arts department, or as professional artists. It’s always rewarding to come back and work with a student who’s developed their own practice or arts administration career, or to be included in an exhibition with my former students.”

VIDEO: Getting an art degree is more valuable than ever. Kirsten Furlong opens up about the endless possibilities available to art students and what’s next for the department at Boise State.