Theresa Reid, executive director of ArtsEngine (photo courtesy of Montage, U-M's arts website)

Two Cultures as One
Leaders in Academia Gather to Advocate for Arts-Making at Research Universities

by Betsy Goolian

 

“To drive national momentum to develop better ways to integrate art-making and the arts into the research university.”

 

That was the stated purpose behind a national conference held in early May in Ann Arbor. The theme of the conference:  “The Role of Arts Making in the Research University.” The heart of the conference: three days of addresses by distinguished speakers, lively discussions, workshops, and hands-on creative activities.

 

As participants—some 200 strong, comprising provosts, deans, directors, faculty, administrators, and graduate students from universities around the country—filed into Rackham Auditorium that Wednesday evening of the three days, the conference was launched in true style. The Gratitude Steel Band filled the hall with the sounds of island music, the assembled musicians dressed in black, yellow and green Hawaiian shirts. Behind them, a video ran silently, looping through screen images of the arts in action, images that changed, words appearing, then fading:  coalesce, expand, exhale, resonate, percolate, gravitate.

 

Theresa Reid, conference organizer and executive director of ArtsEngine, the campus initiative that proposed the overarching theme to the Rackham Graduate School, the sponsor, said, “Lots of top-tier universities are re-examining their commitment to the arts, and the primary reason is the worldwide demand for creativity. In a global economy, a key differentiator for businesses and for national economies is creativity and the innovations that result from it. That’s one major reason that places like Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and other elite universities are lately turning increasingly to the arts.”

 

Janet Weiss, Dean of the Rackham School, opened the proceedings. These Michigan Meetings, she explained, were established “to bring together colleagues and members of the engaged public on topics of broad interest for thoughtful engagement.” Those drawn to this particular conference, Weiss said, had a “shared sense of jeopardy” about the future of the arts.

 

The North Campus deans, founders of ArtsEngine, took the podium in turn:  Monica Ponce de Leon from architecture and urban planning, David Munson from engineering, Bryan Rogers from art and design, and Christopher Kendall from music, theatre and dance.

 

Said Kendall, “Michigan is home to highly regarded, degree-granting professional programs in virtually all branches of the arts and performing arts. So with this wealth of arts assets, what, after all, is the problem that inspired this meeting?” The challenge, as he sees it, is getting contemporary research universities to recognize art-making as an intellectually legitimate form of inquiry, knowledge-production, and discovery.

 

“By ‘art-making’ we mean original creative production in all forms of art,” said Dr. Reid, “as well as re-creation through performance. The arts are the product of art-making. Engaging with the arts—in museums, exhibitions, screenings, live performances—is a vital part of our culture and of the university experience. But art-making is different:  it’s the extremely difficult, worrying, rigorous, error-filled process of discovery through original creative expression.”

 

Shirley Tilghman, president of Princeton and conference keynote speaker, said we need to convince the doubters that “what occurs in our studios and on our stages is as central to our mission as what takes place in our lecture halls and laboratories.” Princeton is at the forefront of “moving the arts from the margins to the center of the undergraduate experience,” having just opened a new center for the creative and performing arts.

 

“In writing a poem,” she said, “we learn the true economy of words; in playing a role, we learn how to walk in someone else’s shoes; in joining an orchestra we learn that the sum can be infinitely greater than its parts.”

 

“If the arts are perceived as the purview of a well-to-do elite,” Tilghman said, with funding slashed at the local, state, and federal level, “the general public will grow increasingly indifferent to them.” Universities need to become “artistic crucibles” by making sure today’s students become tomorrow’s patrons of the arts; by providing a forum where artists can pursue their passions in a safe environment; and by providing access to the arts to the general public, thus enriching the cultural life of their communities.

 

The following morning, the hub of activity moved to the Michigan Union. Presentations were interspersed with break-out sessions, each of the working groups assigned one of seven topics:  research agenda; curricular models and impact; co-curricular programming; building the case for arts integration in post-secondary education; funding models; advocacy structures; and national network design and role.

 

As conference participants returned to the main ballroom from those sessions, the air was alive with conversation, charged with the buzz of excitement, energy, and ideas. “We’re having fun, aren’t we?” said Reid from the podium.

 

The featured speaker for day two was Don Randel, President of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. His talk referenced a famous speech by celebrated novelist C.P. Snow, from 1959, addressed to the faculty at Cambridge in the annual Rede Lecture, in which Snow posited that the sciences and the arts were becoming two cultures. Universities have addressed this gap through distribution requirements that expose the one culture to the other, but that exposure is often superficial, with courses that look good on a resume or make people better at cocktail party conversation.

 

“How do we ensure that the arts are a crucial part of the intellectual fabric of the institution?” he asked. We need to “think about what the intellectual fabric of the institution ought properly to be and indeed what we are attempting to bring about in the lives of the students and anyone else who comes here. This entails in turn thinking about what the university truly stands for and the means by which it demonstrates what it stands for.”

 

Randel stressed the importance of reflection, curiosity, and imagination to the life of the mind, saying that there is really only one culture and it’s all of a piece. He sees active, sustained collaboration as the best way to demonstrate that both cultures are one in spirit. Physics should not be just for physics majors; music should not be only for music majors.

 

“The best humanists and artists and scientists do what they do because they cannot help it,” Randel said. “Of course some of what they do has practical consequences that are valuable to society in practical and economic terms. But even those practical consequences are often born of the passionate exercise of curiosity, imagination, and reflection for their own sake.” [Randel’s speech and all the other featured talks are available at http://artsonearth.org/presentations.php]

 

Former University of Michigan Provost Nancy Cantor, now chancellor at Syracuse University, was the keynote speaker on Friday, the final day of the conference. She described the three models universities typically draw on: the stand-alone model, a school or college dedicated to the arts and arts-making; the model where the arts and arts-making are embedded into schools, colleges and departments whose central focus is not on the arts and art-making per se; and organizations “that serve everyone but are owned by no one,” like museums, libraries, galleries, theaters, musical societies.

 

“We want to encourage a blending or interplay among them and move from one-shot projects to models that can be sustained,” she said. She gave several examples of work being done at Syracuse University, including one that lasted just three days. Students from seven different fields and colleges participated in a charrette on the future impact of social media on business. Students came away with a new understanding:  “everyone’s an expert on something.”

 

Then she came to what she called the “hard stuff:”  integrating the arts and arts-making into our curriculums in a way that challenges the normal practices of our institutions, disrupting the status quo, upending routines. But then, what do arts and arts making do? They disrupt.

 

She suggested that generosity is key; giving over control to the project in recognition that the sum is greater than individual interests. It is by nature a strongly democratic and inclusive form of engagement. Boundaries start blurring; we have to relinquish disciplinary supremacy. It strains our standard definitions. What we need are more interdisciplinary appointments and the deeper engagement of professionals working side by side with more traditional academics.

 

“How do we support this kind of work to scale, with some durability or longevity, and maximal impact? How much disruption occurs to our normal practices, silos, career recipes, distinct roles, and all those aspects that we cling to that make us who we are?” Universities need to make commitments to funding, appointments, space, partnerships. Collaborative curriculum may begin with a single course. A key challenge, she said, is how we ensure that these collaborations have a shelf life long enough to engage beyond their initial offerings.

 

At the end of the conference, representatives from the break-out groups reported on their findings and made recommendations. Those can be found at http://artsonearth.org/topics.php.

 

“The [North Campus] deans have been working together with imagination and gusto to accelerate the creative output of the Michigan community and to deepen our collective involvement in arts throughout the University,” Weiss said at the opening session. That imagination and gusto were the forces that launched this investigation.

 

Participants went away newly invigorated, charged with a common mission and a solid start on one of the conference’s stated goals: to initiate a national effort to make a sophisticated case for integrating art-making and the arts into the research university.