January 16, 2012

Success of ambitious arts plan signals a new era

“We should understand the practice of art not only as a recreational diversion from the rigors of academic life, but also as a central activity of the ‘life of the mind.’”
—Arts Study Group
The Future of the Arts at the University of Chicago (2001)

A 2001 report issued by the Arts Study Group set a bold agenda for the arts at the University of Chicago. Ten years later, on the cusp of the opening of the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, the University has made remarkable strides in achieving – and in some cases surpassing – the goals set forth.

“The last decade has been transformative for the arts at the University of Chicago,” says Larry Norman, a Professor in Romance Languages & Literature, Theater & Performance Studies and the College, who this Fall entered his second term as Deputy Provost for the Arts, a position created in response to one of the Arts Study Group’s recommendations.

“Just as we built on a strong arts tradition before us, we will continue to build on this current momentum,” Norman says. “We’re still very much engaged in this set of ongoing projects.”

The Art Study Group’s report responded to an urgent sense among many in the University community that infrastructure to support the arts was imperative. The report reflects a desire to meet demands for a more robust arts curriculum, increased access to the arts, updated and expanded facilities, and fuller collaborations among arts programs on campus and throughout the city.

"The Arts Study Group found an unprecedented level of engagement with arts across campus, and we were delighted to respond to that energy," says Dean of the College John Boyer, a co-author of the 2001 report and Professor of History and Social Sciences. "Our students, faculty, and staff clearly had a need for more resources. It triggered a culture shift at the University, bringing the arts into the heart of the academic life of the campus.”

The recommendation to improve arts facilities and create a new arts center will be answered in part when the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts enters its Preview Period, hosting classes and limited events, in Spring 2012 and holds a Grand Opening Celebration in Fall 2012.

Academic institutions are slow to change, and often don’t change at all, says Bill Brown, professor of English and Visual Arts and Karla Scherer Distinguished Service Professor in American Culture. “In that context, it has been exhilarating to watch a few paragraphs on a page morph, slowly but surely, into the Logan Center,” says the report co-author.

“The generosity of the Logan family, the creativity of [architects] Williams and Tsien, the determination of Dean John Boyer and Deputy Provost Larry Norman and President Zimmer – these have ensured that the Logan Center will be far more than a new arts center,” adds Brown. “It promises to mark the beginning of a very new era for the arts on our campus, and to summon attention from all parts of the city."

The architecturally stunning building will add a uniquely interdisciplinary mix of classrooms, studios, rehearsal rooms, and music, visual arts, theater and performance, and cinema and media facilities.

“The Logan Center represents many things, including the University’s dedication to enhancing academic opportunity, arts resources, and student life,” says Bill Michel, Executive Director of the Logan Center and Arts Study Group member. “It also presents a tremendous opportunity for community engagement, increased arts activity on the South Side, and new relationships across the city. We’re excited to see the Logan Center come to life with the energy and work of our faculty, students, neighbors, and partners."

Reimagining the arts in the academy

Facilities were one integral part of a broader plan designed to increase support for the curricular and programmatic ambitions of students and faculty.

“We realized that arts were in fact pervasive at the University of Chicago, but our faculty and students needed more resources to realize their grander ambitions as scholars and artists, and more visibility for their achievements,” says Associate Provost Mary J. Harvey, Arts Study Group member and chair of the Arts Council, a body created in the wake of the report to inform the implementation of the recommendations. The Arts Council also awards nearly $100,000 annually in arts grants to faculty and students.

In addition to investing in facilities and creating funding opportunities, the University has been steadily expanding arts-related course offerings and hiring new faculty whose scholarship includes a substantial arts component or who are themselves practicing artists.

Most recently, internationally recognized artist Jessica Stockholder joined the University as Chair of the Department of Visual Arts (DOVA). In 2011, critically lauded composer Augusta Read Thomas was appointed University Professor of Composition in the Department of Music. Stockholder and Thomas join an impressive and growing list of arts faculty who, in true University of Chicago fashion, teach across multiple departments and disciplines.

Similarly, Cinema & Media Studies, Art History, Theater & Performance Studies, the Creative Writing Program, and the aforementioned departments all bring a dynamic set of artists and scholars including James Fallows, Tina Landau, Mickle Maher, Mark Morris, James Naremore, Eivind Røssaak. Rosemarie and Keith Waldrop, Molly Warnock, and Scott Wolniak.

In June 2011, the University launched the Richard and Mary L. Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry, which catalyzes innovative collaborations that bring together University faculty and students with artists and scholars from around the world, in part through the Mellon Residential Fellowship in Arts Practice and Scholarship program. The first class of collaborative fellows includes Alison Bechdel with Hillary Chute, Jamie Carpenter with Sidney Nagel, Claudia Lavista and Delfos with the Department of Music, and Tony Kushner in an Exploratory Fellowship with Court Theatre.

The Gray Center grows from a tradition of integrating scholarship and practice, a tradition that began with the Smart Museum’s Mellon Program and continues today with Court Theater’s Center for Classic Theatre Review and the recently launched Arts|Science Initative.

“The Gray Center would like to create collaborative relationships that are substantive – not merely parachute relationships where artists come in, do what they do, and leave again in short order. The idea is to create and nurture substantive relationships in which collaborations can unfold over time,” says Gray Center Director and Arts Study Group member David J. Levin.

Levin, also a professor of Germanic Studies, Cinema & Media Studies, and Theater & Performance Studies, added, “As for what happens when our fellows come together, our intention is to create structures in which we sustain and celebrate the unpredictability of what might occur.”

Central to student life and studies

The response from students has provided an emphatic affirmation of the plan. DOVA will welcome the largest MFA class in its history. Other programs are noticing a similar spike in interest.

The demand is not limited to students majoring or minoring in the arts. Last year, over 20% of all undergraduate students took arts electives, and more than 25% of students enrolled in Core courses opted for arts courses.

Prospective students, too, are hungry for arts courses and opportunities. According to recent Admissions data, the number of students indicating interest in studying the arts has increased 300-400% since 2009, and the number of students interested in the arts more broadly is even higher.

Outside the classroom, students are enjoying unprecedented access to the arts both on and off campus. The Arts Pass program, which began in 2009, allows every student to use their UChicago ID to gain free or reduced-price access to dozens of arts venues, performances, and exhibitions across the city.

While Arts Pass is used by many for leisure, it is also an asset for learning and professional development. Chicago Careers in the Arts (CCIA), a program that supports the professional aspirations of students interested in arts-related fields, used Arts Pass to take students to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. There they visited exhibits, attended a performance, and were able to meet alumna Yolanda Cursach, Associate Director and Programmer to talk about jobs in museums. CCIA also arranged a meeting with performance artist Lin Hixson to discuss how practicing artists build and maintain careers.

“There’s no more powerful way to proceed as an arts professional than by gaining hands on experience and building a network of experienced allies,” says CCIA Program Director Lloyd Brodnax King.

Connections to the city

In fall 2011, the University announced artist Theaster Gates as Director of the Arts and Public Life Initiative, which will foster collaboration and conversation between the University and the civic, cultural and artistic communities of Chicago, with a focus on the South Side. As part of the initiative, the University will open a new arts incubator in the Washington Park neighborhood in late 2012. Gates, also a resident artist and lecturer at the University, is eager to strengthen and create new connections between the University and the community, and to explore the ways in which people, culture, and space are valued.

“Arts and Public Life is a way of reimagining our relationship with our neighbors,” says Gates. “It also gives us a chance to hone in on ways that the University’s friendship to the South Side could be extended, and think about how the facilities at the University and the vast artistic knowledge that surrounds this place could act as platforms by which other emerging artists in the city could benefit.”

The Arts Study Group’s recommendation to better engage the city through the arts has resulted in many other collaborations and programs between University groups and with art institutions throughout Chicago. Departments continue to build k-12 arts education components, and collaborative programs have yielded compelling results.

Last year’s Hyde Park Jazz Festival, which featured University faculty and alumni musicians, enjoyed record attendance and was named Best Neighborhood Music Festival by Chicago Magazine. The University is a significant supporter of the festival, which is organized by the HyPa (Hyde Park Alliance for Arts and Culture) in partnership with the Hyde Park Jazz Society.

University Chicago Presents partnered with more than 25 area institutions like the Art Institute of Chicago to orchestrate the Soviet Arts Experience, a citywide series that continues to win critical praise as it enters its final months. Meanwhile, the Renaissance Society and the Oriental Institute Museum continue to reinforce their international reputations as vital cultural assets.

While Court Theatre and the Smart Museum draw large audiences and earn critical accolades internationally, both organizations also run effective arts education programs and engage audiences outside of the theater and museum. Court Theatre, for example tapped the expertise of University scholars and partnered with DuSable Museum of African American History for community events during both last year’s Porgy and Bess and this year’s Invisible Man.

Momentum is high for the arts on campus, says Norman, citing the inauguration of the Arts and Public Life Initiative and Gray Center, and the ambitious programs of professional arts organizations like the Smart Museum and Court Theatre.

“As we consider all we have accomplished so far and look forward to the opening of the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, an entirely new set of possibilities emerges,” says Norman. “We’re thrilled about the prospect of the next ten years.”

By Mitch Marr, AM’10