Nov. 1, 2001
Vol. 21 No. 4

current issue
archive / search

    Report calls for new recognition of arts as integral to campus life

    By Carrie Golus
    News Office

    A Center for the Creative and Performing Arts, renovations of Midway Studios and Mandel Hall, a new Arts Quadrangle––all these and more could someday become reality, if the recommendations of the Arts Study Group (published in the last issue of the University Record) are approved.

    Just as important as the brick-and-mortar recommendations, the group’s report calls for a new recognition that the arts are integral to life on campus––for students, faculty and staff alike. According to the report, “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.’”

    At this point, most of the recommendations remain just that––recommendations––but some already have been implemented. For example, the report recommends establishing an Arts Planning Council to help oversee the University’s new focus on the arts. The 12-member council, chaired by Douglas Baird, the Harry A. Bigelow Distinguished Service Professor in the Law School, held its first meeting Friday, Oct. 5.

    An arts aficionado, Baird passionately supports more cultural opportunities for students, partly because his own undergraduate years were so formative. “My exposure to the arts as an undergraduate constitutes a large part of the person I am today,” he said. “I’m not an artist. I know my limitations. A world where lawyers do art is one kind of hell you don’t want to live in. But nonetheless my love for books, opera and museums is an important part of my identity.”

    The nine-member Arts Study Group, chaired by Provost Geoffrey Stone, began meeting in September 2000. “We reached a moment when we realized that there were pressures in several different quarters, and they needed to be addressed in a systematic way,” said Mary Harvey, Associate Provost. The Arts Study Group discovered first that among undergraduate students there was substantial unmet demand for arts classes and for facilities for rehearsal and performance. Second, Midway Studios was inadequately serving the needs of the Committee on the Visual Arts, a fact complicated by the building’s landmark status. And third, the Division of the Humanities wanted to expand the creative writing curriculum.

    However, when the group surveyed the arts on campus, its members were surprised to discover how widespread participation in the arts already is––for example, there are more than 80 arts-related registered student organizations. “We really underestimated both the depth and breadth of the offerings in the arts,” said Harvey. “We just need better facilities and more resources.”

    The report’s recommendations include many that are short-term and minor, such as sharing existing facilities more efficiently. Caren Skoulas, Associate Provost for Planning, already has begun investigating ways to leverage the University’s existing spaces, including the Law School Auditorium, which could be used to screen 35mm films. Skoulas also has formed a committee to do a “program study” for Mandel Hall, identifying which groups would benefit most from using it, and which would be better served in other spaces on campus.

    Long-term, major recommendations include the creation of a Center for the Creative and Performing Arts at 60th Street and Drexel Avenue, incorporating a renovated Midway Studios, student theaters spaces and music practice rooms, and a new Arts Quadrangle at 56th Street and Ellis Avenue, near the David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art and Court Theatre.

    In addition to the facilities recommendations, the report calls for more undergraduate arts classes and more internship and work-study opportunities for students at Chicago’s professional arts organizations. Another key recommendation is building closer links between the professional arts organizations on campus and academic life. The Smart Museum staff have pioneered activities in this area, such as planning exhibitions that feature faculty-member curators from Art History, Romance Languages & Literatures and other disciplines and publishing exhibition catalogs that include student essays.

    “Advancing the arts at the University will require overcoming what John Dewey described as ‘the odd notion that the artist does not think and a scientific inquirer does nothing else,’” the report states. “The commonly held view links the practice of art at the University primarily with recreation. . . . A result has been the peripheral status of the practice of art on our campus.”

    For Baird, such a shortsighted view disregards the fact that “the arts really are an integral part of academic life, even if they’re not part of the curriculum,” he said. “A literature student who performs in a Shakespeare play at University Theatre will have a deeper appreciation and understanding of Shakespeare. A biochemistry student may play the violin for pleasure, even if that isn’t directly related to the academic program. It’s all part of a balanced, full, liberal education.”