Arts study group reports need for changes

By Jennifer Bussell

The University needs to use its arts facilities more efficiently and to eventually build new ones, according to “The Future of the Arts at the University of Chicago,” the report of an ad hoc study group created by the provost’s office. The report, completed in August 2001 and recently released to the public, identified an increased student and faculty interest in the arts and a need to improve creative and performing arts programs despite the lack of facilities available to support those programs.

“The report will be discussed in a variety of groups over the course of the next few months,” said University Provost Geoffrey Stone, who convened the Arts Study Group, which authored the report. The group made recommendations for action by the University, though such recommendations are still subject to a great deal of review.

“A great research university should nurture the unique and powerful role of the arts in the education of the whole person,” the report stated. The study group cited two views of the role of the creative and performing arts in education: one in which the practice of the arts supplements an academic education and another in which it is seen as a key part of intellectual development. According to the report, the University has tended to lean towards the former.

However, the study group suggested that the University examine the second view. “Our longstanding tradition of interdisciplinary study leaves the University of Chicago well prepared to bring the practice of art and the study of art together as an integral part of our mission,” the report stated. “To do so, 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.'”

The Arts Study Group, comprised of professors, administrators, an architect, and other University officials, regularly consulted an advisory group of students, faculty, administrators, and arts program directors in evaluating the current priorities for resource use as well as the projected need for new resources to develop the arts at the University. In the report, the Arts Study Group presented six recommendations for action based on its analysis of the role of the arts in the University.

The first recommendation of the study group was to strengthen the University’s arts curriculum, which currently includes the Committee on Visual Arts (COVA), the Committee on Cinema and Media Studies, and the Committee on Theater and Performance. Though classes in photography, playwriting, sculpture, and other creative and performing arts exist, according to the report, such classes fail to meet the overwhelming student and faculty demand. The report called for active faculty involvement in this aspect of its suggestions.

Secondly, the group recommended that the University increase support to its co-curricular arts programs. Such programs, of which there are more 75, involve more than 2,000 students in dance, music, theater, creative writing, film, and visual arts. According to the study group, the University can support such groups in three ways: “by fostering student-faculty collaboration, increasing access to arts events and activities, and improving arts facilities.”

The University of Chicago is affiliated with several professional arts organizations including the Smart Museum of Art, the Oriental Institute, Court Theater, the Renaissance Society, The University of Chicago Presents, and the Contemporary Chamber Players. The third recommendation of the study group was that the University support these institutions in order to increase their visibility in the local, national, and international arts communities.

The study group also recommended that the University work to improve collaboration among existing arts programs on campus as well as among campus programs and arts organizations throughout Chicago. Students currently interact with such establishments as the Art Institute of Chicago, Steppenwolf Theater, and the Joffrey Ballet through internships, workshops, and events like the University of Chicago Night at the Museum of Contemporary Art. According to the report, the availability of such opportunities should be increased.

The final two suggestions of the study group were to appoint an assistant provost for the arts and an Arts Planning Council and to address the arts facilities needs of the University.

The role of the assistant provost for the arts would be to “serve as a facilitator and coordinator, as a centralized resource for information on what is happening in the arts on campus, and as an advocate for the arts to both local and city-wide communities,” the report stated. The study group hoped that creating this position would send a message about the importance of the arts at the University of Chicago.

“I’ve already appointed the Arts Planning Council which was recommended, and they are already at work thinking about recommendations of steps that might be taken to implement these suggestions,” Stone said. The 12-member Arts Planning Council is chaired by Douglas Baird, the Harry A. Bigelow Distinguished Service Professor in the Law School, and charged with coordinating the University’s efforts at improving the arts.

One of the primary difficulties facing the arts at the Uof C identified by the Arts Study Group is the lack of adequate facilities. “The capacity and quality of many of our arts-related facilities . . . are inadequate for our existing needs, let alone our future ones,” the report stated.

One of the recommended solutions to this problem is to stretch existing facilities like the Max Palevsky Cinema by allocating them more efficiently. The report then calls for a renovation of Mandel Hall as well as two new arts facilities.

The report proposes a Center for Creative and Performing Arts at 60th Street and Drexel Avenue, combining the renovation of Midway Studios with a new expandable complex of buildings. The center will contain studios, classrooms, practice rooms, and performance space. “We will certainly make the idea of the arts center an element of the capital campaign as one of the goals that we’ll seek support for,” Stone said.

The study group would also like to set aside the site of the Young Building, which currently houses other University services at 56th Street and Ellis Avenue, for future development. This would allow professional endeavors such as the Smart Museum, the Renaissance Society, and Court Theatre to create an arts quadrangle as specified by the Campus Master Plan.