The New York Times recently (Nov. 16, 2014) proclaimed what many of us have long known to be true: there is an “arts race” among the nation’s elite universities. In recent years, some of the finest universities have invested large sums of money in arts facilities, in some cases remodeling existing buildings but also building new museums, centers, recital halls and “maker spaces.”
These are impressive efforts. Harvard University hired architect Renzo Piano (of Pompidou Center fame) to bring together the Fogg, Sackler, and Busch-Reisinger museums. Princeton’s 140,000-square-foot Lewis Center for the Arts provides a prominent new gateway to the fairytale campus, backed by a $330 million budget. The Yale University Art Gallery, which opened in 2012, involved the restoration of three buildings for $135 million. Stanford’s “arts district” includes a spacious concert hall (Bing Auditorium), the Cantor Arts Center, and the new Anderson collection — a select gathering of modern and contemporary artworks that is second to none, housed in a space created by award-winning Ennead Architects.
To be sure, arts facilities need to be built to the highest standards. They serve as our teaching laboratories and as the spaces where universities can do their part in presenting, preserving, and engaging the public in works that matter. Teaching matters critically. A drama department should no more be expected to work in a space without proper theatrical lighting than a chemist should be asked to work without the proper temperature controls where they are required; no more should a cinema historian project films in rooms that cannot be properly darkened than a seismic engineer should be asked to work with a shake table that vibrates uncontrollably. The conditions for the making and engagement with works of art matter directly and materially to the experience of art itself. If we are going to have art at all, we need to respect the conditions it requires.
There is nonetheless the risk that concentrating on facilities may draw attention to amenities rather than to critical functions. Supporting the arts within the context of a university means supporting students, and doing that means doing more than building impressive spaces. It means finding ways to integrate the arts into the academic life of our campuses. It means providing all students with a basic arts literacy, teaching them how to experience and speak intelligently about the arts even if they are not going to be arts majors; it means giving them the opportunities to participate in the process of making work, as a way to ensure that universities do not deepen the divide between the things we know with our minds and the things we know with our hands and bodies.
Universities have an obligation to develop the full range of cognitive, experiential, social, and cultural capacities of our students. Without integrating the arts fully into this enterprise we will be doing at best a partial job. To this end we need to make sure that the departments charged with carrying out the educational mission of the university are provided with the resources and institutional support that are required in order to serve students broadly and effectively. They need to be in a position to share what the “presenting” side of the house would willingly offer.
But there is more.
The “arts race” that is accelerating at the nation’s wealthiest universities stands to contribute to the disparities separating elite private institutions from even the very best public universities, disparities which are visible just about everywhere except for the quality of faculty. (These gaps are not unique to higher education: this same issue of the New York Times contains an article about the gap between the wealthy and the ultra-rich.) But if well-funded engagement with the arts is left to the wealthiest of institutions, then higher education as a whole may end up reproducing and magnifying a series of disparities that exist across society.
This potential crisis presents a unique set of opportunities for an institution like the University of California, Berkeley. We have crushing needs for new facilities after decades of under-investment in and neglect of the arts, at least when it comes to capital projects. A new building to house the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive will be the first new arts facility built in more than 30 years. But we also have the opportunity to integrate the arts into the fabric of an institution whose students are more diverse in every sense of the word that those at our elite competitors.
Opportunity comes from the fact that few of our students know much of anything about the arts before they come to us. The potential impact of that opportunity lies in the difference that this institution can make for all these students, who otherwise might never know what the arts can do to open minds, to fire the imagination, to hone concentration, to teach collaboration, and to bring the senses back into the world of the mind.
And so while we focus, as we must, on the facilities that are critical for the success of the arts on our campus, it is equally important that we keep students foremost in mind, never forgetting that we have been entrusted with their potential. It is our responsibility first and foremost to develop it, and to build facilities to serve that fundamental goal.