With high-visibility projects like the Nasher Museum, Duke has injected new money and energy into the arts. But its ambitions are greater – to transform the campus culture.
Kimerly Rorschach had been director of the University of Chicago’s David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art for a decade when she learned in 2003 that Duke University was searching for a director for its first freestanding art museum. She knew Duke as a leading research and liberal-arts university and had a passing familiarity with its art history program, “but their art museum was not on the radar screen,” she says.
At the time, Duke’s art holdings were housed in a former science building on East Campus. DUMA—the Duke University Museum of Art—had been formally established in 1969 under president Douglas Knight, yet despite the best efforts of a core group of supporters through the years, it never garnered the attention or support that other university museums enjoyed. The allotted space was so cramped that only a fraction of the museum’s holdings could be displayed at a time; faculty members and students who wanted to see additional works had to make an appointment to view them in storage. When Rorschach came to campus for interviews, a visit to DUMA wasn’t even included on her official itinerary.
Yet Rorschach was intrigued by what was taking shape at Duke. Raymond Nasher ’43, one of the country’s prominent collectors of modern and contemporary sculpture, had pledged $7.5 million—a gift that would eventually grow to $10 million—toward the construction of a new museum. Eminent architect Rafael Viñoly had been commissioned to design the 65,000-square-foot facility. And leading arts marketing firm Resnicow Schroeder Associates had been hired to oversee the museum’s launch.
“I really didn’t have an impression of Duke being distinguished in the arts, but people were urging me to take a more serious look at it,” recalls Rorschach. “So I did. And even though there wasn’t a track record, I saw a huge opportunity. There was a willingness to make resources available, and a commitment to do something serious. And that was very exciting, because I like building things and making a huge difference. And clearly, a huge difference could be made.”
Convinced Duke was serious about its commitment to build and sustain a major museum, Rorschach accepted the offer to become the Mary D.B.T. and James H. Semans Director of the Nasher Museum in 2004. The next year, the Nasher opened to the public, and almost immediately it became a literal and figurative example of how the arts can transform a campus—and a campus culture. Since 2005, more than 80,000 Duke students have visited the museum, and faculty members from a range of disciplines—including German, medieval history, Italian, women’s studies, classical civilization, art history, and English—have built museum visits into their curricula.
While perhaps the most visible representation of Duke’s commitment to the arts, the Nasher is only one piece of an ambitious institutional imperative to make the arts an essential part of the Duke experience. The same year that Rorschach and her colleagues put the finishing touches on the Nasher’s debut, Duke’s senior leadership released a strategic plan listing six key goals. Among them was an aspiration that many observers felt was long overdue: raising the level of the arts on campus through enhanced programming, expanded curricular opportunities, increased cross-disciplinary research, and improved facilities.
“I think it would be fair to say that Duke’s delivery into the arts area, as compared to what you might call the promise of a liberalarts education and the commitment we saw at most of our peer schools going into this decade, was not as good as it should have been,” says provost Peter Lange. “We had arts programs that were well designed and adequate—I wouldn’t use more than that word—for students who were really committed. But we didn’t set out to attract students who were interested in the arts, and we didn’t do anything to motivate students to be committed or to reach out to those who had no arts background.”
Lange, a political scientist who came to Duke in 1981, says that an institutional commitment to the arts has grown in fits and starts. “It’s been a trajectory,” he says. “I was part of many committees and conversations through the years where we’d say, ‘And then we need to do this or that in the arts.’ But when it came time to allocate money, those [projects] would always fall just below the line” of what would get funding. But with the opening of the Nasher, “we had a breakthrough event. It became our platform for really taking off in the arts. It has changed the way the arts are perceived on campus.”
Following the release of the strategic plan, Lange appointed a Council for the Arts to coordinate and expand arts activities on campus. Chaired by Rorschach, the group tracks and promotes collaborations among professional, academic, and student arts organizations, awards a number of collaborative and visiting-artist grants, and assesses the university’s progress toward goals. Lange also appointed music professor and composer Scott Lindroth as Duke’s first vice provost for the arts.
In the five years since, dance became an undergraduate major and its department added courses in theory and practice, and the department of art and art history added visual studies to its name, in part to reflect expanding scholarship and increased student interest in technology and new media. Duke Performances has become one of the region’s leading presenters of traditional, contemporary, and avant-garde music, dance, and theater, drawing more than 33,000 people to its events during the past academic year. (Those numbers include nearly 10,000 Duke students, who have the benefit of heavily discounted tickets through a subsidy provided by the provost’s office.)
The Center for Documentary Studies regained primary sponsorship of the internationally acclaimed Full Frame Documentary Film Festival and expanded its continuingeducation course offerings. The renovated Smith Warehouse near East Campus became home to studio, lab, and gallery space. Certificate programs in various interdisciplinary programs—including Arts of the Moving Image, Information Science + Information Studies, and Documentary Studies—are attracting increasing numbers of students. Visiting artist-in-residence and collaborative arts grants programs have allowed greater experimentation across disciplines—for example, a project exploring technological approaches to interactive dance performances that involved faculty members from the dance program and the Pratt School of Engineering. And Duke’s first M.F.A. program, in experimental and documentary arts, welcomed its inaugural class this fall (see story, page 32).
Lindroth says that Duke is determined to have its arts culture mentioned in the same breath as its basketball program or medical center. From his office in the Mary Duke Biddle Music Building—built in the mid-1970s and for decades the newest arts building on campus—he cites the convergence of several key factors that can make that happen. “The arts have existed at Duke for as long as the university has, and arts faculty members have always been tremendously committed to mentoring those students who were interested in them. Now we’re seeing that many of our most academically gifted students are looking for an arts experience. This doesn’t necessarily translate into an increase in arts majors, but it does translate into participation in theater productions, people wanting to take dance classes, people wanting to paint and do photography. More and more, we’re seeing that students want to find a way to bring together their genuine passion for the arts, as well as their genuine passion for doing good in the world.”
Lindroth cites student reaction to the inaugural Duke Arts Festival last fall. In response to a call for submissions, he received hundreds of works of art, including photographs, digital art, acrylic and oil paintings, pencil and charcoal sketches, mixed media, and metal sculptures from students majoring in neuroscience, economics, public policy, electrical and computer engineering, biology, and philosophy, among others. The Duke Symphony Orchestra, with more than 100 student members and only a handful of music majors, offers more evidence that Duke students are drawn to artistic opportunities from a range of academic pursuits.
On a larger scale, arts practice and scholarship are in an unprecedented state of flux, as traditional artistic practices and disciplines are giving way to hybrid art forms and interdisciplinary research initiatives. Lindroth, for example, teaches seminars in electronic music, music theory, and composition while composing music for dance, theater, and video. He’s also interested in exploring the intersection of organic and mechanical systems, such as the intermingling of biology and electronics.
“We’ve been able to hire new-media artists and expand the role of professors of the practice in the visual arts. We hired new dance and theater faculty members who are theater directors and choreographers, but who also have strong reputations as research scholars,” says Lindroth. “The idea is that the arts don’t need to be something that is solely an extracurricular activity, but that it becomes part of broader academic programming on campus—innovative research and intellectual inquiry that is wedded to the practice of the arts.”
One of those new faculty hires is Thomas DeFrantz, who comes to Duke from MIT, where he founded SLIPPAGE, a multidisciplinary arts collective that relocated with him to Duke. A choreographer, dancer, and scholar, DeFrantz designed the theory-and-history curriculum at the Hollins University/ American Dance Festival M.F.A. program and for more than a decade has convened the Black Performance Theory working group, an interdisciplinary discussion group that meets biannually to explore black performance. (The group traces its origins to a oneday conference at Duke in 1998.)
“Everyone, including the Ivies, is interested in dance and performance,” says De- Frantz. “This isn’t the first time someone has come knocking on my door, but Duke has shown courageousness and willingness to take risks. Duke has the resources to provide leadership in areas that are urgent to me and people I’ve been working with for years—aligning the last twentyfive years of cultural-studies work with the next fifteen years of technological innovations. It’s a leap into the void, which is the only way great things happen.”
This fall, DeFrantz is teaching a graduate seminar focusing on issues of aesthetics and ideologies in relation to dance and an undergraduate course on performance and technology. He’s also eager to begin taking advantage of the newly refurbished dance studio space off Hull Avenue near East and Central campuses.
That studio is one of several new (or newly designated) spaces for the arts. The M.F.A. program will be housed in a former carpentry workshop near Smith Warehouse, which during the summer underwent a $1.4 million renovation that kept intact some of the building’s historical infrastructure while creating space for a computer lab and an area for film screenings.
Duke also invested $7.5 million in the Durham Performing Arts Center, a $46.8 million facility that hosts touring Broadway shows and performers such as Leonard Cohen, Adele, and Elvis Costello, as well as some performances by American Dance Festival and Duke Performances artists. (Duke Performances also ventures downtown for shows at more-intimate venues, such as the Motorco Music Hall, Pinhook, Casbah, and the Carolina Theater.)
But the biggest boost to highcaliber arts space was announced earlier this year, when The Duke Endowment pledged $80 million for the renovation of Page and Baldwin auditoriums, along with the West Campus Union, the largest single gift in the history of the university. Vice provost Lindroth says that the renovation is another clear signal that Duke is finally backing its aspirations with needed investments. “We’ve had prospective students and parents in the past come to look at Duke and when they saw the facilities said, ‘Well, I guess they don’t take this seriously.’ If you have spaces that are in disrepair, it sends a message. It’s not just about arts space; it’s about the broader campus culture. Page is a place where the community comes together for its most important events, from admissions gatherings to lectures to performances, and yet it is one of the most uninspiring venues on campus.”
Duke’s investment in the arts has begun to have an impact on the undergraduate experience as well. During the most recent admissions cycle, a record number of prospective students submitted arts-related portfolios with their applications, including visual art, videos of dance and theater performances, and original film and video projects. Faculty members in the appropriate department evaluate and rank candidates, and those recommendations become part of the screening criteria. If the admissions office has two candidates who are equally competitive in all other areas, a strong arts background can make the difference, regardless of whether the student plans to major in an arts-related field.
Still, Duke is not always at the top of artistically inclined students’ choices for college. Part of that is attributable to geography: Durham is not New York or Los Angeles, after all, and for many aspiring actors or video artists, proximity to an entertainment industry hub is paramount. And among some undergraduates, there is a sense that Duke’s culture has not yet fully embraced its multiplying arts resources.
“What Duke needs most when it comes to the arts is an attitude change, a recognition that going to a show in Scheafer [Theater] can be as enjoyable as going to a basketball game in Cameron—but of course an attitude change may be the hardest to come by,” says sophomore Andy Chu. Chu didn’t consider Duke’s arts offerings when applying, but he reassessed his career path after being drawn to the array of opportunities he’s found. This fall, he’s participating in his first professional theater production through Durham’s Manbites Dog Theater, cofounded by Duke professor of the practice of theater studies Jeff Storer. He also plans to launch a theater group based on Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed, drawing on a class on Boal he’s taking with Keval Khalsa, associate professor of the practice and director of the dance program. He’s decided to declare a major in theater studies and is considering a double-minor in music and Chinese. After graduating, he says, he may pursue an M.F.A. in the dramatic arts.
Like Chu, senior Monica Hogan knew of Duke’s strengths in the sciences and engineering but wanted to find a way to deepen her artistic interests. “I was looking for a school where I could manage to keep a left brain-right brain balance,” she says. “When I pair my academics with an artistic outlet, I have always felt healthier, happier, and better focused in my studies.” She visited Duke and spoke to students involved in the dance program, many of whom were majoring in other disciplines. “That was exactly the type of university I was looking for, so in truth the arts helped define my decision to become a Blue Devil. I wanted a university that would allow and encourage interdisciplinary pursuits.”
Through her involvement with the dance program, Hogan was part of a twelve-member student dance group selected from thousands of applicants to perform at Summer Universiade—also known as the World University Games—in Shenzhen, China, this summer. The invitation came about through a DukeEngage project conducted last summer by professor of the practice of music Hsiao-mei Ku to introduce arts practices to Chinese students.
Although not an officially sponsored university event, the venture is a good example of how raising the profile of the arts throughout the Duke community can result in unexpected collaborations, says vice provost Lindroth. “The group has someone who does traditional Chinese dance, someone who does ballet, someone who does hip-hop, and they found a way to merge these styles in a show. It’s been picked up by the media in China. At least one of their shows has sold out. And Hsiao-mei Ku, who plays with the Ciompi Quartet, put them in touch with the organization that books tours for the quartet in China, so they are performing all over the country.”
Part of the challenge for Lindroth and his colleagues is making sure that Duke can meet the growing student demand for arts-related academic courses and cocurricular activities. Senior Kim Solow, who serves on the Duke Student Government (DSG) presidential cabinet, says that in her experience there are far more students wanting to explore the arts through introductory classes than there are spaces available. At the start of the fall semester, for example, intro classes in photography, acting, and documentary film and production were all full. Many of these are seminars of eight to ten students, which provide greater hands-on opportunities but fill up quickly.
“In my experience, the faculty members are outstanding and passionate, but restricted course offerings and limited resources— such as cameras and film production equipment—exclude many from exploring these fields,” says Solow, “and that creates the perception of exclusivity. That perceived exclusivity will remain a hurdle to the general appreciation of the arts at Duke.”
Provost Peter Lange says he is pleased with how far Duke has come in the five years since the strategic plan made the arts a top priority, but he emphasizes that “we’re not all the way there yet. But Duke has a commitment to a liberal-arts education, and the arts are fundamental to that: the sensibilities the arts build, the qualities of visual and auditory perception that the arts enhance and, increasingly, the way that the arts intersect with technology.
“If you are really committed to the kind of education we want to deliver, you can’t do the arts as an afterthought.”Get a firsthand look at the campus arts scene by attending the DEMAN (Duke Entertainment Media and Arts Network) Weekend November 4-5.
October 1, 2011