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Presidential task force takes ‘big picture’ look at the arts

By Ruth Stevens

Photo of: Jean Su

Senior Jean Su reflects in front of her artwork, “Isidora,” in a stairwell between the second and third floors of 185 Nassau St. This semester, she was enrolled in an installation art class led by Denyse Thomasos, lecturer in the humanities and visual arts. The class — offered for the first time this year — culminated in the display of 11 public art projects within the building, each intended to transform the psychology of the space. The window pieces by Su are acrylic and gold leaf on Plexiglas, while the painting below is acrylic on canvas. She says that the work “attempts to change the space into a temple, where the viewer feels safe and is able to meditate.”

Princeton NJ -- At a “town hall” meeting on campus last spring, President Tilghman listed among her top priorities the expansion of academic programs in the creative and performing arts. This spring, she has charged a task force with developing alternatives for achieving this objective.

The President’s Task Force on the Creative and Performing Arts has been meeting at least once a week since late February, and intends to produce a report by the end of the academic year in June. With the support of fund-raising efforts, the University is expected to launch a major initiative in this area in the next decade.

“The University is not asking the committee to agree upon a specific plan, but rather to assess advantages and disadvantages connected with various options, and to provide what other advice it can,” Tilghman said in her charge.

“The president’s charge is very broad; it asks us to think big and try to imagine a new future for the creative arts at Princeton,” said Stan Allen, professor and dean of the School of Architecture, who is chairing the task force. “It would build on Princeton’s traditional commitment to undergraduate teaching and on our strengths in creative writing, music, visual arts and theater and dance. It also would build on Princeton’s other unique ability, which is to create positive synergies between the different disciplines. So we’re trying to think in a very innovative, interdisciplinary way.”

Specific issues Tilghman has asked the group to address include:

• whether to enhance the size and quality of existing programs across the board or to focus upon a certain program or programs; the committee also is looking at what organizational structures might work best.

• whether to train students who aspire to be professional artists or performers, to provide education in the creative arts to students who have special artistic talents but who do not seek professional training, to extend education in the creative arts to all Princeton students who wish to participate, or to consider some combination of these approaches.

• how Princeton’s view of undergraduate teaching and world-class research as mutually supporting enterprises should factor into planning for this effort.

• what facilities might be needed to accommodate these changes.

• what roles other entities on campus, such as the University Art Museum, the School of Architecture and other academic departments, might play.

The committee of 13 faculty members and administrators has been gathering information from a variety of sources, including meetings with academic colleagues, arts professionals and consultants. For example, Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, talked with the group about the college’s new Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, which serves as a center of student activity as well as a facility for the performing arts.

“It’s been very useful to get an outside perspective, to learn what other institutions are doing and to get a sense of how our own initiatives fit into larger cultural landscapes,” Allen said.

The committee has sought advice from the directors of each of the programs in the creative and performing arts, and it recently met with a group of about 25 students and recent graduates who were heavily involved in the arts at Princeton.

“The initiative is being driven by the interests and needs of undergraduates,” said Katherine Rohrer, vice provost for academic programs and secretary of the task force. “We’re looking at what kind of arts education and opportunities for expression will enrich the academic careers of our undergraduates.”

The task force has working groups that are focusing on three areas: programs and curricula; space and facilities; and technology, new media and new genres. “One key thing that’s characterized the conversations is the way in which every issue is linked to every other issue,” Allen said, noting in particular that any recommendations about space and facilities will be driven by curricular needs.

According to Rohrer, the task force has discussed the role of 185 Nassau St. as well as the possibility of a new large center for the creative and performing arts or several centers distributed across campus.

Allen said, “The symbolic importance of a major commitment to the creative arts in the form of a new facility can’t be underestimated.”

But what is perhaps utmost in the minds of the task force members, Allen said, is the opportunity to bring about a change in the campus culture.

“We can describe our initiatives in terms of the programs and structures that we might put into place and possible new buildings, but there’s a more intangible result that’s intended,” he said. “Over time, we can begin to build on and incrementally change the nature of the undergraduate culture here at Princeton — to make it more open to the arts and creativity and also to underline the notion, which again is very consistent with Princeton’s philosophy, that creativity is not limited to the arts. We want to emphasize creative thinking in the sciences, the humanities, the social sciences.

“The enhanced presence of the specific creative arts programs on the campus will hopefully have this sort of broader impact on the tendency toward innovation and creative thinking right across the University,” Allen said.

Other members of the task force are: Sandra Bermann, professor and chair of comparative literature; Scott Burnham, professor and chair of music; Michael Cadden, senior lecturer in the humanities and director of theater and dance; Perry Cook, associate professor of computer science; Paul DiMaggio, professor of sociology and research director of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies; Hal Foster, professor of art and archaeology; Emmet Gowin, professor of the humanities and visual arts; Anthony Grafton, professor of history and chair of the Council of the Humanities; Chang-rae Lee, professor of the humanities and creative writing; Paul Muldoon, professor of the humanities and creative writing; and Susan Taylor, director of the University Art Museum.

Those who have questions or would like to contribute to the task force’s efforts may contact Rohrer at <krohrer@princeton.edu>.