Transforming the Arts at Duke University

Transforming the Arts at Duke University

Last year on the Duke University campus, students could learn about a classical Indian dance form, or join a conversation about jazz music. They could perform a Baroque masterpiece with The Renaissance Band, or explore mirror neurons with a new-genre artist.

Each experience was thanks to the university’s Visiting Artist in Residence Program, launched three years ago to reinvigorate the arts at Duke. Funded by a grant from The Duke Endowment, the program is designed to augment the curriculum, trigger interaction between artists and scholars, and enrich campus and community life.

Visiting artists have included choreographers, dancers, playwrights, printmakers, composers and filmmakers. Some have stayed for one week; others have been on campus for a full semester.

Most of the residencies have been hosted by Duke’s arts departments – but the Sanford School for Public Policy hosted political cartoonist Kevin Kallaugher, the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience sponsored performance-artist Amy Caron, and the Divinity School brought in artist Makoto Fujimura.

“I think students more and more are looking for that sort of experience to be a part of their undergraduate education,” says Scott Lindroth, Duke University’s vice provost for the arts. “It is something they are using to evaluate the schools they apply to – and this goes beyond the students who are going to commit to being arts majors. Many of them are going on to medical school or law school, and yet having rich cultural opportunities is important in their undergraduate education.”

Long-term Benefits

The residencies offer opportunities for students that reach beyond a typical academic experience.

When The Bad Plus was on campus, for example, the jazz group workshopped new pieces by four Duke students, culminating in a professional recording. Kevin Kallaugher worked in a publicly accessible spot so students could watch his progress. And Nick Yu, one of China’s premier playwrights, staged a production that featured students from Duke’s “China Experiment” course.

For Amy Caron’s work, WAVES OF MU, one graduate student created visual art and another composed music. With lectures in humanities and science classes, Caron helped create a unique multi-disciplinary experience for students.

“The most valuable aspect of a show like WAVES OF MU coming to a university setting is the work’s ability to rouse the campus in a positive way,” says Caron, whose eight sold-out performances in the Pratt School of Engineering featured an interactive walk-through model of the brain. “Something as simple as changing the location and context in which art is viewed can be stimulating and inspiring to eager young minds and mature scholars.”

The line-up for 2011-12 will include artists from a variety of disciplines, who will give talks, conduct workshops and performances, and visit classes in specially designed courses.

Building Momentum

Duke, like other research universities, has struggled over the years to create an environment where the arts are, as the university’s strategic plan says, “clearly valued and widely supported.” The Visiting Artist in Residence program is part of a long-range goal to enhance the student experience and build Duke’s reputation as a place where the arts matter.

If attendance is any indicator, campus enthusiasm for arts programming is increasing. In the past three years, student ticket sales have increased at Duke Performances events from 22 to 35 percent.

And that momentum is bound to grow after upcoming construction projects transform Page Auditorium on the West Campus and Baldwin Auditorium on the East Campus.

Between West Union and Duke Chapel, Page is Duke’s largest theater with a capacity of 1,200 seats. It has been the site of thousands of performances and lectures since its opening in 1930 and has hosted some of the world’s most recognized artists and musicians, and generations of student programs and performances. The planned renovation will update the interior, seating, acoustics, backstage and lobby spaces.

At Baldwin, the primary rehearsal and performance venue for student ensembles, renovation will focus on acoustical improvements and new seating. Demolition work begins there in the fall of 2011.

An $80 million grant from The Duke Endowment – the largest single philanthropic gift in the university’s history – will fund the two projects, along with a major renovation of West Union.

Opening Doors

Back in Salt Lake City, Amy Caron believes the Visiting Artist in Residence Program has already become an important part of the Duke experience.

“A program like this goes far beyond the arts,” she says. “It helps students cross fields of knowledge and opens new doors of understanding, which is exactly what a college experience should be about.”

Scott Lindroth agrees. “We’re seeing more departments recognize the curricular opportunities that the visiting artists offer,” he says. “It has been exciting to see how the program has evolved over the years.”

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