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Commission holds retreat to consider needs for fine and performing arts

Peggy Harrison
(Above, left to right) Some of the participants invited to discuss the arts at U.Va. included: Michael Mercil, Ohio State; Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, NYU; William U. Eiland, U. of Georgia; Chris Killip, Harvard; Richard Karpen, U. of Washington; and Barbara Nosanow, U. of Minnesota (retired), who has held posts at the Smithsonian and the National Museum of American Art in D.C.

By Jane Ford

"In the year 2020, we want no less than for our arts programs to be thought of immediately as one of the strengths of this great institution,"said Robert Chapel, chair of the Virginia 2020 Fine and Performing Arts Planning Commission.

Programs. Buildings. Faculty. These words sum up Chapel's report to the Board of Visitors at a meeting Oct. 15. While Chapel said that programmatic vision is paramount, buildings are needed to make cultural transformation a reality.

Robert Chapel
Peggy Harrison
Drama professor Robert Chapel chairs the Fine and Performing Arts Commission.

A week earlier, the commission held a retreat with leaders from 10 benchmark institutions about the success of their arts programs. Included were representatives from university museums; arts, drama and music programs; and performance centers from across the country. They shared ideas about what makes their programs outstanding and some of the problems they have tackled. It was clear that "cultural life was as important to these institutions as academic pursuits," Chapel said.

In his opening remarks at the retreat, President John T. Casteen III said that in the 1970s when U.Va. began to double its number of undergraduates through the admittance of women, curricular decisions were made that merely fit the arts into what are now inadequate facilities. Other institutions used the increased cash flow to create major arts programs, but U.Va. did not, he said.

Almost 30 years later, a new arts precinct is finally in the preliminary planning stages that will bring the arts in closer proximity to each other and foster more opportunities for interdisciplinary endeavors. A University concert hall also is on the horizon.

Melvyn Leffler
Peggy Harrison
(Right) Melvyn P. Leffler, Dean of Arts & Sciences, addresses the panel.

The Bayly Art Museum has taken the first step toward imagining a new facility by scheduling a lecture series, featuring speakers who can educate the University and Charlottesville communities about new museum buildings and how architects work and think about space.

"Until an adequate number of practice rooms are constructed for instrumental music performance, until young sculptors and painters have a healthy environment within which to work, until there is somewhere in which to hold a dance class without hurting the knees of our student dancers," Chapel said, "U.Va. doesn't have a prayer of becoming an equal with other arts programs in the nation."

The Arts Commission has completed its first phase, assessing current programs and future needs of all the departments and programs involved in the arts: the music and art departments, the studio art program, the Bayly Art Museum, the drama department and the Heritage Repertory Theater, the Virginia Film Festival, the fine arts library, the music library, the creative writing program, and the School of Architecture.

In spite of facility limitations, the School of Architecture is ranked sixth by U.S. News & World Report, and the Art History program is ranked 16th by the National Research Council. The new Robertson Media Center, made possible with a recent gift from U.Va. alumnus and Board of Visitors member Timothy B. Robertson, and the new Media Studies program, headed by Johanna Drucker, form a strong foundation for a new interdisciplinary program.

The music department's academic program is first-rate, and the performance programs are integral to its strength. The studio arts faculty has boosted that program in the past few years. The drama department features a strong production program, but it is hampered by lack of technical staffing and space.

There is still a growing student demand for more studio art classes, additional performance instruction, and programs in dance, along with the need to expand existing programs and hire additional faculty.

"I am convinced that the arts faculties are doing all they can to fulfill their educational missions. ... artistic performance is best taught one-on-one, or at least one-on-12," Chapel said. "And because of our spatial inadequacies and lack of faculty, scores of students interested in taking courses in the arts are not able to enroll, or, in many cases, they choose to go elsewhere."

The commission's next step is to further distill what was learned at the retreat and decide what might be appropriate for U.Va. Some of the advice that emerged includes:

  • good buildings inspire;
  • funding is crucial for programs, faculty and buildings;
  • endowments are critical to ensure ongoing excellence in all areas;
  • know existing strengths and build on them;
  • the arts should be compared to cutting-edge thinking in the sciences -- and funded equally;
  • interdisciplinary initiatives are important;
  • rankings do matter;
  • and finally, all art is expensive.

There is still much work to be done to further define and prioritize the commission's goals in anticipation of a final report, due in the spring of 2001. Taking advantage of the momentum created by the recent internal assessment and the retreat, however, one of the group's immediate goals is to "create an exceptional arts newsletter and web site for all of the arts at U.Va. to let the world know that the arts are indeed alive and flourishing in Charlottesville," Chapel said. "We have been a well-kept secret for far too long."


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