The independent news organization of Duke University

State of the Arts

Students dance the night away.
Students dance the night away.

Alongside its peer institutions, Duke is starting to encourage the development of the arts. But before one can even start to examine where the arts are at Duke, it is pretty important to look around the nation.

“The momentum we are seeing here is part of a national movement where universities, for a variety of reasons, are prioritizing the arts and making them more visible,” said Eric Oberstein, associate director of Duke Performances, referring to what has been called the “Creative Campus Movement.”

A one-year task force at Harvard University created a Report of the Task Force of the Arts, which discussed the role of the arts at a research university, the number of practicing artists in faculty and how to think of the relationship of arts within and beyond the curriculum, among other topics.

Princeton University is also making an effort to critically assess the arts. Princeton is building an entire “arts district” to facilitate the evolution and development of the arts on campus. The district will include restaurants, public amenities and new university arts facilities.

Director of Duke Performances Aaron Greenwald also mentioned that Stanford University has a “fully articulated” arts initiative available on their website.

“The rationale they’re using is that creativity and the skills that you learn in the making of art are skills that will serve you as an entrepreneur or a scientist or a software engineer,” he explained.

In the quickly-flourishing cultures of apps and startups, innovative and visual thinking is placed at a premium. An arts degree can now be extraordinarily valuable in the professional world.

“You look at most of the top universities in the country, and they’re emphasizing their strengths in the arts as one of their priorities.” explained Amy Unell, Trinity '03, assistant director of Duke in Silicon Valley.

Clearly, universities nationwide are seeing the value of an arts education and trying to expand curriculum and resources to support the arts. Duke has made strides in developing the arts. However, it is necessary to look at the barriers the University still has to overcome.

Social Culture

Students who are extremely passionate seem to be frustrated by the lack of support for the arts within Duke's social culture. This could have to do with the fact that Duke has not typically been known as an artistic university.

“People who come to the campus then hear and feel that culture, and they tend to want to gravitate to the predominant culture on campus,” said Rodney Wynkoop, director of Duke Chorale and director of Chapel Music. “So people who weren’t big basketball fans become avid. People who had an interest in the arts see it marginalized, and they think that’s the way to be.”

As a result, Duke's art culture can seem pushed out of focus.

“The daily art culture here is pretty behind the scenes,” said junior Dylan Gleit, member of student band Mobius, which is signed at Small Town Records. “I believe that’s because the arts are physically isolated from the rest of campus.”

That is indeed a massive point of discussion across campus at all levels. Almost everyone that was interviewed for this article mentioned a lack of facilities and rehearsal spaces as a major concern moving forward. In fact, there are preliminary plans for a new building dedicated entirely to arts spaces on Campus Drive.

Wesley Hogan, director of the Center for Documentary Studies, added that it is important for the administration to emphasize the arts within Duke's core curriculum.

“Art as a way of something that Duke has really begun to embrace,” she said. “We’re really good at science and medicine and technology and engineering, as well as the social sciences. We’re less good at looking at art as its own unique way of knowing and understanding the world.”

Recent administrative initiatives have sought to address the issue of integrating an arts perspective alongside traditional ones. Vice Provost for the Arts Scott Lindroth referred to DEMAN Weekend and the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Certificate as examples.

“It just seems to create a kind of institutional backing to something that had been more of a co-curricular or extracurricular event,” he said.

Lindroth also pointed to the week-long Arts Festival held each fall—recognized by many students due to the pianos placed around campus—as an example of what is a more engaged culture.

“I think out of that came a more activist culture among the students in terms of the arts,” he said

This activist culture is getting an extra administrative push this year from the #artstigator movement, which seeks to engage students in fun and creative artistic learning opportunities and slowly shift the campus culture towards one that focuses even more on integrating the arts into the Duke experience.

“You have to create a social culture around your event that people want to attend,” Sam Morton, a sophomore and current President of Small Town Records, said. “People...expect to be there with friends, see people that are their friends, expect to have an experience.”

Pre-Professional Culture

The emphasis on pre-professional courses of study have also detracted students from pursuing the arts.

“There’s a nationwide perception of Duke and its strengths in medicine and scientific research,” Lindroth said. “Trying to get under that a challenge.”

As a result, students are often shocked to hear about Duke's many alumni who have found success in artistic careers.

“You hear about these Duke people who are directing this musical or helped create the Hunger Games...that shocks people,” junior Andrew Jacobs, duArts A Cappella Council Chair, said. “But when you hear that someone from Duke has won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, everyone is like ‘Okay. Stereotypical Duke.’”

Events like DEMAN Weekend and this year's ArtCon have sought to address the perception that there is a lack of jobs in artistic fields for Duke graduates.

Although students may come to Duke solely to study the arts in the near future, it is “on track” to attract students who are “arts-interested," which is also extremely important, Greenwald said.

“[Duke is] not a conservatory for any of the arts,” said Thomas DeFrantz, professor of dance. “Can you learn something about the arts, come engage in it and figure out that after Duke you want to go on in the arts somehow? Yes, you can. If you want to leave Duke after four years and become a professional painter or spend a few years as a professional dancer, that’s maybe possible, but it’s not really what Duke is about.”

Because Duke doesn’t have to cater purely to students looking to pursue professional arts careers nor is it a conservatory, the University has a lot more flexibility to experiment with interdisciplinary programs.

“I think interdisciplinary education is definitely just, across the board, Duke’s strength. You don’t really see that at other universities in the way you see it at Duke,” said junior Pranava Raparla, vice president of advocacy for duARTS.

Student engagement is critical if Duke hopes to generate excitement for the arts in the future.

Student Engagement

So then, the question stands: How can Duke artistically engage students who are presented with so many varied and interesting opportunities?

“It baffles me that some people are so passionate about the arts, but they don’t want to incorporate it into their academic life,” Jacobs said.

There seems to be a general confusion among those involved in the arts about why other students don’t engage in a variety of ways.

“There are a lot of people out there on campus who claim to really love music and claim to listen to music all the time and say that it helps them get through the day,” Gleit said. “Yet, I don’t feel like all of these people who claim all of these things actually show up at the events.”

At the same time, though, Gleit is quick to acknowledge some of the successes that the arts have seen. Specifically, he points to the amount of merchandise and clothing worn around campus related to the arts.

And he has a point. Once the sun is out, it is nearly impossible to walk around campus without seeing someone in a Small Town Records tank.

But why is it that, with so many opportunities available, students still don’t seem to go to performances or events or exhibits?

“Our workload is really hard. So much time has to be dedicated to doing homework and engaging with your classes that at the end of the day, you just aren’t interested,” said junior Sharrin Manor, the general manager of WXDU, a radio station that is part of Duke University Union.

As someone who is very engaged with the arts scene on campus, Manor expressed particular frustration with the lack of student engagement.

“I think it has to do with a personal connection. You have to take obligation out of it,” said Wendy Hower, director of engagement and marketing at the Nasher.

Maybe members of the Duke community do indeed want to enjoy these experiences, but not all of them have found that “spark” yet. So how can more people be put in contact with art?

“I think defining the arts more broadly and more inclusively, that allows people to feel like they have more of a stake in the arts,” Raparla said. “So I think that’s the first thing. The second thing is reducing those barriers to entry is just providing more low-commitment opportunities.”

He went on to explain that not every Duke student can do a degree program or take a class in the arts. But maybe it is just enough to go to a short, 30-minute jam session in the Small Town studio or enjoy a performance on the Bryan Center plaza.

Wynkoop agreed that the only way to improve the arts was to get more of the community engaged.

“If you want the arts to thrive, you have to reach more critical mass, a higher percent of the population,” Wynkoop said.

The arts culture at Duke is by no means perfect, and student engagement is certainly not perfect, but there is a lot to be grateful for when looking at the arts from one step back. It may be a long road, but efforts are certainly being made to engage more students.

Admin Efforts

“I think [administration] is doing a great job. I definitely don’t think they’re neglecting the arts, and I definitely don’t think they’re being lazy,” Jacobs said.

He went on to praise the administration’s support of duARTS and their events, such as the Arts Festival. He also specifically referenced Unell and her efforts to connect students with alumni and post-graduation opportunities.

To Bill Fick, visiting assistant professor in visual arts, the administration is doing an excellent job refocusing the University’s vision on a bright and culturally rich future after growing Duke in more traditional ways.

“I think the University...felt like it was going to focus on medicine and the professional careers,” Fick said, admitting that this was purely his own hypothesis.

The very existence of Lindroth’s position as Vice Provost of the Arts, which was created in 2007, seems to exemplify this evolution and shifting of focus.

“We went through a long planning process of how we were going to do a new [arts] campus and Campus Drive and so forth,” said Executive Vice President Tallman Trask. “The recession of 2008 basically clobbered the plans for the Campus Drive big development. So we have been trying to figure out what instead what could we do to create those spaces in smaller increments rather than one grand slam.”

These smaller increments have included Smith Warehouse, as well as the Nasher and the Arts Annex. The planned Arts Building will also be a very significant step in that direction.

“There has been a lot of administrative push. I think they have a lot more people advocating for the arts in the administration, which has been really cool,” Morton said.

He said that he can’t think of an instance where an arts group has wanted funding and been unable to get it from the administration.

“I would like to frame it as a matter of principle, that a strong arts education is an important part of anyone’s education,” Lindroth said.

He acknowledged that students may not be looking to major in the arts, but administration still wants to provide them with the “arts experiences” for which they are looking.

“I would like to see a clear, comprehensive vision for what the arts should look like at Duke,” Raparla said. “And by comprehensive, I mean something that includes not just academic and curricular interests but...just across the board anyone who could potentially have a stake in the arts.”

He identified the word “potentially” as being particularly important, saying that there are many students who could have a stake in the arts if a clear vision was developed that included them.

Manor also mentioned that she hoped to see more engagement between the administration and student leaders.

“I’m sure that [the administration] knows the people playing on the sports teams. Why don’t they know the leaders in the arts community as well?” she questioned.

She suggested something as simple as arranging dinners between members of administration and student arts leaders to understand the needs of arts organizations better.

With the suggestions of more collaboration across all levels in the future, administration’s efforts could be refined and focused even more to address the needs of students, faculty and the entire artistic community at Duke.

Post-Grad Guidance

“I think that Duke’s primary involvement with the arts has been academic and sort of just engagement with art for art’s sake,” said senior Kelsey Richards, co-chair of the Nasher student advisory board.

With the evolution of DEMAN weekend and other alumni networking opportunities, this does seem to be gradually changing. Certainly post-graduation guidance has come a long way.

Scott Lindroth (above) is the vice provost for the arts at Duke.

“When I graduated, I had no guidance whatsoever,” said Brett Aresco, Trinity '09, a New York-based actor. “When I was there, there were always career fairs that had representatives from big corporations or finance. There were even sort of these structures in place if you were looking to apply to med school or were looking to apply to law school.”

By all accounts, it seems that the guidance available now is miles ahead of where it was when Aresco was searching for jobs, and that was less than a decade ago.

Ross Wade, assistant director of the Career Center, focuses on Duke students who want to pursue careers in the arts.

“I really think that we’ve done some great stuff here, and I think that there is more great stuff to do,” Wade said. “I think the biggest challenge for [the Career Center] is finding the right format for students to engage with employers.”

With the arts, a classic career fair or series of on-campus interviews doesn’t work as well as it does with other career paths. Wade suggested more informal events, panels and networking opportunities to connect students with alumni. According to Wade, if students hear proof that success can be achieved in the arts, it feels much more possible and encourages them to at least give it a shot.

Faculty Departments

DeFrantz noted that the faculty has become stronger in the arts.

Lindroth added that this could be why more arts-oriented students are coming to Duke.

“We’ve been able to make a number of very important faculty hires in arts departments,” Lindroth said. “And that allows them to pursue their missions with more energy.”

In addition to the sometimes undefined relationships between student organizations and the faculty departments that could support them, there are also a few smaller conflicts occurring within faculty departments. A big one, particularly for visual arts, is the philosophy of how the arts are taught.

Some departments, like visual arts, opt to teach the theory behind the practice of art, rather than teach a specific artistic skill. This largely has to do with the way Duke's classes are scheduled, Fick said. A two-and-a-half-hour block of time once a week is hardly enough time to teach the practice of a visual art form.

Other departments deal with this problem differently.

“My classes are all hybrid classes,” said DeFrantz. “Everyone doesn't want to be an artist. Some people really do want to study the arts and find ways to interpret and analyze them.”

In regards to this issue, Hogan said that one of the the Center for Documentary Studies' most popular classes is their analog photography class.

“What I think it shows is that people are really hungry to get their hands on something, and the tactile nature of analog photography and going into the darkroom is really exciting for people,” she said. “I wish we had the capacity to offer a lot more production courses of all kinds.”

This tension between teaching the theory of art and teaching the practice of art is one that requires a conscious decision by each department to address.

Additionally, some faculty may feel that the title of professor of the practice places those faculty members below the normal, tenure-track Professors in terms of respect and rank.

“One of the problems is that artists that teach and have MFAs are Professors of the Practice,” said McAuliffe. “I agree with the Dean that it will help in 10 years time if MFAs are treated as serious professionals in their own right.”

She compared Duke to Northwestern University, where everyone who is a professor and has an MFA is eligible for tenure.

“We shouldn’t have a two-tier system. One thing it does is that it pitches the arts at a different level as far as the institution is concerned,” she said.

Students, however, are attracted by the prospect of learning from someone working in the field they are interested in.

“It’s great to have people who are working in the field because that’s the only way you learn,” Jacobs said. “People need to be out in the field or working with people who are out in the field and seeing how the things they are learning in the classroom are being applied to real life.”

Moving Forward

Duke is at a very important crossroads as the University looks to the future. There is the potential for the arts at Duke to become a real centerpiece of the culture and a part that draws new talent to the community. But to get there will require some serious effort from all of the very passionate members of this artistic community.

Aresco made the very important point of how Duke should make sure to foster the arts “in a way that is inclusive and not so serious.” The arts have the potential to be a safe and welcoming space for all to collaborate and enjoy.

“The place certainly feels a lot more artistic than it did 20 years ago,” Trask said.

That in and of itself is a good sign. Massive progress has been made in the past years.

“I would hope that the arts become a real centerpiece for Duke alongside the excellence in Public Policy and pre-med and obviously athletics,” said DeFrantz.

Lindroth shows no signs of slowing down either. A big focus for him seemed to be getting more arts-inclined students to Duke. As he talked, he mused about the possibilities of an arts scholarship and other ways to identify arts-inclined students.

“There is an energy on campus now that is not fueled solely by the departments or by my office,” he said.

That energy is something that, if harnessed, could take Duke 's art offerings to some truly incredible places. The State of the Arts at Duke is certainly not in a bad place. In fact, it is arguably in a very good place.

But it is going to take a very concentrated effort from as many members of the Duke community as possible to ensure that Duke arts continues to improve and become something which we can all continue to be very proud.


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