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A Campus Neighborhood for the Creative and Performing Arts

The creative and performing arts are now dispersed over a variety of venues: at 185 Nassau Street; at the Berlind Theater; in Woolworth Center; at the Council for the Humanities in the Joseph Henry House; in the School of Architecture; and at the Princeton University Art Museum. The Allen Committee rightly recognized that this arrangement—which it described as edge-to-edge deployment of the arts—has its virtues; for example, it helps to ensure that the arts will be integrated into Princeton’s academic and campus life, rather than isolated from it. Nevertheless, the committee identified a need for a new campus facility that could house the new and expanded programs it recommended, provide a focal point for creative and artistic activity at Princeton, and serve as a visible representation of the centrality of the creative and performing arts at Princeton.

I agree with the committee in both respects. On the one hand, the arts must retain a distributed presence on the Princeton campus. That is partly because we already have successful arts buildings in multiple locations. For example, 185 Nassau Street, though crowded, provides lovely loft-type space for the visual arts programs, and the music department has a beautiful home in Woolworth Center. It would be impractical and unwise to think about consolidating these facilities. Moreover, the presence of creative activity in different parts of the campus invigorates the community and helps to integrate its parts. On the other hand, the programs are short of space, and if they are to grow, they must have new spaces for teaching as well as for performance. The construction of new facilities for the arts will provide us with the opportunity to create a visible arts “neighborhood” on campus, one that would provide a focal point for interactions among faculty, students, and visiting artists. An arts neighborhood should be a part of the campus that looks outward and draws the outside world into Princeton, helping to increase interactions between town and gown. Because of their broad appeal, the arts provide a special opportunity for Princeton to engage with the surrounding communities and the world beyond. I believe that the community as well as the University would benefit from an expanded and more visible public presence of the creative arts.

One of Princeton’s fine institutions of the arts deserves special mention in this context. The Princeton University Art Museum is not only one of the nation’s great university art museums but one of America’s great art museums, period. As befits a museum at Princeton University, our museum thoroughly integrates the University’s educational mission into its aspirations and practices. Susan Taylor, the museum’s director, collaborates with University faculty in disciplines ranging from the humanities to the engineering school. By virtue of its location on campus, the museum puts teaching spaces into close proximity with exhibition spaces, producing partnerships that are rare, if not unparalleled, at peer institutions. A visible and lively museum should help to attract and nurture students who care passionately about the arts.

Yet the extraordinary collections of our museum do not receive the attention or the respect that they richly deserve. The Allen Committee persuasively urged that new exhibition space should be part of any new space that Princeton builds to accommodate the arts. Such space would facilitate the museum’s special role as a link between Princeton and the world. It would also ensure that the museum and its tradition of teaching are thoroughly integrated into the activity of the University Center for the Creative and Performing Arts. Among several options, the Allen Committee suggested that some fraction of the present museum might move to the arts neighborhood. The museum’s most pressing needs are for additional exhibition space for contemporary art and special exhibits and greater visibility for our stellar permanent collection. The committee recommended that the plan for the neighborhood should be sufficiently forward-thinking to retain the option to relocate the entire museum in the arts neighborhood in the future, and I agree that the planners should allow for that option.

In light of all these considerations, two locations suggest themselves as appropriate for new arts spaces. One is the area south of McCarter and Berlind Theaters on Alexander Street. The theaters already give the arts a significant presence in this area. Located in an area where ample parking could be provided for visitors, the site would have the added virtue of bringing Forbes College and the Graduate College closer into the fold of the campus by providing a lively environment at their front doors. It would also significantly improve the character of a corridor, Alexander Street and University Place, that is an important gateway both to the University and to Princeton Borough and Township. The neighborhood would provide integrated spaces for some fraction of the teaching and research programs of the University Center for the Creative and Performing Arts and the Society of Fellows in the Arts, together with additional performance spaces and a new exhibition space for the Art Museum. The Allen Committee also suggested, as have some community leaders, that the addition of restaurants, cafes, and other retail activity in the area would create the kind of liveliness that has traditionally been associated with the creative arts.

The second location is adjacent to 185 Nassau Street, in existing University space. Planning is underway to move the Psychology and Chemistry departments southward to the University’s science neighborhood. When they move, Green Hall and Frick Hall will become available for new uses. These buildings are sufficiently large to provide space for a number of different programs, and they will play an important role in accommodating the needs of Princeton’s social science and humanities departments. Their proximity to 185 Nassau Street, however, suggests that we should also consider them as possible homes for portions of the expanded programs in the arts. This neighborhood, like the one on Alexander Street, benefits from its interface with the community beyond the University. 185 Nassau Street is a building that already looks both inward to the campus and outward to the community, and it would be possible to build upon this strength.

I envision that the arts neighborhood would, in either of these locations, become a magnet for Princeton students, faculty, and staff interested in the arts and an important new point of contact for the campus, the surrounding community, and the outside world. It would be a vivid expression of this University’s commitment to be a national leader in education in the creative and performing arts, and to do so in a way consistent with Princeton’s distinctive tradition as a liberal arts university.

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Joyce Carol Oates, the Roger S. Berlind '52 Professor in the Humanities, was among 11 local writers who collaborated with area architects to create Writers Block Garden, a temporary installation with whimsical structures in downtown Princeton. Photo Credit: John Jameson

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