President's Pages in Princeton Alumni Weekly
The Creative and Performing Arts at Princeton
February 15, 2006
January 20 was one of the most memorable days in the four and a half years I have served as president of Princeton. In the afternoon I asked the Board of Trustees to endorse a bold plan to elevate the creative and performing arts within our curriculum and on our campus. They responded with their characteristically thoughtful and, ultimately, enthusiastic support. That evening I was able to announce that the dream was well on its way to becoming reality, thanks to Peter B. Lewis ’55, who has pledged an extraordinary gift of $101 million toward the ambitious goals of this initiative.
This is not the first time that Peter has responded to one of Princeton’s pressing needs. His past support has been instrumental in founding the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics, constructing the Peter B. Lewis Science Library, and creating studios for visual artists at 185 Nassau Street and practice space for singing groups in Bloomberg Hall. He is creating a lasting legacy at his alma mater, for which we are deeply grateful.
The genesis of our new initiative began with conversations I had with faculty and students soon after arriving in Nassau Hall. I would hear about students who were turned away from a photography class several semesters in a row; jazz dance students who were disappointed that we did not offer classes in that genre; a student interested in set design who had missed the one chance in four years to take a class in this field; or the bass player who had to lug his instrument through the rain and snow between rehearsals for lack of storage space. Yet even with the limited resources at the disposal of our current programs, miracles of artistic imagination were happening. From art exhibitions at 185 Nassau Street to concerts in Richardson Auditorium to plays in the Berlind Theatre, student artists are flourishing at Princeton. The problem is not one of quality, but of capacity.
It is time that the creative and performing arts assume their rightful place within the academic landscape of the University, with the kind of support and visibility we accord other disciplines. The fact that this has not occurred may reflect a long-standing academic perception that while it is important to study artistic works, it is much less vital to create a curricular environment in which these works are produced. I do not share this view, for, as I told the trustees, to separate the doing of art from the criticism or study of art is akin (at least to a molecular biologist) to separating experimental and theoretical science.
To the extent that we fail to give artistic expression the same weight as other forms of human endeavor, we are failing to give our students the preparation they need to lead fully rounded lives, not only as practicing artists or committed patrons of the arts but as men and women who can invest their work with the originality, expressiveness, and collaborative spirit that define artistic life.
How then do we make the creative and performing arts an integral and indispensable part of our University community? Many of the answers to this question have come from a recent task force of faculty and administrators headed by Dean Stan Allen *88 of the School of Architecture. Their perceptive recommendations, coupled with many other viewpoints, have led to a new—and very exciting—path for the creative and performing arts at Princeton, which is fully described at www.princeton.edu/pr/reports/arts. Two principles will underpin our work. The first is that the creative and performing arts should always maintain a close and synergistic relationship with other disciplines, and not just the humanities, their traditional ally. Secondly, it is not in the interests of our students or the University to establish a professional school in the arts. We do want to meet the needs of students who aspire to careers in the arts and who wish to develop their talents in the context of a broad liberal arts -education, but we also want to be sure that our programs in the creative and performing arts are designed to welcome all students, regardless of their prior experience, choice of major, or ultimate destination.
With these principles in mind, the trustees have agreed that we should establish a University Center for the Creative and Performing Arts, giving our programs in creative writing, musical performance, theater and dance, and visual arts a common identity and a significantly stronger voice. Each of these programs will be strengthened individually through an overdue infusion of human and material resources. We also will provide increased support for Princeton’s student-run artistic organizations, which have been and always will be a critical creative presence on our campus. The center will foster scholarship, facilitate curricular initiatives, and sponsor artistic programs, as well as work closely with the Council of the Humanities, the Art Museum, and other academic units to ensure that the creative and performing arts are successfully woven into the scholarly and educational fabric of the University. In addition to supporting expanded programming at the Art Museum, this initiative will allow us to increase exhibition space for some of the museum’s extraordinary collections.
The center will host a new interdisciplinary body to be known as the Society of Fellows in the Arts, as well as other short-term visitors. The fellows, representing young and innovative artist-scholars from a wide range of fields, will spend a year or two on campus engaging in their art while also teaching and participating in research. We believe they will breathe new life into the teaching, study, and practice of the arts at Princeton.
The center will require a home of its own, a tangible and highly visible expression of our new commitment to the arts. I envision this complex—a mix of urgently needed rehearsal, performance, exhibition, and administrative space—as the heart of an “academic neighborhood” devoted to artistic expression of every kind.
Many issues remain to be resolved, but of one thing I am certain:
With the help of all Princetonians, we can make this University as much a
leader in the creative and performing arts as it is in so many other fields.