President’s Pages in Princeton Alumni Weekly
The Arts Take Flight
December 12, 2012
One of the most far-reaching — and personally rewarding — developments of my tenure has been the expansion of the creative and performing arts at Princeton. Thanks to the generosity of our alumni, led by Peter B. Lewis ’55, the talents of our faculty and students, and the support of our entire University community, the arts have moved from the periphery to the center of academic life. I have asked the newly appointed chair of the Lewis Center for the Arts, Michael Cadden, to reflect on the arts at Princeton today. — S.M.T.
It’s hard to believe that 2012-2013 marks the fifth anniversary of the naming of the Peter B. Lewis ’55 Center for the Arts. No current undergraduate has ever known Princeton without the center. If something exists for five years here, it’s usually assumed to have been around for over two centuries. However, as most PAW readers know, that is certainly not the case with the Lewis Center. I’m in my 30th year of teaching at Princeton, where I first came as an assistant professor in the Department of English. Now I’m in my first year as chair of an entity unimaginable 30 years ago.
The Lewis Center functions like a department; it serves as the umbrella organization for the Programs in Dance, Theater, Creative Writing, Visual Arts, and the Princeton Atelier. Its mission is to put the arts at the heart of the Princeton experience by offering a wide range of curricular, co-curricular, and extracurricular opportunities designed to attract both students who self-identify as artists and those who want to explore what that might mean. In any given semester, over 10 percent of the student body is taking one or more of our courses.
Paul Muldoon, our visionary inaugural chair, had the arduous task of carving out a space for the new center both within the University and in the world as a whole. It’s hard getting anything started, and Paul did a great job of establishing us on a firm foundation. It helped that the “arts charge” was being led by the president of the University! In the center’s first year, Paul riffed with characteristic wit on the University’s informal motto — “In the Nation’s Service and in the Service of All Nations” — to set the Lewis Center agenda: “Princeton in the Service of the Imagination.” But how best to serve the imagination?
One way, of course, is to develop a world-class faculty of teaching artists and scholars of the arts — people whose achievements make them the equals of faculty members across the curriculum. A case in point: Three years ago, we hired choreographer Susan Marshall to be the first-ever director of the Program in Dance. Susan’s work has graced many of the major dance venues around the world, so it was hardly a surprise she’d won a MacArthur “Genius” Award. When we were courting Susan, she expressed amazement that someone who had never been to college was being offered a professorship at Princeton. I remember a hint of pride in Paul’s voice when he replied, “Your work speaks for itself.” Those of us in the room knew where that hint of pride came from: Most universities treat their artistic faculty as second-class citizens. Not Princeton. Not now.
People matter most, but space too counts. Our creative writing faculty and students now thrive in intimate seminars and one-on-one advising sessions held in newly renovated classrooms and offices in New South. But students in many of the other arts need more room to flourish. Thanks to our new director of the Program in Visual Arts, Joe Scanlan, the offices at 185 Nassau Street that once housed creative writers are now studios and classrooms for certificate students in the visual arts. The 2003 opening of the Roger S. Berlind ’52 Theater gave the Programs in Theater and Dance a much-needed purpose-designed performance space; now we’ve added two rehearsal/classrooms — one dedicated to dance, the other to theater — to the ground floor of New South. You can only imagine how we look forward to 2017, when the new arts neighborhood designed by Steven Holl — Berlind Alexanderplatz as I like to call it — will be the visual embodiment of the University’s new commitment to the arts.
Another sign of that commitment will be the arrival next fall of our first Princeton Fellows in the Creative and Performing Arts, a program kick-started with an endowment from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and a gift from an anonymous alumnus. To get things rolling, every year, early-career artists whose achievements have been recognized as demonstrating extraordinary promise in any area of artistic practice will be invited to spend two years at Princeton. They may be asked to teach one course each semester, but fellows may also take on an artistic assignment in lieu of a class, such as directing a play, conducting a student music ensemble, or creating a dance with our students. As full and lively members of our community, dedicated to frequent and engaged interactions with students, these artists will provide a new dimension to the arts scene at Princeton.
I’m committed to establishing Princeton’s pre-eminence in the field of undergraduate arts education. In collaboration with a new president and our faculty, staff, and students, I look forward to continuing the work in progress that is the Lewis Center for the Arts!