Granite Stone Circle by Richard Long, Cantor Center for the Arts, Stanford University

In thinking about how universities can take a more ambitious approach to the arts, we can find a useful model in how society approaches science. The rise of what is often called “Big Science” during and after World War II changed how science was done – and changed human knowledge with it. Ambitious new machines and tools, international collaboration among teams of scientists, and the urgency of problem-solving led to the development of new creative paradigms in research. Big science was marked by big staffs, big budgets, big priorities, and a big place within the intellectual and fiscal economy of the university.

Art, too, is poised for this kind of change. Art today is often collaborative, costly, and ambitious. Whether for an installation, a film, a theater or dance production, or some combination of these, art requires large and flexible spaces, and large and flexible budgets. There is more need than ever for connections, global and local, and for expensive, delicate, and complicated tools and equipment. When the need for high-end equipment and money is combined with the need for more space and the acknowledgment of the importance of collaborative work, the result is a blueprint for something I will call “Big Art.”

Big Art would create a home for artistic work on campus on a scale now rarely possible. Universities would create open spaces for art-making, with natural light, high ceilings, flexible flooring (for dance and other performance activities), and acoustic sophistication, furnished with state-of-the-art technology, staffed by skilled technicians, and providing spaces for encounters and improvisation across art practices. With augmented funding and a new vision of art’s centrality, universities might set up endowed centers that bring together international practitioners, begin directing major donations toward art centers, and recruit major working artists and give them a home during the prime of their careers.

Working in teams, improvising and experimenting round the clock, creative artists could undertake large, world-changing projects, from architecture to environmental and public art. And like Big Science, Big Art would be international, bringing together key players from all over the globe. But I should underscore here that by “Big Art” I mean to propose an institutional vision. Artists who work alone, who do not require large spaces or expensive tools and materials, could benefit as much from this change as those who work collaboratively or on a large scale.

Universities already possess many of the capabilities they’d need to set up such programs. They are accustomed to managing grants from government, industry, and private sources. With relatively little adjustment, federal and state funding for the arts, and funding offered by foundations and private individuals, could be channeled – still competitively – through the university, just as with funding in the sciences. Professors, administrators, and curators already assess proposals in the creative and performing arts competitively. So routing outside arts funding through institutions of higher learning is making use of the evaluative systems that are already in place: the same people, the same kinds of reports, and in many cases, presumably, the same outcomes.

The universities can, and should, become patrons not only of art but also of that far more problematic and volatile category, artists. All too often public funding agencies have found it more comfortable to underwrite arts institutions than individuals, whose projects have sometimes been subject to political as well as aesthetic review. The university, the home of academic freedom, is a natural partner for artistic experimentation on the part of both students and teachers. It is only in an atmosphere of freedom that the best work – in research, scholarship, and the arts – can be produced and tested.
The idea that universities should house makers of art is as reasonable, natural, and logical as the idea that the university should contain and nurture other makers: engineers, or chemists, or applied mathematicians. And like those other makers, artists, no matter what arts they practice, need space, materials, training, and assessment, as well as a tolerance of imagination, “genius,” stubborn dedication, or eccentricity.

A number of academic institutions, spurred by inventive leaders, committed faculty, and farsighted donors, have already moved in visionary new directions in their approach to the arts. Yale, with graduate schools in art, drama, music, and architecture, has long been a visible player. The University of Michigan has brought the Royal Shakespeare Company to Ann Arbor for three-week residencies in which members of the company not only perform, but also work with the university community and the wider Detroit area.

At Harvard, Stanford, and Princeton, new energies – and funding – are making a difference. Princeton and Stanford both have major universitywide initiatives to create new homes for creative arts and bring them closer into the curriculum. At Harvard, president Drew Faust appointed a universitywide task force to undertake “an expansive inquiry into the role of the arts in liberal education and in the life of the University.” The task force is expected to report its recommendations this fall.

Throughout history, the arts have depended on committed patrons. And all the forces that have gone into the story of arts patronage through the ages – wealthy individuals, passionately concerned mentors, national pride, rising arts consciousness among the middle class and across ethnic, social, and gender lines – find a natural and powerful home in the university, where freedom of expression, the toleration of difference, and the high value placed on originality and imagination have defined the very purpose and essence of the institution.

A university is not a paradise devoid of influence from donors, political factions, and prejudicial or interested beliefs. But the lively debates of the art world are really not so very different from those that animate discussion in other lively and contestatory fields, from government to economics to science. These fields too have non-academic institutions with which the university is in constant dialogue. The commerce between and among such institutions (museums and galleries; government agencies and NGOs; laboratories and think tanks) strengthens the university, while also allowing for theorizing and fact-finding in the context of academic freedom.

The world sometimes known as “academia” has rules, practices, expectations, and standards that make it hospitable to experimentation and risk-taking in the service of intellectual, scientific, and artistic progress. Artists have, in fact, been thinking outside the box – the white box of the museum gallery, the black box of the cinema – for a long time now. Perhaps it’s time for universities to meet them there.

Boston Globe

Marjorie Garber is chair of the department of visual and environmental Studies at Harvard University, and director of the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts. This is part three of a three part posting adapted from her new book, “Patronizing the Arts”.