University celebrates Brown Arts Initiative’s launch

With aspirations to be the primary destination for students who want to integrate the arts into a complete liberal arts education, Brown formally launched an effort to create new opportunities and collaborations for students, scholars, artists and community members.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Brown University has bold aspirations to be the primary destination for students around the world who want to fully integrate the arts into a complete liberal arts education.

Students, scholars and artists from Brown and beyond gathered on March 2 to celebrate the launch of an initiative that aims to realize this ambitious vision. They celebrated the formal kickoff of the Brown Arts Initiative, a campus-wide effort to integrate the practice and study of the arts across the University, boost access to the arts among students from all academic disciplines and create new opportunities for teaching, research, artmaking, performance and experimentation with scholars and cultural institutions well beyond Brown.

“The arts at Brown are fundamental for stimulating discovery and fueling innovative thinking,” University President Christina Paxson said. “The Brown Arts Initiative builds on Brown’s distinctive legacy of excellence in the arts and will give students and faculty more opportunities to infuse arts practice, theory and scholarship into the broad range of intellectual activities on campus.”

The BAI will bring to the University world-class artists, performers and scholars who elevate Brown’s excellence in the arts while also enriching the broader community, Paxson said. The initiative aligns with Brown’s commitment to cultivating an environment in which faculty and students learn from one another and from artists and scholars across disparate fields of study to inspire new modes of thinking about complex challenges. Cultivating creative expression is a key priority articulated in Building on Distinction, Brown’s strategic plan.

The BAI integrates six academic departments and two programs at Brown: history of art and architecture; literary arts; modern culture and media; music; theater arts and performance studies; visual arts; the David Winton Bell Gallery; and Rites and Reason Theatre. The initiative acts as a catalyzing force to bring together ideas, expertise, skills, spaces, partners and audiences to create new opportunities for student and faculty collaboration and experimentation in the arts.

Butch Rovan, faculty director of the Brown Arts Initiative and professor of music, explained that the initiative will collaborate with a global network of performers, curators, scholars and practitioners, including Brown alumni who are leaders in the arts, to connect the activities at Brown with the broader arts community.

“Instead of compartmentalizing creativity, at Brown we embed the arts in every aspect of the curriculum,” Rovan said. “The BAI expands and develops the arts on campus with real intentionality. We are working to serve the entire University, establish ties to the broader arts world, spur research and discover new forms and means of production and performance,” he said.

The celebratory launch of the BAI on Thursday, March 2, was held at the Perry and Marty Granoff Center for the Creative Arts, and served as a prelude to the inaugural BAI symposium, re|ACT: Symposium on Arts and Environment. The two-day symposium begins on March 3 and will convene artists, curators, designers, architects, writers, activists and scholars whose work responds to both natural and constructed environments. Arts and Environment will serve as the first in a rotation of three-year BAI themes that Rovan said would be used to address important contemporary questions through research, teaching and practice opportunities.

New courses, new faculty

Brown already has a long and distinguished history of excellence in the arts. The University’s arts faculty are as much at home writing award-winning plays and directing them in New York as they are marrying practice and theory while teaching a summer institute that pushes students to explore new forms of performance, Rovan said. Student composers have their works performed by international ensembles, and dance students, for example, have traveled to New York City to perform in Paul Taylor’s world-famous dance studio.

Students graduate from Brown and become award-winning playwrights, novelists, musicians and actors. About 60 percent of current Brown undergraduates cite the arts as their principal outside-the-classroom interest. This includes an entire ecosystem of students working in the arts but not within the arts departments.

“The BAI recognizes a wealth of student creativity,” Rovan said, “and will help students advance cultural, scholarly and scientific discourse — via new courses, co-curricular programs, graduate and certificate programs and a focus on developing partnerships among faculty, students and collaborators from beyond Brown.”

Rovan said a key objective in launching the BAI is to offer new ways for all Brown students — those who concentrate in the arts, those who are engaged in the arts outside of arts departments, and those who do not yet consider themselves artists — to engage with the arts through courses and co-curricular programming.

The BAI hires professors of the practice to bring new areas of artistic talent to Brown and complement the efforts of full-time faculty to further integrate the arts into the Brown curriculum. RaMell Ross and Sebastian Ruth, the initiative’s first two professors of the practice, taught at Brown during the fall 2016 semester, tapping into students’ appetites for rigorous coursework that explores contemporary issues through classes centered in the arts.

Ross, a photographer, filmmaker, writer and commentator, taught a course on digital photography and shared with his students his working method, what he felt succeeded and failed in his work, and why. Ruth, a MacArthur “Genius” Fellow, is a musician and educator who founded Community MusicWorks, a nonprofit that offers free musical instruction to children in the Providence area. His course on art and social action challenged to conceive of their own engaged arts nonprofits.

“The Brown Arts Initiative will add fuel to the spirit of multi-disciplinary curiosity and social commitment that are already hallmarks of Brown’s campus and culture,” Ruth said. “My experience as a professor of the practice has been that students are not only receptive, but eager to think broadly about the significance of the arts to public life — I am excited to see what projects are born out of the BAI’s new investments in the arts.”

Rovan said the BAI is developing seminars that combine the arts with specific areas, like arts and data science or arts and technology, and plans to offer new courses in a variety of formats, including those with a travel component and others during winter or summer sessions.

New opportunities on campus

The BAI also plans to offer a range of programs outside of the classroom. An early example — as the BAI began building its program during the fall semester — was “Music, Tech and Entrepreneurship: A Creative Workshop.” The program was a collaboration with Brown’s recently launched Jonathan M. Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship that focused on emerging trends in scholarly research and evolution in the music industry.

Another early project involved music professor and composer Wang Lu, her students and visual artist Polly Apfelbaum, who created an installation called “The Sound of Ceramics” that combined music history, live electronic music, shape-note singing, composition and visual art to orchestrate a groundbreaking musical performance using suspended ceramic art objects. The project exemplified the initiative’s philosophy of integrating theory, practice and performance in an experimental manner, and creating new opportunities by engaging with the broader arts world, she said.

“This kind of project can only happen so naturally at Brown under the BAI,” Wang Lu said, noting that the BAI provided material and technical support as well the as the space, time and freedom she and her collaborators needed to create the installation. “Because the nature of this work is not only about live electronics, or making ceramics, or taking cues from cultural traditions, or live interactive performance, but all of the above, the existence and support of the BAI and its mission are crucial.”

Future programming will include student concerts, performances, lecture series, symposia, exhibitions, art festivals, workshops with visiting artists and digital publications.

The BAI also will work to expand and amplify Brown’s research in the arts, Rovan said. The initiative offers research and development grants for faculty as well as support for student projects ranging from exhibitions to performances and festivals, with an emphasis on experimentation, including a programmatic focus on experimental media.

While the Granoff Center for the Creative Arts now serves as the home for the BAI staff, a critical element of the effort to expand the arts on campus is a new performing arts center, a long-envisioned facility that will become a campus and community hub for music, dance, theater and multimedia arts. The University recently announced the architect selection process for the center. It is being planned as a state-of-the-art facility that would enable students, faculty and resident and visiting artists to expand possibilities for the creation and staging of new works that combine art forms.

"The BAI is designed to build a bridge between what’s happening here on campus with the greater arts world," Rovan said. “The new performing arts center will be an essential part of our effort to connect with and participate in the local, regional and international cultural community and to make Brown the leading university for cutting-edge arts practice, education and research.”