Highlighting Brown’s distinction in the arts

The University is advancing its reputation for excellence in the arts by forming new partnerships with artists and scholars and making major new investments in programming and facilities.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — With a distinguished record of innovation in the arts and a conviction that the arts are fundamental to creative problem-solving, Brown University is a leader in positioning the arts as a catalyzing force for discovery.

College Hill abounds with artists and scholars of exceptional talent whose creativity transcends the arts and influences other fields of study, from climate science to robotics. Some 60 percent of undergraduates say the arts are their principal co-curricular interest, and 20 percent declare a primary concentration in the arts or humanities.

“The arts are vital, powerful and provocative — and at Brown, they are paramount,” said Butch Rovan, faculty director of the Brown Arts Initiative. “They teach imaginative thinking, foster empathy, champion experimentation and inform new ways of questioning, collaborating and seeing — vital elements for the future of innovation, humankind and the planet.”

Brown is advancing a plan to fully integrate arts practice, theory and scholarship into intellectual activity across campus.

Through new funding for students, new partnerships with artists and scholars, and new investments in arts programming and facilities, Brown is engaging the public, incorporating global perspectives and supporting all that is experimental and forward-thinking in the arts.

Catalyzing intellectual inquiry

In 2017, Brown established the Brown Arts Initiative (BAI), a campus-wide effort to make the University a vibrant laboratory for inventive arts practice and scholarship. Two years later, the BAI has succeeded in creating a wealth of new opportunities for student and faculty collaboration and experimentation.

In association with its launch, the BAI unveiled an inaugural three-year programming theme of Arts and Environment, which has given rise to a wide array of programs, from exhibitions to talks to performances, focused on this timely issue.

In 2018, the BAI convened artists, scientists, researchers and policymakers to imaginatively address the impact of climate change, particularly in polar regions. The symposium partnered with a larger University initiative, “WeatherProof: Arts, Humanities and Sciences Explore the Environment,” which probed environmental topics from multiple academic perspectives.

Isfald mural
A photomural by Camille Seaman was part of the mural project "33°," which documented the beauty and destruction of polar regions.

The David Winton Bell Gallery presented companion programming, including the sound installation “Isfald” (Icefall), by artist Jacob Kirkegaard, which brought the recorded sounds of melting, cracking glaciers into the gallery, and the mural project “33°,” which documented the beauty and destruction of polar regions via photomurals mounted on the exteriors of Brown buildings. Like the Bell Gallery’s incisive exhibitions throughout the year — ranging from photographer Carrie Mae Weems’ self-portraits to Pierre Huyghe’s film set in devastated post-Fukushima Japan — both projects were captivating, standalone experiences and important means of fueling academic inquiry on campus.

“‘WeatherProof’ is a vibrant example of the BAI’s core mission and Brown’s ethos: to bring together artists and other creative thinkers from a diversity of disciplines to tackle contemporary challenges,” said Anne Bergeron, the initiative’s managing director.

Arts faculty at Brown have also partnered with the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society to present “Earth, Itself,” a series designed to advance critical conversations about the environment in compelling and inclusive ways. Events have involved countless artists at Brown, from sound artist and Associate Professor of Visual Art Ed Osborn to environmental filmmaker and Ph.D. student Thomas Pringle.

“ Artists have a tendency to ask different questions and to push science in different directions. ”

Amanda Lynch Director, Institute at Brown for Environment and Society

“What environmental science does is tell you the bad news and leave you to deal with it,” said Amanda Lynch, director of IBES. “The arts help us explore and experience how we’re responding to it, developing visions of hope and possibility allowing us to move forward.”

Lynch said the latest event in “Earth, Itself” boasted discussions between artists, ecologists and policymakers, as well as a short film festival and an exhibition of plant-based sculpture by adjunct professor Lucia Monge.

“Artists have a tendency to ask different questions and to push science in different directions,” Lynch said. “They help us acknowledge the humanity of the problem of climate change and engage in ways that aren’t explicitly cognitive.”

Bringing unique opportunities to students

The vibrancy of the arts at Brown is also reflected in the driven, creative students who choose to study on College Hill. And each year, those students engage with the arts and artists through exceptional hands-on opportunities, from songwriting master classes with acclaimed musical artists to writing workshops with award-winning authors.

With recent investments establishing a cadre of professor of the practice positions, the BAI has welcomed distinguished visiting artists that include dancer, choreographer and writer Ralph Lemon, Academy Award-nominated filmmaker RaMell Ross, violinist Sebastian Ruth, avant-garde theater artist Andrew Schneider and experimental poet Anne Waldman, each of whom shared their expertise and experiences with students via teaching, art-making, events and more.

Building musical instruments
In fall 2018, students worked with Visiting Assistant Professor of Music Kristina Warren to build their own musical instruments. Photo: Nick Dentamaro/Brown University

Matthew Berg, a rising junior at Brown concentrating in computer science, spent the 2018-19 academic year working closely with Ali Momeni, a virtual reality expert, sound artist and professor of the practice jointly hired by the BAI and Brown’s Data Science Initiative. As part of a fall course called Reality Remix: Experimental VR, taught by Momeni, Berg began to recreate a scene from the film “Tron: Legacy” in virtual reality. Then, in the spring, Berg and a handful of other students participated in a Group Independent Study Project (GISP) in which Momeni functioned as a mentor for students who developed their own project ideas. While Momeni advised Berg on his “Tron” project, other students explored the use of virtual reality in psychotherapy, education and more.

“Working with Ali was a fantastic experience,” Berg said. “He has an amazing ability to turn complex technological subjects into very relatable ideas, and that was the driving force behind the class in the fall and the GISP in the spring.”

Berg is interested in a career at the intersection of robotics and graphics. He had gained considerable experience on the technical side in computer science classrooms and labs at Brown, and he appreciated getting a glimpse at the artistic side of VR from Momeni.

“As robots become more prevalent in society, as they come into our homes and … public spaces, we need to create better means of interacting with them, such as mixed-reality spaces that overlay digital information onto the real world,” Berg said. “Ali’s experience is both artistic and technical, which is not necessarily common. There’s so much to learn from that.” 

Film acting at Brown
A wintersession class in film acting gave students a chance to hone their on-camera acting skills in five- to six-hour classes.

Students also had the opportunity to do hands-on work in arts administration, thanks to the BAI’s collaboration with Performa, a nonprofit that focuses on live visual art performance.

The BAI is now in its second year of sponsoring two post-baccalaureate fellowships at Performa’s New York City offices, allowing students to gain invaluable training at a leading cultural organization that researches and presents 20th and 21st century performance art. Ernesto Renda, who graduated in 2018 with dual degrees from Brown and the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), followed his time in Providence with a fellowship at Performa; he said the hands-on experience of promoting art exhibitions complemented his academic studies, which taught him how to analyze, critique and create art.

“Understanding how to translate the desires of artists and balance those with the desires of the administrators and curators… that’s so important in this industry,” Renda said. “Performa gave me insight on the organizational and administrative side of the art world, which was the best entrepreneurial training.”

Renda said the experience has proved invaluable in his work as a gallerist in New York — and he’s confident what he learned will stay with him as he acts on his aspirations to become a gallery owner himself.

Creating a hub for the performing arts

Set to greatly expand on-campus collaborations between artists and scholars at Brown is a new Performing Arts Center, targeted for completion in spring 2022. Brown has long envisioned the creation of a space to serve as a hub for music, dance, theater and multimedia arts on campus; with the construction of the PAC, that vision will soon become reality.

Performing Arts Center at Brown
Brown's Performing Arts Center, to be completed in 2022, marks a substantial expansion of physical resources for the arts at Brown. Rendering by REX.

Renderings from New York-based architecture firm REX showcase plans for a state-of-the-art main performance hall that can transform into any of five vastly different stage/audience configurations — from a 625-seat symphony orchestra hall, to a 250-seat proscenium theater, to an immersive surround-sound cube for experimental media performance.

“The adaptability of the main performance hall essentially future-proofs us,” Rovan said. “Students and faculty and visiting artists will be able to experiment with configurations and adapt the space both in established and in unforeseen ways to new forms of art.”

The building will mark a substantial expansion of physical resources for the arts and will support teaching and learning in music, theater, dance and multimedia arts. It will serve all arts departments at Brown and create opportunities for students from every discipline to be involved, whether in a class or as a performer, audience member or researcher. It is also expected to welcome members of the external community to Brown for events, with flexible performance spaces, superb acoustics and the one-of-a-kind main hall.

“This building will be a magnet for creative artists from across campus and from well beyond,” Rovan said.

The PAC will complement the nearby Granoff Center for the Creative Arts both aesthetically and programmatically, creating a synergistic relationship between the two buildings. Students and practitioners who incubate ideas at Granoff will be able to execute them at the new facility next door, enriching the potential for arts practice and discovery even further, said Bergeron.

As a publicly accessible venue for groundbreaking new works, the building will also serve as a welcoming space for local artists and a new performance destination for many members of the greater community.

Strengthening Local Partnerships

As part of its core mission to support arts research and practice, Brown has continued to invest in partnerships with the arts pillars of the Providence community, attracting an ever more diverse faculty and student body.

Since 2007, Brown has offered a unique five-year dual degree bachelor’s program via a partnership with RISD. Students draw on the complementary strengths of the two schools, and the program enables them to take advantage of Brown’s Open Curriculum and RISD’s intensive, specialized education in arts and design. The results include uncommon combinations of study like theater and glass, film and video with screenwriting, and computer science and photography.

Kate Reed, a dual-degree student who expects to graduate in 2021, has discovered a passion for creating art with a social consciousness.

“Design is influential and powerful, and combined with social innovation and entrepreneurship, it can lead to meaningful change,” Reed said. “I have various projects that demonstrate a rebuilding and reclaiming of technology to use as a tool to better understand others.”

Among those projects is a hand-drive wheelchair attachment, which she created for wheelchair users who wanted to steer using a more efficient and ergonomically friendly rowing motion. The attachment can be almost entirely 3D printed, making it substantially more affordable than competitor products.

For another project titled Musical Prosthetics, Reed created wearable instruments that resembled exoskeletons. The sculptures were wired with sensors that allowed the wearer to make music through natural movement, which Reed hoped would create opportunities for mindfulness.

“A common theme to many of my projects is awareness,” Reed said. “It is only once we are fully aware of ourselves and our environment that we are able to effect change.”

The University has also made new investments in the acclaimed MFA programs it offers in partnership with Trinity Rep, Providence’s award-winning theater company. Since 2018, Brown has covered the full cost of tuition for all students in the Brown/Trinity Rep acting and directing MFA programs.

Brown/Trinity Rep productions
As part of their world-class training, Brown/Trinity Rep MFA students take part in four professional productions each year. Photo: Trinity Rep

According to Patricia Ybarra, chair of Brown’s theater arts and performance studies department, the funding not only eases debt for individual MFA students but also diversifies the pool of actors and directors in training, encourages innovation and experimentation in art-making and ultimately redefines whose stories are being told through onstage performance.

“In the theatre world, diversity is often hampered by the inability of low-income artists and artists of color to afford to be creators,” Ybarra said. “As one of the premier MFA programs in the country, we produce future leaders and innovators in the field. By expanding access to our program, we expand access to the theater world more broadly — ultimately redefining in really important ways whose stories are being told and by whom.”

Brown's uncommonly strong local arts partnerships, its plans to build state-of-the-art spaces that can accommodate genre-bending creative work, and its advancement of artistic discussions, projects and research that spark academic inquiry across disciplines all encourage an environment for pioneering, dynamic art, said Butch Rovan.

“The arts teach an essential form of imaginative thinking, so vital for the future of innovation in our world,” Rovan said. “The interdisciplinary programs at Brown advance research, culture and science to inform new ways of questioning, collaborating and seeing, and make Brown a national leader in experimental arts practice and scholarship.”