Brown Arts Initiative thinks creatively about sparking creativity in the age of social distancing

A new virtual arts hub, BAI at Home, details live-streamed concerts, online exhibitions and creative challenges for students, faculty, staff and members of the greater community.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — For now, large public gatherings are canceled — just about everywhere. But thanks in part to the efforts of the Brown Arts Initiative (BAI), Brown University’s creative, community-minded spirit remains alive and well nonetheless.

As most students, faculty and staff remain at home to prevent the spread of novel coronavirus, the BAI has launched a series of programs to maintain a thriving arts scene even as in-person exhibitions, concerts and talks on College Hill have been canceled or postponed indefinitely.

Among the early events since Brown transitioned to remote learning in March have been concerts live-streamed from students’ living rooms, a lineup of on-demand film screenings, Zoom conversations between practicing artists and scholars, and virtual exhibitions up for the remainder of the spring semester. And the BAI has begun to extend opportunities for artistic partnerships to students, faculty and members of the Providence community — partnerships the initiative hopes will beget bold, genre-bending art in the 2020-21 academic year.

“We want to promote a feeling that artists can still accomplish their goals in this unprecedented time,” said BAI Faculty Director Thalia Field, a professor of creative writing. “We are pivoting to the new circumstances in part by letting the art we present take a different course. Art has always been responsive to changing circumstances.”

A temporary website, BAI at Home, outlines upcoming events and opportunities for those in the Brown community and beyond, wherever in the world they may be. A new Living Room Concerts series presents stripped-down live performances by homebound Brown students, including musicians Chance Emerson and Patrick Nugent. A series called Your Corner of the World brings faculty and community members together to talk about how they’re weathering this unusual moment by viewing films, bird-watching from the kitchen window and more. And Field said additional concerts, talks, film screenings and virtual exhibitions are on the way — including a series in which artists share their isolation survival strategies.

Beyond events, BAI at Home offers opportunities for students, faculty and staff to exercise their creative muscles and interact with one another. A postcard time capsule project calls on people at Brown to jot down their feelings about COVID-19 and social distancing on a postcard and mail it to the BAI; cards may be included in a fall exhibition at the Granoff Center for the Creative Arts. A project called Show Us Your Street, coming in the summer, will call on people to create hyperlocal virtual tours, Field said. Summer will also bring more opportunities for funding and support for creative projects, including a BAI-led contest calling on community members to create 20-minute pieces of “sound art” to accompany warm-weather walks.

The BAI has also partnered with the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship to offer pop-up challenges to students. The first, held in early April, asked interested students to spend just 24 hours dreaming up a product or technology that would help people adhere to or cope with social distancing. The next day, students shared ideas: a t-shirt that read “If you can read this, you are too close to me;” a virtual reality app that would let students “walk” through an animated Brown campus and converse with one another; a calendar called Bizzi that would allow users to browse and attend free, virtual events happening across the globe.

Elizabeth Malone, assistant director of programs at the Nelson Center, said the pop-up challenges offer an opportunity for students with diverse interests and academic backgrounds to dream, create and work together.

“They encourage students to continue solving problems for their community, even though they are spread out across multiple time zones,” Malone said.

Earlier this month, the BAI launched a community grant program to support working artists in the greater community facing pandemic-induced financial challenges. With those artists lined up to display their results at Brown next year, the initiative is seeking ways to incentivize new endeavors by campus-based artists, too.

A new program called Bring Art In will present Brown students and faculty with the chance to realize arts projects that otherwise wouldn’t be possible. Those whose creative proposals are accepted will receive production support, space to work at the Granoff Center in the 2020-21 academic year, and promotion by the BAI. Field said the BAI will find unique ways to share the artists’ project proposals and creative processes with the community ahead of the new academic year.

“We’re asking people to think about projects that might otherwise be deemed unpublishable, unwieldy, unthinkable,” Field said. “The prompt we’ve given people is, ‘Think lofty. Think unusual. Think toward the future.’”

The idea behind Bring Art In predates the COVID-19 pandemic, Field said, and is part of a larger effort at the BAI to turn the Granoff Center into a hub of art-making, in addition to home for courses, performances and talks. Field said a portion of the current studio spaces, which mostly hosted art classes during the 2019-20 academic year, will be given over to students and faculty working with the BAI through the Bring Art In program, and the resulting creations will be incorporated into the BAI’s 2020-21 season programming.

“This suite of new grants is something we’ve been working on all year, with the goal of prioritizing art created at Brown, by people in the Brown community,” Field said. “We’re really letting people take their dreams and run with them. Students can curate their own visiting artist series. They can launch a conference. They can develop performance art. If they need a special gel light, we’ll cover the expenses.

“To be sure you’re capturing a certain creative energy, you have to incentivize it.”