What to expect from the Brown Arts Institute in 2021-22 and beyond

Leaders at the Brown Arts Institute, which transitioned from the Brown Arts Initiative in July, are planning for a return to in-person performances, exhibitions, film screenings and more.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — As Joni Mitchell once crooned, “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.” Such was the case when, in spring 2020, theaters, concert halls and art galleries shuttered indefinitely to mitigate the spread of novel coronavirus — leaving many to realize, some for perhaps the first time, exactly how integral a role the arts had played in their lives.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, artists across the United States and the world, including those at Brown University, suddenly found their projects stalled, their commissions canceled and their artistic friends out of work. But as they found innovative ways to move their art to digital realms, many noticed a heartening wave of both moral and financial support — a sign, arts leaders at Brown said, that a larger number of people had begun to recognize the indispensable role of the arts in shaping, reflecting and challenging all aspects of society.

On July 1, 2021, the Brown Arts Initiative became the Brown Arts Institute. Far more than nominal, it’s a change that not only reflects the world’s increased appreciation for art but also communicates the centrality of the performing, visual, experimental and literary arts on College Hill.

As the BAI transitioned from initiative to institute, Faculty Director Thalia Field and Artistic Director Avery Willis Hoffman answered questions about how Brown’s arts hub innovated during the pandemic, what’s ahead for the institute and what to expect in the coming 2021-22 academic year.

Q: The 2020-21 academic year marked the BAI’s first under the three-year theme “Remaking the Real.” And when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it became all but compulsory to do just that: move in-person events online. How did you bring the magic of in-person performances and artistic experiences to virtual spaces?

Field: While continuing to support faculty members’ and students’ ongoing projects, we began to add programs that people could host and participate in from home. Under the rubric of BAI@Home, we hosted interviews and concerts and even walk-through gallery programs. All of that work will remain accessible to the public on the BAI@Home website, even as the University and the BAI begin to reopen and host in-person events.

Hoffman: Another positive outcome of the move to the digital space was that our artistic programming became more accessible. Many of our audience members were tuning in not just from across Providence and Southern New England, but also across the world.

Q: How did the pandemic affect the BAI’s future plans?

Hoffman: The pandemic has deeply affected how we think about the complexities of our arts ecosystem — one that is in need of change, new leadership models and different approaches to how we support artists and artmaking. As an institute, we’re thinking about innovative ways to get artists and arts workers back to work after a pandemic that really devastated all aspects of the community. We’re investigating different models for this, perhaps a Works Progress Administration-style approach where we find ways to offer artists relief from the hustle of finding work to pay their bills, which in turn gives them time and space to focus on creating art and developing their practices. 

We will start by convening a think tank to assess the state of artist support and brainstorm ways in which artists’ needs might best be met, whether that’s a universal basic income or some other model. We’ll look to test those research-based models by thinking intentionally about the jobs we offer to support the artistic projects that we share on and with campus, employing and maintaining a network of experts in design, stage management, box office and house management that we can engage for specific projects. We will gather data on this model, assess what worked well and what didn’t, and keep adjusting as we gain helpful insights on our efforts. We hope to create a model that can be emulated and scaled up in other communities across the country.

Field: That approach will also allow us to redefine the way the arts are taught at Brown. On top of our existing academic courses, we’re adding lots of artists-at-work courses, which will bring a whole roster of opportunities for students to experience hands-on projects with working artists, in modes that combine mentoring and apprenticeship. They’ll be there as a production is taken from a script to a workshop to a full stage show, working alongside the community artists, faculty and staff. They’ll be included in the Bell Gallery programs, learning how to design and curate an art exhibition. They’ll learn how the Public Art Working Group acquires and installs art on campus. We want to make sure students are entering the workforce with knowledge of useful hands-on skills.

“ People will see a vast expansion of art on campus, by both professional artists and students, more than they’ve ever seen. ”

Thalia Field Faculty Director, Brown Arts Institute

Q: What are the BAI’s other major priorities for the next few years?

Hoffman: One major priority for artistic programming at the BAI going forward, in addition to expanding support for artmaking on campus, is to introduce a set of artists to the campus and surrounding communities over the next few years. We want to explore longer-term partnerships with individuals and groups from across the world, from across artistic disciplines — artistic innovators who share the BAI’s desire to test the boundaries of discipline and form, respond to societal challenges and work collaboratively with an entrepreneurial spirit. Over the course of several years, we will bring these innovators to campus for a variety of conversations, workshops, works in progress and ultimately full-scale productions or installations, so that students and the wider community can build meaningful relationships with them and have the opportunity to witness how artistic projects develop.

Our hope over the next few years is to test out these new approaches to programming and develop models for supporting the wider arts ecosystem as we work toward building excitement around the opening of our new Performing Arts Center.

Q: The Performing Arts Center is truly going to be a transformative space for Brown — how will the PAC enable the institute to grow?

Field: Academically, we will be able to support more production and performance courses, expand access to rehearsal and performance spaces for departments and student groups, and continue to build our grants program so that faculty, students, staff, community artists and guests can produce a wide range of projects, experiments, collaborations and works. We hope to offer more courses that feature the amazing artists Avery will be bringing to Brown to develop their projects, and find new ways for students and community members to experience and train in the arts, both for credit and as a path toward creative careers.

Hoffman: The PAC will provide critical incubation space for future BAI projects and productions. Having access to such an innovative and flexible building will be exciting not only for our campus community but also for visiting artists and collaborators.

“ As an institute, we’re thinking about innovative ways to get artists and arts workers back to work after a pandemic that really devastated all aspects of the community. ”

Avery Willis Hoffman Artistic Director, Brown Arts Institute

Q: What’s coming to the institute this fall?

Hoffman: I’m excited for students, faculty and staff to have the opportunity to meet Reggie Gray and the D.R.E.A.M. Ring company of flex dancers at PVDFest this September. Reggie and his company have been collaborating with legendary director Peter Sellars on a dance production, “FLEXN,” that is inspired by a form of street dance that has roots in Jamaica and Brooklyn. Through powerful personal stories and dance vignettes, the piece confronts a variety of social injustices, in particular the systematic killings of Black people by police in the last half decade. The showcase in late September will serve as a great introduction to their work.

We are also partnering with our colleagues in Brown’s Native American and Indigenous Studies Initiative to organize a gathering in the week leading up to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. We are inviting Narragansett and other regional Native artists to campus to participate in performances, installations, workshops and conversations, and the campus community will have the opportunity to meet the artists and learn about and celebrate their artmaking practices.

On the visual art side, Kate Kraczon, the new exhibitions director and chief curator of the David Winton Bell Gallery, is gearing up for several public art exhibitions in the fall. In early September, the gallery will host an exhibition by Faith Wilding, an iconic feminist artist based in Providence, and Harry Gould Harvey IV, a Fall River, Massachusetts, artist. And in early November, the BAI will exhibit the work of the sonic and visual artist Jules Gimbrone at the Cohen Gallery, which meditates on the unique ways that trans people navigate the world.

Field: In addition, the BAI convened a film council made up of faculty, student groups and staff, and together we’ve created a Film Hub where the community can find all film-related events and news in one place. At the end of July, we’re hosting an alumni film festival called Day Into Night, which will feature the work of directors including Daveed Diggs, Class of 2004, and Julia Meltzer, Class of 1991. And in the fall, we’re hosting a full-day alumni event partly focused on the documentary “Chasing Childhood,” by Margaret Loeb and Lisa Eisenpresser. We’re also developing an on-demand streaming collection featuring the films of alumni. 

As the Bell Gallery and the Public Art Working Group come under the umbrella of the BAI — they were separate entities before this year — people will see a vast expansion of art on campus, by both professional artists and students, more than they’ve ever seen.