Arts programs call for renaissance

Gayle Wald hears from students that the arts at GW have an identity problem.

Without a single hub, campus academic departments and stage venues are expanding programming and unifying their message to prove the University can be a destination for the arts.

“People think this town is about what happens on the Hill or at the White House or in office buildings on K Street, but it’s really a rich city for music, for dance, for theater, and there’s a solid literary community as well,” Wald, chair of the English department, said.

The arts initiative, launched by faculty and administrators to stir a renaissance, will start by bringing artists who perform at Lisner Auditorium inside the classroom next fall. The University’s first summer arts program will also link academic and extracurricular offerings on campus for high school and college students this year.

University President Steven Knapp pitched a review of GW’s arts programs in 2010, which was carried out by department heads and professors. Columbian College of Arts and Sciences Dean Peg Barratt said an arts initiative would combine GW’s “disparate” academic and non-academic arts programs on campus.

While arts professors and students lament the lack of physical space for collaboration – additions Barratt said are not in the works – Lisner Auditorium will look to coordinate classroom appearances with the artists it books for its upcoming fall schedule. Details for the collaboration are still being worked out, Assistant Vice President for Events and Venues Michael Peller said.

“There is a need for a performance venue, so Lisner will sort of be part of a supporting cast for the initiative,” Peller said.

Students said spaces like Lisner Auditorium and the Classroom 102 art gallery have supplemented lagging academic facilities.

Francesca Downs, a first-year master of fine arts student, said the Smith Hall of Art does not hold enough drawing or painting rooms.

“It’s hard to thrive and be creative in such a terrible building,” she said. “It doesn’t even feel like an arts building.”

With no sign of new spaces, arts professors said the University uses resources across Foggy Bottom and D.C. to showcase its creativity.

Alan Wade, a theater professor, said while collaboration efforts should be applauded, the departments remain sprawled.

“The sorts of improvements I envision would require considerable financial resources, so I don’t see these changes happening soon,” Wade said.

For the summer program, GW will connect departments in Columbian College with the Graduate School of Education and Human Development’s museum education program, the Luther W. Brady Art Gallery and Lisner Auditorium.

The summer arts initiative will include about 20 arts courses during the two regular summer sessions, spanning fine arts and art history to English, music, theater and dance.

It will also include five summer abroad courses – two of which are brand new – and one summer institute in American Indian art therapy, as well as three courses for high school students. Not all courses will offer academic credit, which Barratt said is typical for summer college programs.

Courses will highlight subjects like digital art, post-modern dance, ceramic design, creative writing, art and architecture, musical performance and photojournalism. One new for-credit course open to high school students will focus on art and politics.

The summer arts initiative and efforts to bring the Textile Museum to Foggy Bottom are the first traces of a push to remake the image of the GW’s creative programs, Vice President of Research Leo Chalupa said.

Recent partnerships with the Phillips Collection in Dupont Circle and Arena Stage in southwest D.C. would also branch GW’s program out into the city, Chalupa said.

“The reputation that GW had until recently is that it had strength in policy and law school,” Chalupa said. “The arts initiative, and a lot of the other initiatives [being led by the office of research], is meant to increase the reputation and the strength of this University and these other areas where we have excellence as well.”

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